Bit Rich

Amid the blinking lights and jangling sounds of the pokies room, Alex McClintock asks why he should be so lucky.

Illustration - a mock graphic of a poker machine, titled Bit Rich

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

Most times I go to the pub, I play the pokies. I usually spend 20 bucks, sometimes 50, occasionally more.

Like a lot of people, I had a spin on my 18th birthday because I could, and I kept playing because, at some point, I won.

I'm lucky. I'm not lonely, or poor or addicted to alcohol, or vulnerable in any of the other ways that contribute to gambling addiction. If I had a house, I would be in no danger of losing it; I'm not gambling away my pension or life savings; and I'm unlikely ever to be a case study in the Good Weekend or on 60 Minutes.

Basically, I’m a best-case scenario: the kind of moderate player the pubs-and-clubs lobby point to in their battle against the ‘wowsers’ who would see pokies banned.  But I've come to realise that even the best-case scenario is ugly, and relies on the deliberate exploitation of human weakness. I certainly wouldn’t describe my habit as healthy.

For starters, I usually I sneak away from my friends to play. Sometimes, this is the whole point. Nipping into a flashing ‘VIP lounge’ (a darkly ironic euphemism for the ages) is just as good as a smartphone as a way to avoid the pressures of actually talking to people. As at a urinal, it's good manners to leave as much space between yourself and the next VIP as possible; talking is frowned upon, allowing us players to empty our minds amid the faint hum of muzak and machine-generated cash-register chimes.

Illustration of a chevron shape resembling a vintage coin slot, with text: 'Insert money / machine accepts / $dumbluck / $superstition / $magicalthinking'

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

When I win, I own up to it, flashing the pineapple wad in my wallet to my friends. They disapprove. I do this because I think it makes me look like a rebel – totally normal behaviour for a 29-year-old adult.

My wins, of course, are rare. Most of the time it's a little bit up then all the way down. It's a rush, but a dirty little one that doesn't properly explain the habit. More like the 20th cigarette of the day than the first.

It's a rush, but a dirty little one that doesn't properly explain the habit. More like the 20th cigarette of the day than the first.’

I know that the machines are high-tech shell games, Excel spreadsheets with flashing lights, computers designed to part people with their money. I suspect most of the other VIPs, including those with habits far worse than mine, know this too.

Yet we keep playing, deploying all sorts of magical thinking to justify the habit to ourselves. Once I enter the neon fug, I indulge in all sorts of elaborate fantasies. For example, I prefer to play older models, on the basis that newer ones would somehow be even better at emptying my wallet.

I have a favourite machine. It used to be Queen of the Nile, but I've moved on to the goldrush-themed Where's the Gold. When I'm feeling lucky or flush I'll give Big Red a spin. I would never be caught playing Spring Carnival or 50 Lions.

I have a set way I like to bet. Modern poker machines allow you to win not just by combining lines of symbols that go left to right (🍒 🍒 🍒), but also on a dizzying number of lines that peak and trough across the screen (📉). Even though I can't keep track of all the lines, I always play the maximum number allowed because I'd hate to miss out if a winning combination came up in a line I wasn't betting on.

The research shows that most people who play the pokies have similar superstitions and preferred patterns of play. Poker machine manufacturers encourage this through kitschy branding and deliberate psychological manipulation.

It's easy enough to spot the dirty, though entirely legal, tricks. The constant near-misses, the clanging bells of the bonus-games features ringing on other machines, just so you know someone else is winning.

This is the best-case scenario in the pokies room: a person like me, who knows they're being manipulated. That's not quite the same as being independent, though. Perhaps the politicians who take money from the pokies lobby feel the same way.

 

Portrait of Alex McClintock

Alex McClintock is a freelance writer and the former online editor of Radio National. He has written about everything from food to sport for a variety of publications, including the Guardian and the Monthly. He is currently working on a book about the history of boxing.

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