ONE LAST SPIN: The Power and Peril of the Pokies
Scribe, 2018, 325 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Ever wondered if it possible to win against the pokies? Why not ask someone who should know, like a poker machine technician - ‘I make these machines in order to grab your money. I would not be so stupid to play myself’, said one such techo when asked by freelance Sydney journalist, Drew Rooke. In his book, One Last Spin, Rooke expands on the simple truth that pokies machines are rigged to make you lose.
The ‘one-armed bandits’ are deliberately engineered to hoover up the loose change from the pockets of casual punters and to deep-mine the bank accounts of the addicts, concentrated in the poorer suburbs, from whom the real pokies profits (40% of them) are to be made. These jackpot junkies, the ‘problem gamblers’, have their lives shattered in the process.
A typical pokies machine can chew through $600 to $1,200 of a person’s hard-earned every hour by dangling the shiny lure of the big payout, with just enough tinier wins and frequent near misses engineered into the machine’s program to keep the desperate glued to their seat.
The machines lie in wait in massed battalions – there are 193,000 pokies in Australia, which (excluding the casino jurisdictions of Macau and Monaco) is the highest per capita rate in the world. Australia has achieved global leadership by allowing the pokies to colonise much of the pubs and clubs scene.
The pokies are highly profitable for these community venues. In 2014-15, pokies accounted for $76 million of NSW rugby league club, Canterbury-Bankstown’s, total revenue of $87 million. They anchored $52 million of Rooty Hill RSL club’s $84 million revenue. With the exception of only the North Melbourne Kangaroos, nine of the ten AFL football clubs based in Victoria run pokies, taking in $90 million in revenue. Across the whole sector, pokies generate 28% of total revenue for pubs and 61% for clubs.
The upper reaches of the pokies industry also profit handsomely. Pokies machines creamed $40 million in profit in 2016 for the Sydney-based corporation, Aristocrat Leisure, the second largest pokies manufacturer in the world. Australia’s two supermarket giants know a solid income-stream when they see one. Woolworths is the majority owner of Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group which owns 12,000 machines in 400 hotels and clubs. Coles, through its parent company, Wesfarmers, owns 3,000 pokies in 89 hotels.
To ensure the House always wins, pokies manufacturers employ vast teams of “mathematicians, software engineers, sound engineers, musicians, artists, graphic designers, industrial designers and animators” to keep their human cash cows engaged in upwards wealth transfer. All the bells and whistles of the machines augment the activation-by-gambling of the reward centres in the brain in the same way that substance addiction does, with pokies addicts chasing the next high from the ‘feel-good neurotransmitter’, dopamine.
The pokies industry covers its drug-pushing tracks with PR spin every bit as cynical and loaded as the spin of the machines’ reels. They acknowledge the issue of problem gamblers but lay the blame on the individual addict as a matter of personal psychological flaws whilst touting the confection that the industry is an altruistic, community-minded provider of harmless entertainment and an essential financer of community sports, charities, schools and hospitals, despite their donations being miniscule as proportion of their total expenditure.
The industry’s camouflage of public beneficence is embroidered by two main auxiliaries – the anti-nanny-state ninnies and the usual academics-for-hire, at a loose end now that partnership opportunities with Big Tobacco have been stubbed out, who produce the industry-friendly research that attempts to lend some intellectual gloss to the corporate self-interest and social harm of the pokies.
The industry has its powerful state enablers, too. Despite strong public opposition to pokies (70-80% of those polled want restrictions on their use), state and federal governments adopt feather-touch regulation, unable even to broach a one-dollar maximum bet per spin. Governments are content to merely require limp-as-lettuce sloganising to ‘gamble responsibly’ - a term devised by the gambling industry and adopted wholesale by governments precisely because it combines apparent concern with thoroughly innocuous, status-quo-preserving policy.
The reason for government inaction is not hard to discern. Between 2000 and 2014, state governments received $45 billion in gambling taxes, a not insignificant average of 6% of total state government revenue. Cross the industry by crimping their profits and the political costs will be huge, including electoral campaigns against pokies-constraining candidates, and ending the flow of political donations to the big parties.
Rooke lays out a compelling case against the pokies but there is an even more damning writ to be served against the very institution of gambling. For what each poker machine, or lottery, or sports wager, is demonstrating is that capitalism can not provide an adequate income for all. If not born to wealth, your only hope for financial security is dumb luck, with a fortunate few ‘Have-Nots’ getting to join the ‘Haves’, and accelerating wealth inequality whilst stoking envy and resentment in their neighbours. As with the pokies, so with capitalism – the few win, the many lose. The only way to beat the pokies is not to play them. The only way to beat capitalism is to reject it.