Allegations by whistleblowers about the way poker machines are operated at the casino in Melbourne have underlined how Victoria’s Casino Control Act allows pokies to operate in ways that encourage harmful gambling.
The casino was recently the subject of allegations by whistleblowers that it tampered with electronic gambling machines. For this, the casino operator was fined $300,000 by the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR).
Whistleblowers have also alleged that the casino’s staff provided patrons with small ‘picks’, or shims, emblazoned with the Crown logo, designed to be jammed into buttons to allow the EGMs to operate continuously. They also claimed that multiple loyalty cards were issued to patrons to enable them to collect loyalty scheme points while operating multiple EGMs.
Victorian law regulating the casino is the Casino Control Act 1991. This prohibits EGMs being operated on ‘autoplay’ – i.e., other than by a distinct activation for each spin; with notes of greater denomination than $50; or at intervals faster than every 2.14 seconds (at ss.62AB & 62 AC). However, these restrictions do not apply if the EGM is operated in a ‘specified area’. Specified areas are defined by a notice in the Government Gazette.
Normally, the maximum bets allowed on EGMs in the casino are $10 per spin, or unrestricted if the EGM is in a specified area. The maximum load up for an EGM in the casino– the amount that can be inserted into a machine at any one time – is $9,949. Elsewhere in Victoria, maximum bets are $5 and the maximum load up is $1,000. The Act, at S.81AAB(2), also allows an exemption, in specified areas, from the requirement to pay EGM winnings over $2,000 by cheque.
In specified areas, EGMs can be operated continuously (i.e., on ‘autoplay’). The speed of bets may be faster than every 2.14 seconds, and the size of stakes is unrestricted. The load-up of up to $9,949 is facilitated by use of $100 notes if desired. All winnings may be paid in cash. None of these parameters are permitted on EGMs anywhere else in Victoria.
In the Government Gazette of 10 May 2018 specified areas are identified (they are similar to areas identified in previous gazette notices, under both ALP and LNP governments).
It is a condition for unrestricted use that a loyalty card (which incorporates the ‘YourPlay’ voluntary pre-commitment system) must be inserted into the EGM.
The areas of the casino specified in the Gazette notice include so-called ‘high-roller’ rooms. They also appear to include most, if not all, of the casino main floor area.
It is not necessary to be in a high roller room to operate an EGM on unrestricted mode. All that is required is a loyalty card, which can be obtained readily within the casino.
The Act also requires the casino to implement a Responsible Gambling Code of Conduct approved by the Commission. The casino’s code of conduct stresses a commitment to responsible gambling. According to the code, the casino’s ‘responsible gaming message is “STAY IN CONTROL’’.
The code also advises that staff are trained to intervene if patrons display outward signs of gambling harm. The list of signs that are cited by Cthe code are drawn from a Gambling Behavior Checklist, prepared by researchers, listing 30 signs of harmful gambling. The signs identified in the code include self-disclosure of problems, complaints or concerns from family members, decline in grooming or appearance, aggressive or angry behavior, and long periods of uninterrupted gambling.
The Gambling Behavior Checklist also lists many other signs under the categories of ‘money seeking’ and ‘intensity and duration’, including ‘puts large wins back into the machine and keeps playing’, ‘’bets $3 or more per spin most of the time’, ‘plays very fast’, ‘gambles on 2 or more machines at once’. Most of these signs indicate ‘probable gambling problems’.
With the apparent approval of the Victorian Government and the regulator, behaviors such as those listed on the Gambling Behaviour Checklist are encouraged.
Thus, despite claiming to be keenly concerned about the well-being of its patrons, the Government’s current legislation allows Crown to let anyone in possession of a loyalty card operate unrestricted EGMs. These can operate continuously, with no bet limits, and $9,949 loaded up at any one time. Winnings on these EGMs can be paid entirely in cash, meaning users can put it straight back into the machine.
Anyone making use of these features would be clearly identifiable as a problem gambler.
Researchers investigating actual activity in gambling venues in 2017 concluded that:
… venues often fail to respond to signs of gambling problems and instead encourage continued gambling in contradiction of their CoC responsibilities. Signs of gambling problems are a normalised feature of EGM use in these venues.
If recent whistle-blower accounts appearing in the press are accurate, this also appears to be the case at the casino.
Provision of picks to allow buttons to be jammed down permits autoplay. i.e., using the machine at very high speeds, facilitated by the extra ability to reduce the time between spins. Provision of multiple loyalty cards allows multiple EGMs to be operated simultaneously. Allowing patrons to be paid large wins in cash facilitates rapid re-staking of wins. Allowing unlimited bets clearly facilitates regular wagers above $3 per spin. All of these are clear markers of gambling harm and significant problems.
Allowing patrons to make use of unrestricted EGMs will ensure that EGM users lose control of gambling.
It’s difficult to imagine a more irresponsible way to provide EGM gambling than that facilitated by Victoria’s Casino Control Act. The casino claims to provide gambling in accordance with legislative requirements. This is probably true. Yet, such legislation makes a mockery of any claims to provision of gambling in a safe and responsible way.
The casino utilizes what is permitted by legislation to make a great deal of money from people whose gambling can only be described as out of control. But the Victorian government allows this. The responsibility for this grossly irresponsible gambling is theirs.
Charles Livingstone is a gambling researcher with Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. He has received funding from the Australian Research Council, the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, the Independent Gambling Authority of South Australia, the (previous) Victorian Gambling Research Panel, and multiple non-Government and Local Government organisations, in Australia and from Canada, Finland, and New Zealand.