There is a common perception that the vast majority of poker machine players do not have a gambling problem; that poker machines are (in the words of Douglas Adams) “mostly harmless”, and that pokie-related gambling problems are usually the result of other issues or problems that need to be addressed, such as depression or loneliness.
There are several things wrong with this perception, the foremost being that it places the full blame for gambling problems on the individuals affected. It effectively absolves poker machines, the industry that runs them and the governments that regulate them, from any responsibility for the impact that they can have.
Personal responsibility is crucial, but so too are industry and legislative responsibility. This is all too often overlooked.
It ignores the reality that while approximately 5 million Australians play the pokies each year, only 600,000 of us are regular poker machine players, and close to half that number are known to have serious or moderate gambling problems.
And it ignores the fact that gambling problems manifest themselves in many different ways, with widely varying impacts, from one person to the next.
The sad truth is that many regular “recreational” poker machine players exhibit one or more warning signs of problem gambling behaviour. Poker machines are designed to be addictive, and no matter how strong your resolve might be, it is entirely possible that they can get into your head without you even realising it.
The following is a list of what I call “pokie habits”. It is by no means a definitive list, but it tries to look at the habits we can pick up while playing the pokies… habits that can indicate that you’re not necessarily as much in control as you think you are.
If you see yourself as a “recreational” poker machine player and you recognise some of the habits on this list in yourself, it doesn’t mean you have a gambling problem… but it could be a warning sign that you are at risk of developing one.
1. Do you play the pokies when you go out… or do you go out to play the pokies?
This is a question of intent. Do you play poker machines because they happen to be there, or are they the reason you walked out of the house in the first place?
2. Do you play pokies at the same venue every time? The same game? The same machine?
If your pokie playing involves a routine, such as always seeking out a particular game or machine, then it’s possible that you’re closer to your gambling than you think.
3. Do you make a trip to the ATM when you’re playing the pokies? More than once?
Most “recreational” gamblers only intend to spend money they have on them. One trip to the ATM may seem harmless enough, especially if you had also budgeted for that… but more than once, and warning bells should be ringing.
4. Do you play the pokies for fun or for money? If it’s for fun, do you enjoy it? And if it’s for money, do you win?
Once again, this is about intent. Do you play for enjoyment or do you intend to win?
5. Do you ever change your bets and play-lines to try and “fool” the machine into paying out?
You can’t fool a poker machine. They are no more than glorified computers; changing your betting patterns has no effect on whether or not they will pay out. This is irrational behaviour.
6. Do you chat with others when you’re playing the pokies… or do you play in silence?
Playing a poker machine is often promoted as a social pastime, but for most problem gamblers it’s a very isolated experience. If you don’t want to be disturbed while you’re playing, then you’re not playing for fun.
7. Do you get excited by “little wins”, even when they’re less than the amount you bet?
These “little wins” are known as “losses disguised as wins”. Music plays, lights flash, but in reality you’ve lost money. If winning less than you bet feels like a win to you, then there is a good chance you’re caught up in the deception of the machine… being persuaded that you’re winning when, in fact, you’re losing.
8. Do you set yourself a limit when you play the pokies? And if so, is it a time limit, or a money limit?
Time limits are good; money limits are better. Knowing in advance how much money you’re prepared to lose, or how long you intend to play, is very important. On the flip side, being prepared to play for “as long as you have to” or spend “as much as it takes” can be a fast track to trouble.
9. Do you set yourself a limit when you play the pokies? Do you stick to it? Every time?
Setting limits is one thing; sticking to them is another. If everyone could set and stick to limits then there would be no gambling problems. Spending more than you intend, regularly, is a strong warning sign.
10. Do you ever walk out of a pokie venue wishing you hadn’t walked in in the first place?
Regret is a strong emotion, and one that is very much a part of problem gambling behaviour. If you find yourself regretting the time or money you put into the pokies, then you should look closely at just how much that really is.
11. Do you ever find yourself thinking about playing poker machines? Dreaming about it?
As I mentioned earlier, poker machines can get into your head. This is no accident. Everything about poker machines is researched, designed and tested to make you want to play; that includes conditioning you to think about them when you’re not playing. It’s similar to getting a song stuck in your head, only in this case it’s a constant reminder that there’s a poker machine out there that you could be playing.
12. Do you talk to the poker machine you’re playing? Do you really think it listens?
We all talk to things; our cars, our computers, our tools, even the TV… but we don’t expect them to listen. Many problem gamblers, however, try and persuade their machine to pay out, by any means possible… including talking to them. Again, this is irrational behaviour.
13. Do you sit down at your poker machine, expecting to win? Hoping to win? Or not fussed either way?
This comes back to why you play. If gambling isn’t a problem for you, then you’re prepared to lose your money; you know the chances of winning are low. Hoping to win is fine; we all live in hope! But if you walk into a venue with the firm intention of winning, then you’re fooling yourself in the worst possible way.
14. Do you ever change your plans so that you can play the pokies?
This is about how important poker machines are to you. If you change your plans, cancel appointments, break promises and so on, in order to play the pokies, then you’re giving them a higher importance in your life than all of these other activities.
Now, as I said at the start, if you recognise one or more of these pokie habits in yourself it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem; but it should serve as a warning sign. No one sets out to develop a gambling problem, it sneaks up on you and by the time you realise what’s happening it’s usually too late. But it’s never too late to do something about it.
I’m no counsellor; I don’t have training or qualifications in this area, and I would never presume to diagnose someone as a problem gambler, or advise them on how to tackle their issues. But I do have experience; at one stage of my life, I had all fourteen of these pokie habits running, and ruining, my life.
If you think you may have a gambling problem, or just want to talk to someone about it, then please, do so. My Links page contains links to many gambling help services around Australia; these people are committed, compassionate and understanding, and they will do what they can to help.