I read some good news recently – the number of poker machines in NSW pubs has reduced by 2675 in the past two years. More pubs are giving pokies the flick.
I’m interested in this for a couple of reasons: The Powerhouse holds what is probably the only collection of poker machines in a major Australian museum. And we hold a huge collection of photos, architectural drawings and other artefacts relating to pubs. Perhaps more than that I’m fond of pubs, less so of pokies.
I’ve acquired several poker machines for the Museum despite an awareness of the social damage they cause – pokie players lose most of the money lost in gambling and are much more likely to become problem gamblers than players of other types of gambling.
I wondered about this during the recent demonisation of the high-profile bookmaker Tom Waterhouse. Strangely, the reluctance of Australian governments of all political stripes to take on the pub and club industries about gambling has not produced similar outrage. I guess pokies aren’t on tv, hence out of mind most of the time.
It’s part of a Museum’s role to acquire things that are socially contentious but culturally and historically important; for example the Powerhouse has a large (but rarely seen) collection of firearms and other weapons. In addition the design and production of poker machines is a major Australian industry, although this is not widely viewed as a source of national pride.
As well being the leading Australian manufacturer, Sydney’s Aristocrat Technologies sells machines in the USA, England, South Africa and 55 other countries. Aristocrat’s success is based in part on several inovations in design, notably the marriage of pokies to video games to add secondary games to the basic spin of the wheels. For example, the ability to play multiple lines, which allow players to choose the number and configuration of symbols to be gambled adds an interactive element to the machine. Aristocrat’s best-known and most successful machine is Queen of the Nile, first manufactured in 1998 and still a gambler’s favourite. Although the Game Masters exhibition currently at the Powerhouse doesn’t mention it, many of Australia’s leading game designers now work for pokie manufacturers including Aristocrat and IGT.
Aristocrat was founded about 1952, when Len Ainsworth began repairing and making poker machines at his family’s dental supplies factory. At this time the playing of poker machines was illegal in NSW, but the law was so widely flouted that a poker machine manufacturing industry already existed in Sydney. The Powerhouse collection includes a small Shelspeshel machine made in Sydney during the 1940s by Charles Shelley Pty Ltd, perhaps the first Australian company to patent poker machine designs.
In 1941 a police census found hundreds of illegal gaming machines in use in Sydney clubs; no doubt many of them were Shelspeshels. Poker machines were tolerated to such an extent that at least four manufacturers were active in Sydney before 1956, when clubs were legally allowed to offer poker machines. The most successful of these was Nutt & Muddle, maker of Jubilee pokies, which by 1956 boasted a three-storey factory and casting foundry at Barcom Avenue, Rushcutters Bay.
At this time locally made pokies were copies of US machines, usually those produced by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago. Mills took advantage of the 1920s boom in illegal gambling which accompanied Prohibition, while in 1931 the state of Nevada legalized pokies for its new casino industry. The Mills machines produced for the Las Vegas casinos featured striking case designs including the War Eagle, the World’s Fair and the Skyscraper.
The technology and decorative focus established by the Mills company in 1931 remained the foundation of poker machine design until the 1960s, when electro-mechanical machines were introduced. By this time Jubilee and Aristocrat were designing their own machines and by the 1970s were exporting to the USA.
Even at this time close relationships existed between gambling and official corruption. The US Bally poker machine company became notorious during the 1970s for using intimidation and bribery to sell its pokies to NSW clubs. The 2002 feature film Dirty Deeds is based on this episode. Bally’s Australian representative was Jack Rooklyn, most widely known as a racing yachtsmen. However Rooklyn was also one of the leading accomplices of the the corrupt Queensland police commissioner Terry Lewis and others and eventually fell from public grace together with the beneficiaries of his largesse.
The Powerhouse holds a Bally poker machine once owned by Jack Rooklyn; it was a centrepiece of the games room at his Bellevue Hill home and is decorated with images of Ballyhoo, his winning sloop in the 1976 Sydney-Hobart.
Poker machines were legalised in NSW pubs in 1997. The rationale for this controversial decision was to create a new income stream for the struggling hotel industry. Pokies in pubs certainly did that, to such an extent that poker machine entitlements became tradeable commodities pricing many country pubs out of the market and forcing their closure.
In other ways pokies in pubs have been a bad result, creating a new class of problem gamblers and avoiding the need for hoteliers to focus on their essential role – providing an agreeable environment for socializing, drinking and eating. So its great to see the pendulum swinging away from pokies towards pubs’ core business.
Charles Pickett, curator