Sunday, April 22, 2012

A game of chance

I know a thing or two about gambling. I was conceived to save a dying marriage, a bad gamble if ever there was one. Around the time of my birth, my father was enjoying a winning streak at the racecourse with a horse called Breathalyser. The purchase of said thoroughbred was the result of Dad's lawyer's cut as part of a spectacular payout at the law courts over a drink driving accident lawsuit (This being before ACC removed personal liability, but that's a whole other kind of recursive coincidences which won't be discussed for the moment).

Breathalyser's luck ran out with a broken leg and was buried somewhere behind Awapuni racecourse, near Mt Cleese. Her daughter, Once Eliza, never recaptured her Mum's glorious run. Many childhood weekends were spent at the races as Dad fruitlessly tried to recapture that original thrill. My brother was so well versed with the form from hanging around the Members' Stand, jockeys and trainers, if 12 year olds could place bets at the trackside tote, he'd have made a fortune.

As a teenager, I accompanied the old man to Cambridge when he was invited to open a Stud Farm. He described horse racing then as the sport that can turn paupers into kings and kings into paupers. I stood there inhaling the horse shit and expensive scents of the peacocks preening and strutting around the concourse.

Dad took me over to Oz in 1986 with his mates Len and Dawn, in what turned out to be a hellish casino road trip from Burleigh Heads to Melbourne in two weeks. We went to the Rugby Club pokie halls, Jupiters' Casino, and every type of gaming house in between. Although the age of entry was 18, and I was a young looking 16, I never was turned away from a game or pokie while I was there.

In yet another bout of staggeringly amazing coincidences, Dad was inspired to do this jaunt by a daring man called Ken Morgan, who had gained notoriety for opening a casino outside New Zealand's territorial waters on a boat called the Gulf Explorer. You'll know Ken as Dakta Green:

Ken Morgan had ruffled a lot of feathers among the public, the unions and even within the Labour party caucus. The Golden Kiwi ticket was in the process of being upgraded to Instant Kiwi, the stupidity tax of Lotto was forming, helped no end by witnessing the Keno board at Jupiter's first hand. The Casino Control Authority (now the Gambling Commission)  was but a glint in Dad's eye.

By 17, I was among a handful of school mates with TAB phone accounts. Even the Head Boy of the school read the Friday Flash in the Common Room. Rugby, racing and beer ruled. I also had my meagre $400 in savings invested in shares. Miami Vice and Miami Wine Coolers also ruled, for a short time. In the end, the TAB account dissipated much more slowly and entertainingly than the shares fared. It was 1987, after all.

I met Judith Collins in the 1990's, when she was the head of the Casino Control Authority. If memory serves, Auckland's Harrah's casino was being issued with a five year license and a 150 kilometre monopoly boundary for the same period. The idea was that competition would be introduced and all Harrah's had was a head start.

Some public functions were part of the initial conditions, such as the Bus Terminal and what is now known as Sky City Theatre. But similar stipulations were made on Christchurch Casino, when it was still independently operated. The playing field was, as they say, level.

On a personal level, I had become hooked on pokies by this time. They proved far less exhausting to concentrate on than people, although they were quite high maintenance. It would take years to realise that all this cash was being thrown away all because I didn't want to go back to the flat.

I was cured of all major gambling habits in my thirties. It was a sure-fire treatment I'd recommend to gambling counsellors everywhere. I became a roulette dealer at Sky City. The job was so demoralising, stressful and repetitive, the mainly immigrant dealers worked hard to save up and leave to become taxi drivers.

By coincidence, the bread and butter punters of Sky City was also Auckland's immigrant population, possibly seeking sanctuary in the one place that will never ostracise them for their visible (and invisible) differences. While they still have a dollar in their pocket at least, unlike most of New Zealand.

There are a thousand examples I could give you. The best one is the depressing recurring memory of standing at a playerless roulette table at 3am on a Sunday morning, hands in sight of the ever-vigilant cameras above, fingers akimbo on the dirty felt cloth. Staring at the rows of expressionless faces lit up by these machines, Slot Sluts umbilically connected to their hosts, their parasites.

Of all the forms of gambling I have witnessed, none robs people quicker and more efficiently than a pokie machine. There's half an hour between races. Lotto is weekly. Even an Instant Kiwi takes half a minute to get the kick (or not). Table games at least have to employ some human capital. Most casino pokie attendants are burned out table games dealers. And you'd be surprised how little labour it takes to service a pokie machine, and how much competition there is for those relatively cushy jobs at the casino.

We all need pressure valves. Gambling, within reasonable limits, is one of these good vices. Wellington should still get a casino, as I said earlier. But they should exist in the spirit of all hospitality, and that is to redistribute money from the rich to the poor (workers) for a reasonable service.

You're asking for trouble if you mercilessly exploit the poor for inflated personal gains. Because it is the taxpayers and citizens who have to pick up the tab when it goes wrong for those who can least afford it.

To bend one of the old man's repetitive quotes, money may not buy happiness, but it does buy you a way to externalise your miseries.