Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for August is One Last Spin by Drew Rooke (Scribe Publications), a poignant and compassionate work of literary journalism that tackles Australia’s most controversial pastime: the pokies. It is a confronting tale about the human cost of addiction, of governments pandering to corporate interests, and of the insidious power of the industry’s PR spin.
I’m standing outside Canterbury League Club in Belmore, in Sydney’s west. Several storeys high and occupying an entire block, the club towers above the drab nearby shops and single-storey houses like a monolithic mega-mall. Lining the entrance driveway is an ostentatious tropical garden with groomed hedges, lilies, palm trees, cycads, water jets, and a three-tiered waterfall. In an hour or so, when night falls, the whole garden will be spectacularly illuminated in multi-coloured spotlights.
I follow the driveway around to a porte-cochère so large that over six cars can fit under it, and then walk through a revolving glass door into a foyer that is more extravagant than those of the finest hotels in the city. On either side of the service desk are two ten-plus-metre-high cream columns with fine carvings at their base. Around the walls hang cylindrical, three-metre-long golden lamps that look like oversized organ pipes. In the middle of the foyer, beneath an enormous sky dome fifteen-or-so metres above, another waterfall flows down into and through another tropical garden. Large plastic butterflies hang on invisible threads of string, birdsong echoes from speakers hidden in the foliage, and a faint smell of chlorine permeates the air.
‘Welcome, sir. Are you a member or a visitor?’ asks a uniformed young lady standing at the service desk.
‘Just a visitor,’ I say.
She signs me in, and then, with a wide smile, says, ‘Have a lovely afternoon, sir.’
When I reach the top of the escalator at the right of the service desk, it feels as if I’ve landed in Vegas. Before me is a sprawling sea of over 600 poker machines, rows and rows of them filling the entire floor. All combine garish artwork and puerile names like ‘Queen of the Nile’, ‘More Chilli’, ‘Buffalo’, ‘Black Panther’, ‘Five Dragons’, and ‘Where’s the Gold?’. Around half are occupied by men and women of all different ages and from all different backgrounds, most sitting silently with glazed faces in a kind of stupor, tapping, slapping, or hammer-fisting the buttons.
Large flatscreen televisions attached to columns around the area display multiple different jackpots, each linked to a separate bank of machines. The figures rise incrementally, ticking over and over as they are fed by every bet made. $21,860.22…50…61. $9317.80…86…98. $2309.42…69…92. There are no windows or natural lighting, and the ceiling is so low that it seems to press down on the tops of the machines. Hanging from it are golden chandeliers, and security cameras like bulging, black shiny eyes. Small black-and-white clocks are positioned inconspicuously around the walls. The whole space feels designed to disorientate the patrons and dissolve any sense of time.
The whole space feels designed to disorientate the patrons and dissolve any sense of time.
Smartly dressed waiters and waitresses wander the floor. They speak to customers with flight-attendant friendliness, but amongst themselves they speak without pretence. As two walk near me, I overhear one complain to his colleague about work. ‘What are you complaining about?’ his colleague says sarcastically, rolling her eyes and gesturing towards the gamblers. ‘It’s such lovely company that we have here.’
I take a seat at a machine in a bank of ten. Attached to the side of the machine is a small menu for food and drinks. At the bottom of the menu is the message, ‘A range of complimentary beverages and small snacks also available upon request.’
The woman beside me does not notice me arrive. A black-leather handbag hangs from her right shoulder, and a brown-leather purse sits in her lap. Slouched deep in the padded stool, she plays two machines simultaneously — Five Koi and Big Red. Her left hand plays one, her right hand the other, and her head moves from screen to screen as if she is watching an enthralling tennis rally.
I grab the attention of one of the waiters to buy a beer. ‘Sorry — you have to order using the machine’, she says, pointing at the service button on the screen. I do as instructed, and, moments later, another waiter arrives, holding a computer tablet, and takes my order.
‘Thanks,’ he says as I pay. ‘Won’t be too long, sir.’
Two minutes later, a smiling young woman delivers my drink.
‘There you go, sir,’ she says. ‘Have a lovely afternoon, sir.’
Slouched deep in the padded stool, she plays two machines simultaneously…her head moves from screen to screen as if she is watching an enthralling tennis rally.
My neighbour gives up on the Five Koi machine, but persists with Big Red. Few wins come. She grows agitated, her hand hitting the buttons harder and harder. When the credit dwindles to $10, she reduces her bet from $2 a spin to $1. Then, when the credit is at zero, she hurriedly feeds in a $50 note. The machine lets out a cheerful ‘bleep’ as it registers the new funds.
The woman raises her bet back to $2 a spin, and gambles on without missing a beat. Then, soon afterwards, she stands and walks in the direction of the ATM. The machine still has $30 credit, but she hasn’t bothered to reserve it. She returns minutes later, clutching her purse in one hand and two $50 notes and a $100 note in the other. She adjusts herself on the stool, feeds in $50, and hits ‘SPIN’. As she does this, she puts the other two notes back in her wallet.
After just a few minutes, the $50 has vanished. The machine ‘bleeps’ again as she feeds it the other pineapple-yellow note.
On the very next spin, a loud ‘BRRRIIIIINNNNNGGGG’ rings out. The message, ‘Six free games’, appears on the screen. She hits ‘SPIN’, and the reels gallop along automatically. When the free games finish, the credit counter reads $345.60. A looped, computerised rendition of Johann Strauss’s celebratory Radetzky March plays, and a fountain of gold coins spurts out from the bottom of the screen, each coin branded with the word ‘WIN’. The blank expression on her face doesn’t change as she presses ‘COLLECT’ and slips the barcoded receipt spat out by the machine into her purse. She swivels on her chair as if about to leave. But when she’s almost on her feet, she swivels back to face the machine, feeds it another $20, and continues gambling.
I roam the floor again. As I do, an excited female voice comes through the speakers. It calls out a name and then a membership number. No gamblers near me seem to even hear it; they remain focused on their machines. I ask one of the staff members what the announcement is about. ‘So we’re running a promotion,’ the besuited man says. ‘All you have to do is put your membership card into the machine, and the more you play, the more points you get, and the more chances you have of going in the draw to win.’ The prize is a cruise for two. Fifty trips are being given away.
I take a seat at another machine towards the middle of the floor. Beside me is a middle-aged woman betting $2.50 a spin on a Five Dragons game. She whispers mantras to herself, and winces when a winning symbol is just off. Sometimes, in between spins, she rubs the mouth of the cartoonish dragon that looks down on her from the top screen in the vain hope of attracting luck. Next to her, another woman rests her heavy head in her right hand while slapping the buttons of a Five Koi machine with her left. She churns through $100 in just a few minutes. When she wins, she hits the button even more frantically, trying to hurry along the machine’s celebration so she can continue playing. Across the aisle, a skinny young man plays a Buffalo machine, leaning so far forward that it looks as if he is slowly being sucked into the screen, and an elderly couple sip chocolate milkshakes in silence as they bet ten cents a spin on a More Chilli machine.
When she wins, she hits the button even more frantically, trying to hurry along the machine’s celebration so she can continue playing.
In my periphery, I sense eyes on me. I turn to my right and see a besuited, managerial-looking man staring directly at me, biting the arm of his glasses. His lips are pursed, his eyes cold. I turn away, slowly close my notebook, and pretend to play the machine I’m sitting at.
Not a minute later, the man is standing over me.
‘You’ve got me curious,’ he says with raised eyebrows, looking down at the notebook on my lap. ‘What exactly are you doing?’
‘Uhhhh,’ I mumble. ‘Writing.’
Threateningly, he says, ‘Well, you’d better not be describing any of my customers.’
Trying to throw him off, I say quickly, ‘No, no. I’m also playing. I’m just taking a break.’
‘Oh, right.’ The man’s tone becomes friendlier. ‘Well, that’s okay. But if you’re not playing, then you’ve got to go downstairs or leave.’
‘Sure. No worries, Tom,’ I say, noticing his name badge.
With that he departs, casting a glance over his shoulder as he saunters away.
I make my way to the ‘outdoor’ smoking terrace, connected to the main gambling area by a revolving glass door. It is entirely enclosed with only air conditioning and one grated wall acting as ventilation. Through the wall I hear the lonely call — an ascending, high-pitched ‘coo-eee’ — of an Eastern Koel bird outside calling amid the approaching night.
Nearly all of the 160-or-so poker machines in the ‘outdoor’ terrace are occupied. The people gambling have cigarettes dangling out the sides of their mouths or wedged between their fingers. Some do not even bother using the ashtrays provided, instead flicking the ash on the carpet.
At one of the machines, a father holds a cigarette and gambles with one hand, while holding with his other the hand of his disabled adult son, who sits in a wheelchair just beside him. Two women walk into the terrace, and I hear one of them exclaim, pointing to a row of machines against a far wall, ‘The jackpot’s 20,000 on those ones. Mustn’t have paid out for a while.’ Two young tattooed men enter moments later. One, full of confidence, says to the other, ‘The way I play, mate, you can win ten grand! Bet small, small, small, then raise it big.’
‘The way I play, mate, you can win ten grand! Bet small, small, small, then raise it big.’
I sit at a machine opposite an elderly man betting 20 cents a spin. He is calm, gently tapping the buttons as he takes long draws of a cigarette. A tough-looking young man dressed in jeans and a tight T-shirt paces up to the machine beside him. There are beads of sweat on his forehead. He frantically puffs a cigarette. Without sitting down, he feeds the machine $50, and immediately raises the bet to $10. He slaps the buttons hard. After five spins, his credit is at zero. Another $50 note disappears into the machine. It lasts as long as the first.
‘Fuuuuuuucckk,’ the man says through clenched teeth, startling the old man. He paces away to play another machine.
Moments later, Tom appears in the terrace. He’s speaking on a mobile phone, looking hawkishly around like a secret service agent. He spots me. I fumble with the buttons of my machine, but know from his stern look that my acting is unconvincing. He stares and moves the phone away from his ear, then exits the terrace. He returns not a minute later, accompanied by a muscular security guard. They walk quickly towards me.
‘Alright,’ Tom says firmly. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to go downstairs. You’re not playing. You can’t just sit down, watching people play. If you want to do any of this, you’ll have to contact management and get approval from marketing before you do your research up here. But you’re quite welcome to sit downstairs. You can write all night down there.’
‘What’s the difference?’ I ask.
Tom responds hastily. ‘People get paranoid. And it’s just the by-laws. They don’t allow people just to sit around.’
Given the looming presence of the security guard, whose crossed arms are almost as thick as my thighs, I decide it’s probably best to not protest anymore. I exit the terrace and walk back through the main area of poker machines towards the escalator. Tom and the security guard trail me until I reach it. When I’m halfway down, I turn and see them standing at the top, both still staring at me.
As I head towards the revolving glass door to leave the club, the young lady at the service counter who greeted me earlier smiles, and says, ‘Have a lovely night, sir.’