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Crown attacks ‘fanciful’ pokies claims in landmark lawsuit

James Packer’s Crown Resorts has forcefully defended the integrity of its poker machines, claiming it is “basic common sense” that an uneven spread of symbols on their reels has an impact on gamblers’ chances of winning.

It comes as Crown and the ASX-listed slots manufacturer Aristocrat attempt to fight off a landmark lawsuit, the first of its kind in Australia, over allegations that a well-known brand of poker machines is designed to addict its users.

Central to the case are the machine’s design features: the uneven distribution of symbols across its five reels, and the fact that the final reel to stop spinning has more symbols than the others, making it harder to win on the last reel, and, allegedly, making losses seem like “near misses”.

Neither of these features, it is alleged, is made clear to punters.

Barrister Neil Young QC, for Crown, hit back at the accusations on Wednesday, saying it was a “fanciful proposition” to suggest gamblers would assume the symbols were evenly distributed.

By pressing the “(i)” button at the bottom of the screen on the casino’s Dolphin Treasure slot machines, he told the court, punters are able view information about the various odds of achieving the top-five and bottom-five winning combinations of symbols.

Mr Young said it was reasonable to expect that pokies players read the information so as to “understand the game they were about to play”, and, therefore, appreciate that different odds meant a different number and spread of symbols.

“It’s basic common sense … abundantly plain,” he said.

“No one could assume that the symbols are evenly distributed; that would be a fanciful proposition.”

Justice Debbie Mortimer, at one point, interjected to highlight that there was a “level of complexity” to the information provided.

The unprecedented legal action, playing out in the Federal Court in Melbourne, was launched by former gambling addict Shonica Guy, represented pro bono by law firm Maurice Blackburn.

Ms Guy said she lost 14 years of her life to the pokies, and wanted the case to show “the machines are misleading … designed to get us hooked.”

The case is over the Aristocrat-made Dolphin Treasure poker machine. Crown Resorts, which operates 38 Dolphin Treasure machines at its casino in Melbourne, was targeted in the legal action despite the fact Ms Guy had never played pokies there.

The lawsuit also alleges that the machines at Crown are misleading in their information about the “return to player”.

Dolphin Treasure’s machines in Victoria say the theoretical return is 87.8 per cent, which, the court was told, falsely gives the impression the player will retain 87.8 per cent of the money they bet while risk losing 12.2 per cent of the money they bet. The “return” rate, however, is calculated over the lifetime of a machine, not a single session, and includes occasional jackpots that players rarely win.

Crown’s legal team said it absurd to suggest any player would construe the rate to mean they would keep and lose a set amount of money in any given session, rather than being an overall calculation.

“This is a clear distortion of the [return to player],” Mr Young said. “It beggars belief.”

Mr Young told the court that Crown Resorts went “above and beyond” its responsible-gambling obligations by making multiple brochures available throughout the casino. These government-supported brochures lay out the risks of playing pokies and explain that it takes “tens of millions of games for a machine to tend towards its ‘return to player’ setting”.

Crown also moved to distance itself from many of the allegations concerning the allegedly deceptive design features of the Dolphin Treasure, saying Crown does “nothing more than make the machines available”, which it has been legally approved to do under Victorian law.

“The only allegation against us is that we made them available,” Mr Young said.

“We are doing no more than conducting a lawful business.”

The trial before Justice Mortimer continues.

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