Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tangoing with the One-Armed Bandits: UPDATED

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has proposed several measures to help problem gamblers as a condition of his support for the Labor government. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has supported him in this respect, and there are a number of parties that have half-heartedly signalled approval or disapproval as well - but it’s important to note that as yet, no legislation has been put forward, so it’s impossible to say exactly what measures will be included in the bill.

Clubs Australia and a number of other outfits have put forward a relentless campaign of lies and slander in an attempt to block this from happening. I think anyone can see that they are running scared, are about to lose a large chunk of their profits, and will say pretty much anything to stop it going forward, playing up their contributions to the community while ignoring the disproportionately negative toll problem gambling takes on the community.

Their tactics are so transparent I don’t feel I need to address their lies here (though I’m happy to in the comments) but, as someone who has worked in pokies venues for about 4 years now, I do feel I can contribute to this discussion by pointing out that while I can share Wilkie’s goal, there are easier ways of achieving it.

It should go without saying that everything included here does not necessarily reflect the views of my employers, past and present.

As was pointed out in this illuminating piece by Grog’s Gamut a few months ago, the main difference between pokies and other forms of gambling is the speed. It’s much easier to spend a lot of money quickly at the pokies than anywhere else - simply because, even if you’re betting small amounts per game, you play so many more games.

Sure, it’s still possible to spend that much playing blackjack or poker - but throwing down 100 bucks a hand, ten hands in a row, is psychologically a big deal. Your brain takes a lot of notice, and so you will think about it a lot harder before you decide whether or not to do it. Throwing down one dollar per push is the kind of thing your brain barely notices - it’s only a buck, so your brain sort of rounds it down to zero, a lot of the time. But considering that, on max-bet, max-lines, on the highest value-per-credit machines, you can spend $1200 bucks an hour in some states, those basically-zeros add up very quickly.

The solution, then, is not to put in place mandatory or voluntary pre-commitment; though that absolutely would help, as it’d make the amount you were losing much more confronting, it would be too technologically expensive in the mandatory case, and not effective enough in the voluntary case. The solution is simply to lower the intensity of the machines.

(Note that although Clubs Australia et al. are saying the technology is so expensive it’ll put smaller clubs out of business, the REAL reason it’s going to cut into their finances so much is that they make around 40% of their profits from problem gamblers)

It seems Wilkie and Xenophon do already realise this, to an extent, because the way they generally phrase it in interviews is “pre-commitment on high-intensity machines.” Basically, on the 1c machines, it is really hard to lose a lot of money because you simply can’t lose it fast enough - it’s only the higher-value machines that present such a disproportionate problem. The solution, then, is simple - get rid of the high-intensity machines.

Converting a $1 machine to a lower-value game is child’s play - they already have the necessary software in place for their other machines, all they need to do is adjust some settings. Right now this just requires a technician to come out and make the adjustment, but I’d be willing to bet that if they wanted to save on wages they could probably do it en masse, remotely - Tattersall’s and Tabaret both have so much telemetry to their machines that they know about every single note that goes in, every coin that comes out, and every time I open the door to fix one of the stupid things.

Now, as to what the actual rate should be - I’m not entirely sure. I’d say $200/hour, at a guess, as the absolute maximum a person could lose on the highest-intensity machines, but I suspect there are people in Productivity Commission-land who could put a better-reasoned figure on it. This should be done by lowering the maximum bet per push, and/or lowering the speed at which the machines spin - but whatever they do, these rates should be consistent across all states. As the table above shows, every state has its own way of doing things now, which is just messy.

This is a quick, simple, cheap way of allowing occasional gamblers to continue without any real noticeable change to their experience, while still helping to stop problem gamblers losing quite so much money. Mandatory pre-commitment, with the IDs and so on, would be too difficult to implement and, really, would not be noticeably better than this method alone. Voluntary pre-commitment is apparently already in place in Victoria (and possibly one or two other states) but I’ve been in the industry for four years and only found out about it in the course of this debate. No customer has ever asked to use it, none of my many training courses has ever told me about it - I’ve seen the information about transaction receipts (a person can ask us to start data-tracking at the start of their session, then stop at the end, so they can see what they’ve won/lost) but again have never had a customer ask me to perform the task. The self-exclusion program does help somewhat, but is clearly not doing enough (and has many administrative flaws I won’t get into here).

There are a few other laws I would change that could help, too. Currently, it is a matter of venue policy whether or not a person is allowed to play more than one machine at a time - at my first job it wasn’t allowed, but at my next two they didn’t mind. Obviously, if someone can play multiple machines at a time, they can circumvent loss-per-hour limits, so a single-machine policy should be mandated.

Secondly, as bar staff we are taught how to recognise drunk behaviour and use our discretion to cut people off when appropriate. We have no such training or discretion in the gaming industry. When I was first took my Responsible Service of Gaming course, the argument I was given was that we didn’t know a person’s financial situation, so we can’t accurately judge what is “too much” for them - one person might have no trouble paying their bills after blowing a grand on the pokies, but another might struggle after blowing a hundred bucks.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. We know. We know who the problem gamblers are. We have our regulars, we talk to them while they’re in the venue and we very often know them in the outside world - it might be to a lesser extent in city clubs, but in country clubs and in regional centres, you get to know your regulars well enough to know roughly how much they can afford. We might not catch all of them, we might get a problem gambler from another area (the primary flaw of the self-exclusion program), but for the most part - we know.

We know what’s too much, and we see some of them go over that limit. But we are powerless to stop them. We can suggest a few things - would you like a coffee break, would you like a smoke break, would you like to look at some brochures - but for reasons of customer service, tact, and an unwillingness to be told to go fuck ourselves on a daily basis, that doesn’t happen often. We can only actually kick someone out of the gaming room if they are: under 18, on the self-exclusion program, drunk, asking to borrow money, or generally harassing other people. I don’t know how it works in other states, but that’s how it works in Victoria - we could know that we’re giving a person change for their last hundred bucks, the hundred bucks that would save them from losing their house, and we would have to do it. With a smile on our face.

Now - just because the course of our job, and our lives in the community, equip us with some of the skills necessary to spot this behaviour, does not mean we’re adequately prepared to deal with it. The RSG would need a massive overhaul to include ways to spot problem gamblers and to effectively deal with cutting them off; implementing these powers without the knowledge necessary to use them would be a disaster. But still, in conjunction with the other measures, I think it could help.

Nothing is going to completely stop problem gambling. As long as you have desperate people who don’t understand probability, you will have problem gamblers. As long as you have elderly or mildly disabled people, who are provided no other means of entertainment or socialisation - nor even somewhere warm to go - except the pokies, you will have problem gamblers. Even if you completely ban gambling, it’ll just go underground. We, as a society, need to take a good hard look at these deep-rooted problems (especially the maths one. How can you not know that the house always wins?) if we really want to cure this.

But in the meantime, these few simple, cheap measures could go a long way to limiting the damage it causes - and may be a much easier pill for voters to swallow. Just don’t expect Clubs Australia to agree with me.

UPDATE 15-10-2011
When I posted this piece, I emailed a truncated version of my suggestions to both Wilkie and Xenophon. Within a few hours I had a response from Xenophon’s office that wasn’t a form letter - something I’m pretty sure no politician has done since the 1930s.

In any case, it pointed out that my idea about lowering the intensity is basically a component of the current proposal; effectively, the choice will either be to convert to low-intensity machines or to use the pre-commitment technology on the higher-intensity ones. The hope is that this will strongly encourage clubs to take the former option, while keeping a reign on the machines that exceed those limits.

In addition, in the last day or so the Greens have come out in support of something like my suggestion - a maximum bet of $1 per push - that, as I suggested, should do the same job with less political fallout. As I predicted, however, Clubs Australia still don’t want it.

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