A MANIACALLY upbeat tune filters out to the road, spiked with the sounds of Super Mario scoring gold coins, of money falling in a sheet — dizzyingly intoxicating, unrelentingly merry.
That sound is a trigger for Ross Davey. His ears prick up, the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, his head cocks to the side, alert. This is his crack cocaine.
On any street corner he can be assailed by its siren’s call, luring him in like a moth to the flame — to bright, dancing lights, scenes from a Western-style epic, an Arabian nights fantasy, a Samurai adventure.
Ross has lost $780,000 on the pokies, and everything he cared about, but even after 21 years in recovery, this unfathomable obsession still has a hold on him. “You know how triggering it is to hear the noise?” asks the 57-year-old. “I had a photography business, I went from a nice apartment to homeless and living at a Salvation Army hostel within six months. I’ve had many attempts to stop, and a few lapses. Even after losing everything, I’d be planning to be back.
“You gamble to extinction.
“I’ve got a history of gambling in my family. Mum had a stroke, because of my gambling and the shame … It’s a multigenerational thing, and it stops with me.”
‘A NETBALL FIELD WAS SMALL CONSOLATION’
I meet Ross in an unusual setting, for the first part in news.com.au’s special series of articles on Australia’s pokies obsession. He’s at a community meeting, face-to-face with a man who’s pocketed the proceeds of his addiction, the chief executive of Mounties Group, a chain of clubs in western Sydney’s Fairfield. This suburb has more machines and more losses than anywhere in the country, with $8 billion fed into the pokies each year — $40,000 for every resident.
Could Mounties operate without gamblers, Ross wonders.
There’s no hesitation from CEO Greg Pickering. “Could we survive in the short term? Absolutely not,” he replies. “I’d close all the venues, bring it back to one.”
But he’s also clear on a few other facts. He waves his arm around the conference room we’re in at the fancy Fairfield RSL, where young people are playing badminton on shiny courts outside the door. “This place wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Mounties,” he says. “We’ve put $5.7 million into the community, six or seven per cent of our profits.”
The legacy of pokies is now deeply stitched into the fabric of life in Australia. We are the world’s biggest gamblers, losing more money per capita than anyone in the world. We have more machines per person than any country on earth, and pour an incredible $135.7 billion into them annually in pursuit of that elusive high.
While lottery-type games are the most popular, pokies come second, and some say their ubiquity is doing untold harm to ordinary Australians. In trendy bars, traditional boozers and community-oriented local RSLs like this, there they are — rows upon rows of pokies, just a step away through the “VIP” doorway. And bring your beer and cigarettes.
Allison Keogh, an Alliance for Gambling Reform spokesperson who is estranged from her pokies addicted mother, says the juxtaposition makes her nauseous. “They promote these places as family friendly, it makes me feel sick,” says the 44-year-old. “The sound reminds me of what I’ve lost.”
Allison spent hours of her childhood in “the jail with pink walls” — the local club’s kids’ playroom — while her mother played the pokies.
“This money comes from addiction. I grew up in a small country town, a great community. Pokies damaged that. A netball field was small consolation.”
‘THEY’RE KILLING THEM … THEY DON’T GIVE A S***’
Not far from Fairfield RSL is an unassuming-looking hotel called El Cortez, which shares a name with an old school off-strip Vegas casino. It doesn’t look like much when you walk in: carpets, canteen-style seating, a smattering of people buying $6 schooners. Through a set of doors, however, is another world — the so-called Dragons Den, where a glittering chandelier hangs over another, sleeker bar and waitresses carry trays full of drinks. This club makes more profit from poker machines than any other in New South Wales. Next to the bar is an ATM, where minimum withdrawals are $50. And behind a set of automatic doors emblazoned with golden dragons is the main attraction: pokies.
I’m greeted by one of the many waitresses as I walk in and as soon as I sit down at a machine, I’m asked if I’d like a drink. The middle-aged woman beside me smokes a cigarette, sips her drink and refocuses on her game. I try to speak to a young Asian man. “No no no no no,” he says, shaking his head, his eyes never leaving the screen.
Syed Haider, a 23-year-old student and a local Uber driver, warns me about the “zombies”. He doesn’t get the appeal of pokies. “I don’t really like it all,” he says. “I’ve had family that’s had gambling addiction, someone in my extended family. They sold a property and a couple years later had no money left.
“With my friends, they bet on sports, but that’s a different kind of gambling, about using your brain … It doesn’t even give you the false sense you could win. (Pokies are) just a machine to throw your money into.”
The scene at El Cortez is one you might see in any club across Australia, there’s just more of it here. In one of Sydney’s most disadvantaged areas, with high unemployment and large immigrant populations for whom English is not a first language, it almost seems as though the disenfranchised are being targeted.
A 45-year-old truck driver waves off such concerns. It’s no different to betting on the races, he believes. “It’s not the gambling, it’s the enjoyment we have,” he says. “It just goes hand-in-hand.
“I know what I can afford to lose. I come to socialise with my mates.”
He bets around $20, once a month, he says. “We’ve got to stop worrying about holding everyone’s hand.”
Two older men smoking outside tell a very different story. “They’re killing them,” says George, 60, who moved here from Serbia in 1955. “You walk in there, you can’t win. They’ll record someone’s win as a jackpot, but it’s one machine out of 30. They don’t give a s*** … The rort is they take 90 per cent.”
He shows me his members’ card, which gets him an extra dollar off each beer. He has 7000 points. That’s worth $70, he says. “I reckon it’s cost me seven grand.”
George is looking forward to a trip to Europe for a couple weeks. He says it will save him a few thousand dollars. If he has it, he’ll easily blow $1000 in one session.
It’s hard to understand why. “It’s our lifestyle,” his friend says. “We’ve done it all our lives, it’s like saying stop breathing.
“You’ve got to enjoy your life. I started when I was legal to get in because my father was a punter.”
A tradie in his hi-vis vest hears our conversation as he leaves. “This pub only thinks about pokie machines, nothing else,” he says.
So why does he come here? “I live up the road. And it’s happy hour.”
‘WE HAVE JAILS FULL OF GAMBLERS’
A landmark case against Crown Melbourne and gaming machine manufacturer Aristocrat begins today at the Federal Court in Victoria. If successful, it could have significant ramifications. The applicant, former pokies addict Shonica Guy, will allege that the machines are “deceptive and misleading”, because of tricks that make the odds look better than they are, frequent “near misses” and “losses disguised as wins” — when you feed in $1, win 20c, and see celebratory flashing lights and music, despite having lost 80c. Crown and Aristocrat deny the allegations.
Ms Guy is from South Australia and the case is taking place in Victoria, but NSW is the state with the worst problem, boasting a phenomenal 10 per cent of the world’s poker machines (second only to Nevada globally).
As much as $19.5 billion was gambled on pokies in NSW in February-March this year. Thirteen of the state’s top 25 hotels for pokies profits are in the Fairfield and Canterbury/Bankstown local government areas. Three are owned by Woolworths.
Some estimates put the percentage of “problem gamblers” at 40 per cent. Most of the former addicts I speak to believe it’s much higher.
Greg, from Mounties Group, thinks only around 2.5 per cent really have an addiction. Nonetheless, he says just one is too many, from his point of view. “Are they addictive? For some people, yes,” says Greg. “Our job is to help the ones that have a problem.”
Greg says his clubs are doing what they can to prevent problem gambling — in fact, they are going above and beyond their legal duties. Staff at the clubs will intervene to stop people gambling — if they request it.
“The requirement is that they have to come to us,” explains Greg.
To Ross, this suggests clubs can’t enforce responsible gambling.
“Why would you want to?” he asks. If somebody does not “self-exclude”, they can bet up to $7500 a session in NSW.
Mounties puts 0.1 per cent of its $100 million revenue from pokies into treatment programs. Some clubs even fund gambling addiction support centres, with Fairfield RSL owning a facility called Oakdene House. But campaigners are unconvinced this can solve the problem, seeing it as an inescapable conflict of interest.
Mark Henson, an Oakdene gambling counsellor, is careful about what he says about his bosses. He certainly doesn’t think pokies should be banned from clubs, backing Greg’s view that it’s just a few people who become addicted.
Mark — and his father before him — were among them. “There’s a lot of stigma and shame,” he says, looking troubled. “I just wish for more awareness and change for people suffering out there, because they are. I wish it was a subject at high school.
“It’s ingrained in our society.
“We have jails full of people who got involved with drugs or other means to obtain money. They need money to gamble, a way to obtain money, then they’re feeling shame and remorse, so what do they do to escape? Gamble.”
If you or someone you know has a problem with gambling, contact Gamblers Anonymous for help.
Originally published as ‘I lost my home, job and $780,000’