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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 comments

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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.