Points On Pokies
This is not a terribly coherent essay. It’s just a collection of stuff I’ve been commenting on Harry Clarke’s site. I’ve been arguing with Harry over gambling again, and the topic of pokies came up.
Since apparently “WA doesn’t have pokies”, and WA is so great because it doesn’t have pokies!!!!! Here are some facts about gambling in WA.
Firstly, about the machines themselves:
Burswood Casino has 523 video poker machines and mechanical slots. These are not the same as “pokies” (more correctly known as “Slot Machines” everywhere else in the world). Modern “Slot Machines” are machines that have a computer monitor that emulates the old style mechanical slot machine, where a series of wheels featuring different characters spin and then stop. Line the characters up in a certain way and you win money.
In comparison, “Video Poker Machines” are actually an emulation of playing a solo hand of 5-card Draw Poker, where the machine pays out depending on the strength of your hand. Jacks Or Better is a typical example, although there are others.
The key differences between the two different types of Video Gaming machines is the level of strategy required and the payout.
“Slot Machines” require virtually no strategy (usually you just put in your money and press GO! or pull the lever) and in Australia typically pay out at 90%.
Video Poker machines pay out better (98-99%) If you use the perfect strategy (which almost nobody does). Your average casual player would have no idea of the mathematically correct strategy for playing Jacks or Better, or that there even is one.
All in all I think your average moron would probably do better on the slots than on video poker, but I can’t support this claim in any way. Since I never watch how people play Video Poker at Burswood, I can’t say what the average level of skill is. However, if it’s anything like the average level of skill at Blackjack, then most people who play them would be lucky to know how to open their refrigerator door let alone memorise the correct strategy for Jacks or Better.
There are no-skill slot machines in pubs, in WA as we speak. The thing is that these machines are governed by some weird set of regulations of which I am not aware.
1. These machines can not pay out in coins. You insert your coin just like you would a normal Slot Machine, and the machine stores win credits like a normal machine, but when you win you are only able to receive a voucher which can be redeemed for cash at the bar.
I assume this is to stop the psychic addiction that is associated with hearing the lovely noise of coins jangling out of the machine when you win.
2. As far as I can tell from asking bar staff (not usually a reliable source on anything), all profit from these machines has to be donated to a non-profit organisation and cannot be added to general revenue for the drinking establishment.
This arrangement provides our cricket club with a 4-figure annual sponsorship deal from a local pub (or at least used to, I am not sure on the current status of this deal).
3. As far as I know these machines can be put in any pub, but not nightclubs. Nevertheless they are not that common, you really only see them in suburban pubs (otherwise known as Bogan Joints). Most pubs that have them only have between 1 and 4 machines rather than large banks of them.
People often claim that pokies are the lowest returning form of gambling there is. This is not true. Here is a general idea of the various types of gambling ranked by the percentage of bets returned to the punter. The % figure alongside is the typical house edge (assuming perfect play in those games (*) that require strategy):
- Video Poker* (~0.5%)
- Blackjack* (1%)
- Baccarat (1%)
- Pai Gow (1.5%)
- Roullette- Single Zero (2.7%)
- Two Up (3.1%)
- Poker* (5%)
- Carribean Stud Poker* (5.2%)
- Roullette – Double Zero (5.3%)
- Sports/Racing Bets with a bookmaker or TAB* (7.5%)
- Craps – (10%)
- Slot Machines (10%)
- Keno (25%)
- Lotto/State Lottery (30%+)
Poker and Sports/Track betting are unique in that if you know what you are doing you can make a long-term profit. In the case of Sports/Track betting you basically have to be a better handicapper than the bookie (fairly difficult which is why so few people make a living off this).
In the case of poker you have to be better than the other players on the table by a big enough margin to make up for the commission (rake) that the casino takes from each pot. At shitholes like Burswood, the rake is 5% which is basically unbeatable unless you are incredibly good or playing against complete idiots (not as rare as it sounds). Online poker sites have rakes closer to 2% or even less depending on the limit you play.
In terms of traditional (vs the house) games, the key point here is that the strategy for Video Poker and Carribean Stud poker is quite complex. I doubt many people know the perfect strategy so you can assume that the house edge is significantly higher as far as most casual gamblers are concerned. In comparison the perfect strategy for Blackjack is quite easy to learn, although most people still don’t know it.
The strategy for Baccarat seems hard but it’s really not – just bet on the banker all the time.
Personally when I go to the Casino (rarely), I only ever bet on Blackjack (if I am sober) or Two-Up (If I am drunk).
Two-up is a great game to play if you are drunk or just an idiot because a:) You only have to decide heads or tails and both choices give the same edge. b:) The edge is not that bad. c:) You can yell and abuse the ferals in the middle and not get thrown out of the Casino.
Blackjack is fine if you know basic strategy but I usually get sick of the morons who whine when you “steal the tens out of the deck”. The biggest advantage of blackjack is that you sit quite close to the dealer and they are often attractive.
Apart from that going to the casino is a huge waste of time and I can’t stand it.
As you can see from that list, Slot Machines are neither the best nor worst form of gambling in terms of return. A lot of the opposition to them is based on this fallacious argument.
The other main arguments used against pokies are:
Because they are so easy to play, it is easy to waste a lot of money on them very fast.
I really don’t understand this. It is also possible to waste a lot of money really fast by putting $5,000 on the nose of a 1000-1 shot at the dogs (Or on Carlton to win the AFL premiership or whatever).
In addition, if your main pokie spending is at the pub (in the eastern states), it is worth remembering that the money lost on the pokies is at least partially offset by the fact that you are drinking beer and eating food much more cheaply than you would be if there were no pokies.
The average price of a beer or a counter meal in Perth is around 30% higher than it is in Sydney or Melbourne. This is quite significant when you take into account the generally higher cost of living and rent in those cities.
Allowing for that disparity I would say that having pokies be legal reduces the cost of getting pissed by about 50% in comparitive terms.
WA – being the only place in Australia that doesn’t have pokies – is the most expensive place in Australia to get drunk.
I’ve gotten drunk in just about every major city in the developed world, and Perth compares quite unfavourably on a world scale. If you are drinking primarily pints of beer, Perth is about equivalent to going out on the piss in Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York City.
If you are drinking spirits or mixed drinks, Perth is cheaper than Hong Kong or Tokyo, but much more expensive than New York.
London, Singapore and Scandinavia are more expensive.
Everywhere else not mentioned is cheaper than Perth.
Of course this is not only because of the lack of pokies, but also because of WA’s generally draconian liquor licensing laws. It is also worth remembering that out of Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York and Perth, Perth is the only place that doesn’t allow pubs to open past 3am.
Pokies pushed out other forms of entertainment in pubs, like live music, quiz nights, topless barmaids or whatever.
On the face of it I think this is a fairly legitimate complaint. It is certainly much easier as a pub owner to just install a few banks of poker machines to bring in cash rather than go to the hassle of organising other, more social forms of entertainment.
However I think this is more a reflection of the attitudes towards customer service and marketing in the Australian service industry in general.
It’s no secret to anyone who has ever travelled that Australia’s customer service is the worst in the world. Australians seem to have a real aversion to being the subservient in any way, even if your job requires it.
This is reflected not only when you try to get a beer in a pub, but when you step onto the national airline carrier or even just ask for help in a shop.
It’s a big reason why a large percentage of barmaids/barmen in Australia are backpackers from other countries. Employers prefer them because they are much less likely to tell a customer to fuck off if they are in a bad mood.
This is also reflected at the ownership and management level. Australians in general will do anything that could lead to them having to deal with customers less. Having the customers quietly and regularly sticking their money in a machine instead of them asking you to do stuff that will require work is the ideal setup. It’s the adult equivalent of sticking your kids in front of the TV so you don’t have to hire a babysitter.
Australia’s restrictive liquor licensing laws don’t help this situation by restricting pub ownership to those who have the money and connections to get a license, rather than people who might actually have a passion for it. As we speak a great deal of Australian pubs are being bought out by a major supermarket chain.
An additional response to this question is that many Pubs in WA are already occupied by the ubiquitous PUB TABS which well and truly push out any other forms of entertainment that might be on offer. I am not really sure how anyone could say that those places are preferable to pokies, but I may be biased here because I really can’t stand horse or dog racing.
Nevertheless, I would like to see a study that compares the amount spent on off-track betting in WA compared to other states, I have a feeling that it well and truly takes up the slack for our lack of pokies.
Anyway, this post is a work in progress and may be added to or edited as I think of more things about pokies in particular or gambling in general. Feel free to add your own thoughts or questions in the comments.