Regular readers will know by now that I used to have a gambling problem. The pokies were my poison. This was back in the mid to late 90s, and I remember that a number of the venues I used to frequent were, at one time or another, 24-hour pokie barns.
These days, outside of the casinos there are no 24-hour gambling venues. Sure, that’s a good thing but here in Victoria we have something almost as bad: the early openers.
Let’s wind it back for a moment to give some perspective. Every state and territory in Australia has legislation in place restricting the practice of operating 24-hour poker machine venues. New South Wales (with some exceptions), the Northern Territory and South Australia have an enforced break in trading of six hours, and the ACT has a five hour break. Queensland leads the way with a default break of ten hours a day, although special licences can be obtained that allow longer operating hours. I’m going to leave Western Australia out of this, as all of their pokies are in their casino.
Lagging behind the pack are Tasmania and Victoria, with an enforced break in trading of only four hours a day.
In some cases, there are also limitations on the opening and closing hours. In NSW and the NT, poker machine gambling is not allowed between 4am and 10am. In Queensland, it’s midnight to 10am. But in Tasmania and Victoria, the states with the longest allowable trading hours, the only restriction is that a venue’s pokie trading hours can’t go outside their liquor trading hours.
This has given rise to the early openers; pubs and (to a lesser extent) clubs that throw open their doors at 6am or 7am. Wander into one of these venues at that time of the morning and you’ll find it mostly deserted… except for the gaming room. That’s where the action will be.
I remember what it was like. For a while, when I was gambling, I was getting in to work around 7am. I’d drop off my briefcase and head out for “breakfast” in the form of a cup of gold coins. The Welcome Stranger on Bourke St was only five minutes away, and I could be there by quarter past seven.
This was a big place, but at that time of the morning only one section of the gaming room was open. I would sit there at my machine, with roughly a dozen like-minded souls around me at theirs. One eye on the screen, one eye on my watch. Playing fast and hard so I could get back to my desk by half past eight.
Those days are more than a decade behind me now, but I was recently reminded of them by the opening of the Mail Exchange Hotel in Melbourne. I’ve already written about this place so I won’t go into too much detail here; suffice to say that the first time I noticed they had finished their building work was when I walked past at eight in the morning and saw, first the bouncer at the door, and then the poker machines flashing and winking inside.
There is only one reason why any pokies venue would open their doors during the breakfast hour, and it’s not to serve bacon and eggs. These places know that problem gamblers are their bread and butter, and it’s only problem gamblers that seek out pokies at that time of day… so they open up as early as they can, put on minimal staff to keep the costs down, and let the players do the rest.
This is one area where Tasmania and Victoria absolutely need to lift their game. There is no excuse, no need, no justification for making the pokies available at such a ridiculously early hour of the morning. If 10am is good enough for NSW with their 100,000 machines and club culture; if it’s good enough for Queensland and the Northern Territory; then it’s good enough for us.