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Aug 10, 2012

From the vault: the $800-a-night pokies habit and paying the ultimate price

For 10 years Julie was visiting up to four or five poker-machine venues a week in a country Victorian town. She took her own life earlier this year. Her sister asks why gamblers can so easily access money.


For 10 years Tracy Smith’s* sister Julie was visiting up to four or five poker machine venues a week in a country Victorian town. At these pubs and clubs, Julie would withdraw $100 from the ATM to play the pokies, sometimes taking out $800 a night. The family didn’t know she had a gambling addiction until Julie took her own life four weeks ago. She was 51.

“She was gambling everything as soon as her pay would come in,” said Tracy, who requested her’s and Julie’s name be kept private to protect her family. “We were appalled. My sister’s pattern was to keep taking out $100-150 and they just can’t stop. They can’t stop until the money’s gone.”

Julie was a normal person, says Tracy. She held a job, but didn’t have a partner. Tracy says she may have started playing the pokies to avoid loneliness. The venues were safe and served tea and coffee; there were other women there her age.

Julie did complain of money problems and sometimes asked for help, but Tracy says she usually had a story to go with it like car troubles or a house break-in. Aside from a few suspicions, Julie was able to cover up where she was spending her weekly wage. She wasn’t a dishonest person, says Tracy, but was consumed by the addiction. It was like she was leading two lives.

“There’s so much guilt, so much shame that they can’t talk to their families about it,” she said. “All the family knows is ‘oh, she’s doing it kind of hard’. There’s only so much prying you can do before you step over the line and it affects your relationship.”

Tracy says there are several measures that could have been taken to protect Julie. One of those is availability of funds, particularly inside gaming venues. Last month, the Victorian government enacted a ban on ATMs in poker machine venues, saying it would prevent  problem gamblers from easy access to money.

But that won’t mean the end of cash withdrawals in poker machine venues. A new service called “POSconnect”, which acts like cash out through an eftpos machine but where the customers collect their own money, has been installed in venues across Victoria. The machine fits within the government’s regulations.

Gaming minister Michael O’Brien says POSconnect and other cash-out services mean problem gamblers are forced to interact with a staff member to take out money. He says this offers a chance for staff to step in if a gambler needs help.

“This provides opportunities for breaks in play and for venue staff to offer assistance where a patron is showing signs of distress relating to their gambling,” said a government spokesperson. “This was not the case with anonymous, in-venue ATM withdrawals.”

Gaming expert Charles Livingstone, from Monash University’s school of public health and preventive medicine, says there is some chance staff interaction will help inhibit problem gamblers taking out large amounts of money, but he adds that this has been undermined by a lack of daily limits.

In 2010, ATMs in gaming venues were restricted to only offering limits of $200 per transaction and $400 per 24-hour period. Eftpos has the same $200 transaction threshold, but its daily ceiling is set by the person’s bank, not the regulator.

Usually banks set withdrawal limits on eftpos at $1000, but that figure can be raised. Commonwealth Bank customers, for example, can log on to NetBank and change their limit within minutes to $2000.

“It is making the sky the limit as to how much you can take out of your account,” says Livingstone. “It’s one step forward and two steps back and it sort of makes a mockery of the notion of what this ban was intended to do. It has been circumvented by the clubs and the manufacturers of the machine.”

Hospitality group ALH, which controls more than 5000 poker machines across Victoria, has already installed POSconnect in each of its venues. David Curry, spokesperson for ALH, declined to answer questions about its operation, telling Crikey the “system is approved for operation and meets all the requirements of regulation”.

But Tracy Smith is sceptical staff will intervene and tell a problem gambler to stop using cash-out services. She says Julie would have been well-known to venues around her country town, but nobody did anything about it until it was too late.

“It would have been a very stand-out case that she was a problem gambler, and nothing happened,” said Tracy. “Over 10 years they would have seen her go in week in, week out. Two or three nights a week doing this and no alarm bells rang.”

Livingstone agrees: “Put yourself in the shoes of a staff member, having to tell management that they’ve stopped someone taking out large amounts of money. Certainly there is some evidence that talking to a person inhibits what they spend but there is also no doubt that those who are in the grip of gambling problem and can access cash, will do that.”

Some venues have already taken to prominently advertising the new POSconnect service. One Melbourne venue visited by Crikey had a series of signs explaining the new service, including large pull-up banners and beer mats on the bar. There were no signs in the gaming area, but customers could use an old ATM which would then send their request to a staff member.

Tracy says social workers inside venues and a form of precommitment may have helped her sister beat her addiction. She thinks problem gamblers need a legislated limit on their spending otherwise they’ll find ways around it.

“That is the key, what is going to get them help. What is going to alert them to actually rehabilitate their addiction before they find that its so hopeless that they take their life? When someone’s got a gambling addiction they’re not rational. They’ll try any way to get money out,” she said

“And I’m not saying it wouldn’t have progressed like it has, but at least you’ve got a chance. Nothing’s worth taking your life.”

*Tracy’s and her sister’s names have been changed at her request. For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services.


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27 thoughts on “From the vault: the $800-a-night pokies habit and paying the ultimate price

  1. Mike Smith

    Staff, who are paid by companies that make their profits from poker machines, are supposed to do this? Conflict of interest much?

  2. robinw

    Another form of addiction and in this case the clubs are the pushers. Ethical bunch I’m sure.

  3. Leon57

    Conflict of interest maybe but more likely a big call for a young bar attendant to cut off the money supply to an older known person.Similar to bar staff putting a good customer off tap and having to justify it to their boss. In theory its a safeguard but in reality its seldom used.

  4. John Bennetts

    My understanding, from a club manager speaking to a Rotary club, is that his club supports a gambling help line. Only.

    This is NSW, yet the same logic will prevail. Points made by him included:
    – Staff are not counsellors.
    – The gambling help line is the approved counsellor.
    – Staff are not trained to recognise problem gamblers.
    – Problem gamblers must first recognise that they have a problem.
    – Intervention by anybody, staff included, is not productive if the gambler does not first recognise the problem and initiate contact/discussion.
    – Intervention, when attempted, will simply result in aggression, denial and loss of a member, who will also spread his/her negative impression of the club amongst their friends and associates. An anonymous example was cited in detail of one such local encounter and its consequences.
    – Club employees are forbidden to become amateur counsellors and, in any case, have other duties to attend to.

    The Victorian POS facility and the Minister who supports it are misguided and doomed to fail. It is a thin veneer over a problem. It is simply and only a time-wasting attempt to avoid effective action to prevent harm.

    If the proponents of gaming machines (I prefer to call them gambling machines) consider their primary purpose to be pleasure, then why use money at all? Would the same kind of pleasure be achieved through a similar game which used only valueless credit points and where the total accrued was the objective, rather than a monetary sum? This would be akin to a high score on a video game, which is mechanically what today’s one-armed bandits are, after all. The defining difference between video games and poker machines is credit points (scores) versus money.

    Like all problems, gambling machine harm will only be reduced when the source of the problem is addressed. Treating symptoms, as any doctor will attest, is no way to prevent infection.

  5. Oscar Jones

    “problem gamblers are forced to interact with a staff member to take out money”

    Give me a break. So will these employees be trained psychologists?

  6. Mike Smith

    @John: IMO high score on video game isn’t going to be analogous. There’s no risk element. Well, it’s not the *same* risk element. Or would you run the high score comparatively against other players? That isn’t risk, but it’s an appeal to competitiveness.

  7. Scott

    @Oscar Jones
    It wouldn’t take that much training for bar/club staff to be able to recognise a problem gambler. Much like the problem drinker, there are always outward signs.

    While I am not a big fan of these sort of measures to stop gambling, I wouldn’t think it would be too much of a stretch to create a “Responsible service of Gaming” certificate, much like the RSA that bar/club staff would be take so that they can identify the signs of problem gambling and take the appropriate action.

  8. zut alors

    I imagine any staff member may receive an earful if they attempt to stymie a punter’s adrenalin rush (especially if alcohol is in the mix).

    It’s risible that staff be expected to inhibit the cash cows who pay their wages. What a disgusting industry it is.

  9. Ward Jennifer

    What ever happened to personal responsibility? I remember the outcry over a Catholic school teaching the law of probability via gambling on poker, blackjack and calculating jackpots & lottery odds. Funny, I learnt the same way from a friend who did mathematics at university and have never had a problem with gambling inspite of spending vacations in Las Vegas and never leaving the tables. Most I ever lost was $200 and that was because I was distracted by a gorgeous guy flirting with me. Isn’t this nanny state thing gettting a bit OTT? Why don’t these ‘problem gamblers’ take up volunteer work, do a sport or something useful instead of self indulgently feeding and staring at the pokies?

  10. Mike Smith

    @Jennifer: I think most of us here are arguing that it won’t work, the argument that it shouldn’t have to work (personal responsibility) isn’t all that different, in terms of outcome.

    “Why don’t they” is usually the precursor statement to “there should be a law” – and we’re back in nanny state territory.

  11. JamesK

    Putting any sort of limit/restriction/shame tactics on cash-withdrawal within the venue is fine and dandy, but the obvious solution if I were a problem gambler suddenly facing this dilemma? Get cash out beforehand from bank’s ATM, etc.

    Common sense would tell me that, no?

  12. Oscar Jones

    Scott: I disagree. I had a family member who was both an alcoholic and gambler and covered it extremely well until he gambled away the family home.’

    I forsee lawsuits from lawsuits from destitute children whose mum or dad escapes through the staff hands.

  13. ian dale

    The Perfect Solution : the government runs all casinos and all profits go into revenue.

    The problem gamblers are given endless tokens to feed the machines as that’s all it is about for them. Every now and then , one can win a prize.

  14. Daveo11

    @Jennifer: Good on you for for diligently thinking through the odds and enjoying yourself spending hours on the tables at Vegas without losing more than $200. Do you honestly think it’s fair to compare your accomplishments with people such as the subject of this article?

  15. Liz45

    I believe that all poker machines should cost no more than $1 per game, and prizes should be lowered. Simple! But those with a vested interest are the ones who are complaining? Clubs! And Govts are too weak because they’re making money out of misery too!

    @WARD JENNIFER – The difference is the illness of addiction – whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes or gambling – it’s an illness to have the compulsion to keep on playing poker machines.

    I’m sorry Tracy for the loss of your sister Julie. One day the health and well being of people will be more important than the lust for money – bring it on I say! The Clubs officials’ response to this issue is disgusting – the lies and assertions re their so-called helping communities are lies.

    @MIKE SMITH – Clubs and pubs need State sanction to open in the first place and before they install poker machines – the Govt’s should have the guts to say ‘no’? That’s it, simple! But of course, they also have a problem – they’re addicted to the monies they receive from these vile machines? There’s the problem! The Banks are doing very nicely from peoples’ misery as they’re protected against losses; the only ones who suffer are those addicted and those who love them and/or rely on them for their food etc?

    We have Laws that prohibit leaving kids in cars on a hot day, or any day for that matter; Laws re safety belts etc. These are sensible and save lives; why not the same sort of protective Laws re addicts? Then, someone would notice and be obliged to interact with the addicted person. For those of us without an addictive problem, no problem, as with the other Laws that some may believe are ‘nanny’ laws.

  16. Peter Fumberger

    The fact that this lady took her own life is very sad, but there is no such thing as gambling addiction. Yes, I know the experts say there is, and I am but a pleb who only finished Form 4 before joining the Navy, but it is just abject stupidity and greed.
    That clubs and pubs and casinos have to watch out for these people is an indictment on society these days, where people such as this take no responsibility for their actions.
    Everything is an addiction, a disease, never a person’s fault, and that is where we have gone wrong in society, where blame is never laid at the feet of a gambler, a thug, a murderer, it is always something that has caused these ills.
    But hey, let’s just blame the casinos and clubs, where they entice people in with all those flashing lights and bright colours and the hypnotic tones of those bells and whistles going off.
    The experts say it is an addiction because then it becomes more money in their pockets for miraculously curing these ‘addictions’.
    People, take responsibility for your actions and stop blaming others for when things don’t go the way you want.
    Again, it is sad that this woman took her life, but like all people who gamble and lose big, she was an idiot.

  17. Bryannai Baillieu

    Having Had experience as an Alcoholic this is exactly the way I behaved while drinking. And from experience the idea of Bar people trying to interact and stop the behaviour is ludicrous. Anyone who has had a drinking problem can tell you that being blind drunk does not stop anyone obtaining more alcohol as long as they aren’t extremely rude about it. Why should we expect these paltry regulations to be any different.

  18. Kerry Lovering

    Perhaps gamblers who know they have an addiction could use a voluntary income maintenance program which would remove money from pay checks to pay rates,etc.

  19. Buddy

    Addiction is a bio-psycho-social disorder and needs a bio (medical) psychological and social support response. That is never going to occur by employees of clubs whose purpose is to make money. They are part of the problem … And do not really see themselves as part of the solution. They just want it to look they do. !! Otherwise why put in posconnect systems to get around government regulation.? We don’t yet have the understanding that we need to have in order to identify and help those with addiction, but believe me when I say.. It can happen to anyone. I see every day how quickly people’s lives can fall apart by even the smallest event and people find themselves somewhere they never could have imagined and their lives are torn apart.

  20. beetson gordon

    My initial reaction has been well covered above. i.e. the insanity of folks behind the bar being qualified to deal with serious addiction.

    But what of the Michael O’ (never heard of him) putting this up as an improvement.

    Seriously. Just how more ridiculous can it get ?

    He’s minister ??? of what ? Oh silly me , minister of the money tree.

  21. freshly cut grass

    @Jennifer – completely agree with you. Grown adults are responsible for their own behaviour.

    Society does not and should not require or put others in a position of having to monitor or ‘baby’ people through their personal issues. If someone has a problem in any part of their life, it is their decision whether to seek help or not.

    Somehow placing this responsibility on others to save people from themselves is stupidity in the highest order. What kind of society are we trying to foster here? Next we’ll see people having to wear helmets while travelling in their cars….

  22. SimsonMc

    To all those who are arguing “personal responsibility” you have a point but there is an important point that you have missed. Yes they need to take responsibility for their actions and there should be a debate as to how a reasonable mechanism for people to take responsibility would work. However, I think those using the personal responsibility argument are forgetting that with such things there are innocent victims (children, relatives and loved ones, workers) who through no fault of their own are affected by this problem. I think it’s a sad reflection on our society that we think it’s ok to sit by and watch someone not only destroy their own life but the innocent lives of others, all in the name of personal responsibility. I am sure it makes you feel good telling everyone that you take responsibility for your actions but it’s little comfort to the children whose life are now ruined.

  23. freshly cut grass

    @simsonmc – but that is the exact point! I’m arguing for greater personal responsibility for a variety of reasons. One of those is the innocent victims as you put it. If the person gambling away their life cannot see how their actions will affect their loved ones there is an issue. It is their responsibility to be aware of what repercussions their actions may have.

    If society were to establish a’do as you wish, and we’ll look after you’ attitude people with issues would never have an incentive to seek help or improve themselves. They will continue gambling, taking drugs, etc, safe in the knowledge that someone, anyone, will step in at some point to help them. It is the shifting of personal responsibility onto others – a very slippery slope indeed, and one that will leave society for the poorer, and only increase the hardship of the innocent victims.

  24. Mark from Melbourne

    Sounds awfully like the clubs and pubs are addicted to the revenue from pokies and will act like cunning rats to circumvent any regulation that we can finally get through our parliaments against the vested interests and lobby groups.

    Rather disgusting to see people’s greed in action and to hear the sanctimonious comments by those supporting them.

    human beings sadden me.

  25. kakadu

    @ Jennifer, so Maths helped you beat the odds?
    Do you thnk that the clubs who have the poker machines configured to pay out a certain percentage don’t use Maths? So how are you going to beat these machines using Maths? Do a quick sum as you press the button? It’s people like you who boast about systems that can beat these machines that are a big problem. If a poker machine only pays out 80% then in the long term you lose. EVERY spin has a bigger chance of losing than winning.

  26. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Nice work @JENNIFER. And while they are at it, why don’t those pesky heroin addicts just get a nice hobby like scrapbooking. Very deep understanding of addiction you have there.

  27. Leon57

    Addicts are out of control.Non-addicts cannot ever walk in their shoes. Addicts are collateral damage in the industry’s pursuit of profitability.Governments are addicted to the revenue and sensitive to the whims of clubland voters.So lets not curb the personal freedom of the many trying to save a few of the damned.Stand aside, dead man walking.


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