A study of national gambling habits in 2008-2009, found that Australians collectively lost around $12 billion to pokies machines in that financial year. It also found there were 500,000 people who either were problem gamblers or were at risk of becoming one. Pokies addiction made up 75 percent of problem gambling, and that came with a social price tag of around $4.7 billion.
But you knew that already. We don't lack for scary numbers around pokies addiction. What sometimes is missing is some actual human insight. For example: what do 95,000 problem gamblers look like out in the wild? How does it feel to work around these people day in and day out? To find out, we asked some pokies employees who agreed to tell us in their own words.
Adam works at a Melbourne pub that grosses over $12 million from its poker machines annually.
I've worked in the TAB and at the casino and people are way more aggressive here. At the casino you can have a good chat with the customers but on the pokies you really can't. You're lucky to find anyone who wants to chat with you unless they're on a roll and that's pretty rare. Instead they say things like "oh your machines aren't paying out." You don't want to be around people at those times. People think you're always against them.
I didn't really buy into the concept of a gambling addiction until I started working here. I always thought that an addiction has to be a physiological dependence, but not now. I believe a gambling addiction is just as bad as a drug addiction.
There are people here who I know have lost their self-control. I've spoken to a lot of people and they'll have won two-grand or whatever and I'll say "good on you, well done", or whatever. And they'll be like "no, I'm still down fifteen-grand from last month." So even when they've won, they haven't really.
Sometimes I'll see people outside having a smoke and I'll say "how's it going? Are you winning?" And they'll be like "no, it's rubbish, you can never win on these things." And these are the same people as I see every day. I just don't understand.
Judie works at a Victorian pub that grosses over $10 million from its poker machines.
It's a very sad industry to work in; you see a lot of sad things. Recently there was an elderly woman in here selling her used mattress protector to pay her bills because she'd spent all her money on pokies. We've also had women soliciting sex in the car park out the front. They're not prostitutes, they're just regular customers who've lost all their money. And this one woman in particular, she was targeting the elderly because they were easy prey.
Because people come in every day you get to know them on a personal level. You realise how many are lonely. They're not addicted to the pokies; they're addicted to not being home alone for eight hours a day.
The staff see how much individuals put into the machines. Some of the staff are like "Yeah! He just put in $1000." The management doesn't really care about the customers. Something really bad would have to happen for them to care. When people bankrupt themselves on the machines they say things like "they knew what they were doing." They just couldn't care less. It's all revenue and that's what it's about here—the bottom line.
I'm a very caring person and working here has negatively impacted my life. I just want to help these people. I just want to give people money and tell them to stay away. I don't like telling my husband oh my god, it was so sad today.
Lauren works at a Melbourne pub that annually grosses just under $7 million from its poker machines.
This is one of the roughest venues in Melbourne. It's even known amongst other pubs for being rough. There's a bistro and bar but they make no money. They're there just to feed the pokies and I can't stress just how horrible it is. Just last night there was a woman screaming, saying that she'd lost sixty grand. So we tried to give her the number for gamblers help but she was like "no I don't want the number to gamblers help." And then, in tears, she withdrew more money.
The bistro had to stop putting out spoons because people would just walk in, grab a spoon and tramp straight to the toilet to shoot up. They're so up front about it. At least once a shift you'll find a needle and often when you go into the bathroom you'll hear someone slapping their arm, getting a vein ready. Sometimes I see people shoot up and then stagger out to start playing the pokies.
Our biggest day of the week isn't the weekend, like it would be at any other pub. It's every second Thursday; pension day. But mostly it's the same people who come in everyday. In fact, I'd say that's quite common. They come in and put a few hundred in the pokies and then you see them getting desperate. I have to call 000 all the time. Like, there's this one machine that we've had to replace the screen three times in the last six months because it gets punched in.
Last week there was a woman chroming in there. Like, sniffing paint. She was just crazy and violent. Staff cleared the other customers out of the toilets and left her to it because she was so dangerous. The police didn't show and it took an hour for her to leave. Then she came in again this week and we asked her to leave but she had no memory of what had happened. She said she just wanted to play the pokies. It's bleak.
Some names have been changed. The total expenditure at all Victorian pokies can be found here. None of the images are of any of the venues described.
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