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Beryl's story

How COVID broke my pokies habit


Beryl Marshall, photo by Natalie Kate Photography

By Beryl Marshall

When I first began playing the pokies 30 years ago, I was in control of how much I spent – never more than $20 at a time – and then I left the venue. If I doubled my money, I left sooner.

The pokies were my time out; they were a reward. I had a feeling of being at home and a sense of belonging as soon as I entered a venue. There was anticipation as well as the friendliness of staff and regular players. The place would be spotless and air-conditioned. There was ‘free’ tea, coffee and snacks.

When life was stressful, I’d be safe and uncontactable with my phone off.

Alone in public

After greeting familiar faces, it was a totally solitary experience at the machine. If someone wanted a conversation, they soon got the message when I didn’t take my eyes off the screen. I’d refuse the ‘lucky draw’ tickets to spin the wheel because I wouldn’t interrupt my playing.

The psychology of it all sucked me in. There was relief if my favourite machine was free and anxiety if it wasn’t. My ego was rewarded with being the centre of attention if I had a ‘big’ win, even though my common sense told me it usually amounted to much less than I’d already spent.

The psychology of it all sucked me in.

There were responses of ‘Good on you’ from people around me and ‘Well done’ flashing on the screen – praise from the machine! And there was the sense that, if you’re not lucky today, you will be tomorrow.

The illusion of being in control

Of course by this stage I was blowing way past my $20 limit.

I wanted to play as long as possible and never intended to take home ‘winnings’ . Memories remain of the times I stayed more than eight hours at the same machine. I had no money left in my account after repeated ATM withdrawals. I was paying interest for cash advances from my credit card, always convinced those free spins were about to come up.

I had strategies to maintain the illusion of being in control. I’d leave my bank card at home; take only the cash I’d allotted; or tell myself I’d only stay for a limited time. In fact, I’d rush home to get more cash or my bank card, and feel anxious about the ‘hold’ sign being removed from ‘my’ machine before I returned.

… sitting at a machine convincing myself I was having a good time.

When I left the venue with my money all gone, the self-recrimination would begin: ‘Damn, how stupid. I should have changed machines, bet bigger, bet smaller.’ In reality, I knew none of that would have made any difference.

I had so many justifications for playing the machines: every hobby costs money; I could be dead tomorrow; it’s my money and I can do what I like with it, and so on.

The more I earned over the years, the more I spent, sitting at a machine convincing myself I was having a good time. I might tell the person next to me that I was just there for the entertainment.

Lockdowns shut the door on pokies

I often had no money until my next payday, and asked my caring and supportive friends and family for $50 to tide me over. Repaying them meant I was already behind from the next pay. On the other hand, deferring regular direct debits and requesting payment extensions gave me an opportunity to feel ‘in control,’ although it was really just not paying Peter to pay Paul.

There were so many times I wasn’t able to accept invitations from friends or go to a community event I would’ve enjoyed because I was broke. I told lies because I was embarrassed by the truth.

I went without favourite foods. I’d rather have a tin of spaghetti so I could use that money in a machine, but I was also feeling unwell and tired from sitting there until midnight or 2am. I’d come home alone in the dark, feeling vulnerable, with an empty purse.

My days are my own and I’ve bought myself so much time.

And then COVID-19 hit and lockdowns closed the venues. It was horrible at first but then – hallelujah! – I had money left over after each pay. My credit card balance – which was always maxed out – gradually reduced. I always had fuel in the car and funds to go towards whatever I wanted.

When the venues reopened, I didn’t – I don’t – want to feed my precious notes into a machine anymore; to watch them disappear and leave with nothing.

Now steak is a regular on my menu again and it feels good.

I’m cured. My days are my own and I’ve bought myself so much time. I’m never bored.