It’s 11pm at a Coffs Harbour Sports Club. The lone gambler is $400 down and still waiting for the feature.

The King of the Nile is his favourite. When the coveted 15 free-games feature appears — all too infrequently — any winnings are trebled. Even better, this machine gives him a second chance if the original prize is a meager one.

Problem is he is so far down the gurgler by now that he would need a whopping payback to get anywhere near break-even. Every crisp $50 note he pumps into the slot carries with it an increasingly feverish hope of redemption. And when that has gone, he can replenish his supply of notes from the auto-teller at the door.

Reflecting between spins, he knows this session will end badly, as so many have. It is just a question of how badly.

Losing hard-earned dollars is always a wrench. But losing the money on the first day of a holiday with his family waiting for him up north makes it even worse. There is no more cash after this. These are the dollars he would have spent on Movie World rollercoasters and ice-creams and kayak hire. Now he has to think of excuses.

He leaves the club feeling stunned, flattened, numb. Rattling through his brain on an endless, relentless loop are desperate thoughts of how to get the money back and how he could have been so stupid and self-destructive … again.

The gambler lies awake half the night beating himself up, mentally and physically — feeling like the lowest form of humanity, a father who spends his kids’ holiday money on pokies.

This is a true story of a compulsive gambler, one who asked to remain anonymous to spare his family But it will be familiar to anyone who has been stricken themselves or knows someone who is in the grip of what is a form of mental illness.

The gambler says his nightmare is an experience he would not wish on his worst enemy. And it’s an experience that all those trying to defeat a moderate attempt to slow the losses of problem gamblers need to understand.

The man above, at his most sane, might have chosen to spend no more than $50 on gambling that night. All that was needed was for someone to break the cycle and force him outside to gather his thoughts and break the breathless panic that all gamblers feel while a losing streak.

Gamblers will tell you that waiting for the feature is like waiting for the kick from heroin or cocaine. All the little wins and losses are what the gambler puts up with in the hope of the big reward — the flashing lights, the ringing bells, the happy music, the rolling numbers. When it comes, it comes in a rush. And then he wants more. And more.

The compulsion bears no relation to age or status or profession or level of intelligence of the individual. The gambler can understand perfectly well at an intellectual level that his or her chances of winning are extremely slight. But this activity is not about reason or even money. It is certainly not about having fun.

The will to self-destruction comes from self-doubt and self-hatred and depression. It is at once a form of escape from the negative feelings and a reinforcement of them. A big win brings merely relief and ammunition for the next gambling session. A big loss just confirms the emerging sense of loathing and worthlessness.

The Coffs Harbour scene, or something like it, is played out every day in the pubs and clubs of eastern Australia — a part of the world that has the highest concentration of poker machines on the planet and where it is possible to lose thousands of dollars an hour feeding the slots.

It might be a tradie blowing his pay packet in one sitting, having originally sat down with the intention of fluttering five bucks over a schooner after work. It might be a pensioner seeking escape from the loneliness of an empty flat. Or it might be a businessman sneaking out at lunchtime to try and win back the $1000 he blew the day before.

Why do we let this continue? Because the power of the media, sports clubs, gaming companies and other vested interests are such that politicians are loath to tackle what is a rampant social disease — one that devastates individuals, wrecks families, ruins businesses and destroys lives.

Reason tells you the sheer easy availability of high stakes, highly addictive poker machines comes at a cost too high for our society to bear. The sceptical — those who think this is really just about personal choice — should read the report from the Productivity Commission, a body known for its liberal market approach to economic issues:

  • About 130,000 Australians (around 1% of the adult population) are estimated to have severe problems with their gambling. A further 160,000 adults are estimated to have moderate problems.
  • Problem gamblers comprise 15% of regular (non-lottery) gamblers and account for about $3.5 billion in expenditure annually — about one-third of the gambling industries’ market.
  • They lose on average around $12,000 each per year, compared with just under $650 for other gamblers.
  • The prevalence of problem gambling is related to the degree of accessibility of gambling, particularly poker machines.
  • The costs include financial and emotional impacts on the gamblers and on others,with on average at least five other people affected to varying degrees.
  • One in 10 said they have contemplated suicide due to gambling.
  • Nearly half those in counselling reported losing time from work or study in the past year due to gambling.

No one is saying these problems will magically disappear with a pre-commitment system under which gamblers set a maximum loss before they hit the machines. But it is extremely hard to believe that such a system will not go some way to easing the pain of a problem that afflicts hundreds of thousands of people directly and hundreds of thousands more indirectly.

*This article was first published at The Failed Estate