ACT News

Reformed problem gambler recounts struggle with addiction to the pokies

While John no longer goes near poker machines, he is left with a deep disgust at an addiction that resulted in the loss of his wife and family, his career, and about $60,000 over two years.

"I was just so ashamed of it all. I hated it," he said on Monday, speaking to The Canberra Times after news that the ACT government has changed rules to allow gamblers to feed $50 notes into poker machines

John, 52, who did not want his last name used to protect his former wife and four children, worked in a senior position in a  bank, and said until his early 40s he "wouldn't have been seen dead" near a poker machine. He knew the odds and knew gamblers never made money from them.

But he had a longstanding alcohol problem, and as he visited clubs to drink, he began playing the pokies in about 2005. 

At $5 for each push of the button, he could easily spend $500 in the hour that he stopped by the club on the way home from work, he said. He had seen gamblers jam their credit cards into the button so they didn't need to keep pushing it. And because wins went back in as credits, people tended to keep playing till the money was spent.

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Despite playing the pokies after work, on weekend afternoons, and late at night after work functions, he managed to hide the gambling from his wife, drawing money out of their mortgage. When their marriage broke up over his drinking in early 2008, he sought help for his alcoholism and stopped going to clubs. 

Only then did his wife discover the extent of his gambling deception. 

"I felt so ashamed and she was just shocked," he said. "It was just terrible. We had young children at the time."

John said while he was playing the pokies, he would sometimes think, "Why are you sitting here? You've got children at home. You've got a wife at home. Why are you doing this?"

But it was an escape.

"It was just addictive for me, when you're sitting in front of a poker machine ... you're in another world, another zone. it's like you're being anaesthetised."

John said looking back, he could live with the fact that he had had a drinking problem, but not with the gambling. 

"It just went against every core of every moral fibre in my body," he said. "I was brought up to be a responsible father and I just turned my back on it." 

He said he took responsibility for what he had done and did not blame the industry, he said. But machines were pyschologically engineered to make them attractive for people to play and clubs encouraged people to keep playing. In Wagga, he had seen clubs give gamblers free drinks. In Canberra, despite the bar closing at 1am, the poker machine area had stayed open and clubs had continued to bring him drinks while he played till 3am.

Asked about the ability to put through $50 notes, he said anything that made it easier for gamblers to put more money into machines was a bad thing. 

ATM machines should be moved out of clubs to force people to leave the club to get money and break the connection with the machine, he said.

John now works as a driver and at the Salvation Army's drug, alcohol and gambling rehabilitation service.

University-educated, he had earned a six-figure salary in his banking career. His losses had hit the family mortgage and meant he would have to continue working for many years to put his children through good schools and university, but he said his story paled into insignificance compared with the situation of some.

"My gambling was pulled up in time that it's impact on my family was bad, but it wasn't catastrophic. There are plenty of stories out there of people who have gambled everything away."

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