Problem gambler calls for stronger pokies regulations

A woman with a gambling addiction has told The Canberra Times why she thinks stronger controls need to be in place to curb problem gambling habits.

Professor Laurie Brown lost over $230,000 gambling on the pokies in clubs around Canberra within the space of a few years, despite understanding the statistics and knowing the machines are designed to play in favour of the vendor. She is not what you might imagine a typical gambling addict to be – she’s a retired university professor with a supportive partner who has stood by her despite her blowing most of their life savings on the gaming machines. She doesn’t fit the mould of what mainstream media may lead you to believe, that all pokies addicts are dole-bludgers, long-term unemployed or heavy drinkers.

Professor Brown says the Raiders Club in Belconnen, where she lost a majority of her money, failed their duty of care to provide assistance to anyone exhibiting signs of problem gambling. She is telling her story in the hopes of gaining better protection for problem gamblers, calling for a stringent self-exclusion system, intervention from staff members and withdrawal and spin limits. Like the current case against Aristocrat, she also wants the design of poker machines to be changed so they no longer give the impression a player is close to winning.

Professor Brown’s problem with the pokies started in 2011 when she would head to the Raiders Club in Gungahlin to pass the time in the evenings while her partner, John Formby, was away working on their cattle farm. She lost $30,000 before her bank alerted Mr Formby and her problem came to light. A crisis ensued and a complaint against the Raiders Club was lodged to the Gaming and Racing Commission, where further action was declined.

The couple put measures in place to stop Professor Brown from playing the pokies, including blocking her access to their daily bank accounts and putting her on the self-exclusion list which bans people with gambling problems from entering gaming clubs.

All was well until 2015 when Professor Brown relapsed and attempted to enter the Raiders Club in Gungahlin, where her self-exclusion had expired. The club wouldn’t allow her to enter without permission from a family member, so she headed to its sister-club, Raiders in Belconnen, where she was allowed to gamble with no questions asked. This is where the real problems began.

Professor Brown claims she lost $200,000 from the couple’s retirement savings on the pokies within a 17-month span, gambling regular hours between 10AM and 4AM with no intervention.

While the club does have the mandatory $250 ATM daily withdrawal limit, Professor Brown got around this by using four different bank accounts so she would withdrawal $250 from each. A staff member then told her she could just use the EFTPOS machine, where she was able to withdraw hundreds of dollars at a time directly over the counter – money the staff knew was going back into the pokies.

Mr Formby remained in the dark until once again, he was alerted to the problem by his bank. He said, “I was absolutely destroyed… How can somebody go there for 151 nights until 4AM and spend all this money and nobody notices?”

The couple are now calling for the Raiders Club to take responsibility, highlighting responsible gambling conduct requires gaming clubs to raise the alert for anyone a staff member has reasonable grounds for believing has a gambling problem. They have presented the Raiders Club with information detailing their losses, which the club refuses to refund on the basis they could not prove the money was indeed lost at the club. The club also says it was Professor Brown’s personal choice to decide to spend the money.

Raiders chief executive Simon Hawkins said, “We wouldn’t be in business if everybody who came to the club, if they did make a loss, they turned around and asked for their money back… At the end of the day there are some very wealthy people who like to gamble and it’s not for me as an operator to say they’re not allowed to.”

Mr Hawkins says the system for sharing self-exclusions between clubs has since improved so this same situation is unlikely to happen again.

Professor Brown likens her pokies habit to a drug addict, saying “to this day I do not know what happened, why I went back”.

Unfortunately, her story is not an uncommon one, but it certainly is a tough situation which conjures up all kinds of arguments. Yes, Professor Brown is an educated, self-aware member of society who was free to spend her money how she pleased, but yes, pokie machines are designed to be addictive, triggering the same pleasure points in the brain as narcotics and some are powerless to the “electronic morphine” they produce. Should she be entitled to a refund of her losses? That’s an argument with so many different sides it’s impossible to reach a sound conclusion, thus is the very nature of the pokies culture in Australia.

The real situation here is the failure for clubs to protect vulnerable players. Why have these self-exclusion policies in place if a person can just go to a club a few neighbourhoods away and gamble with no questions asked? Why have ATM limits if cash can be withdrawn with ease over the counter? Stories like Professor Brown’s ultimately point to a failure of responsible gambling measures, where it becomes obvious the government employs these measures for their own peace of mind rather than for genuine concern of our citizens.