Educated Is A Better Word Than Responsible

I am certainly not a poker machine player but the other day, on leaving the club, the weight of 20 cent coins in my pocket was annoying me so I went over to the nearest bank of noisy machines and tried to get rid of the spare cash. This turned out to be a waste of time. Machine after machine wanted to take only one dollar coins, not my surplus stuff. No wonder some people get rid of their wages so quickly.

While there are undoubtedly some severe cases of problem gambling around, you wonder how many of them would find some other way of throwing away the rent money if the pokies were not available. And poker machines, not wagering, are by far the major cause of any problems.

You also wonder how much of the subject is dominated by institutions, academics and wowsers anxious to justify their agenda. For instance, the often quoted Productivity Report on Problem Gambling and an earlier report about Victorians by the Centre for Gambling Research both push debatable conclusions. The latter found that 77% of those polled agreed that gambling did more harm than good. That’s a pejorative question/answer and it’s a huge figure about a subject that occupies a great deal of space in our daily papers and which routinely interests large numbers of Australians.

It then said that 80% of those that didn’t gamble agreed while 75% of those who gambled also agreed. This strongly suggests that the questions may have been worded to encourage a particular answer. It leads to suspicions that all the publicity clouded the respondents’ judgements. People sometimes provide the answers they think the surveyor wants.

That PC report is also marred by terrible errors of fact and reasoning when it discusses wagering. They indicate the author failed completely to understand how racing functioned. It treated a collection of betting operators as an industry in its own right, forgetting that they would not exist were racing not there in the first place. It went to great lengths to “prove” that NT bookmakers were more efficient and that their model should govern how racing and wagering were conducted, even producing a complex formula with lots of Greek symbols to illustrate the point.

This so-called proof could have been set up just as easily by a year 8 student who noted that NT bookies had much lower costs than TABs – it’s not rocket science. Importantly, it ignored the facts that the respective operators supply a different sort of service and that TABs must pay for thousands of outlets around the country – much valued by many customers – while online bookies simply have to sit at a desk and answer the phone or process internet inquiries.

Both are useful services, NT bookies particularly so as they managed to install some life into a moribund betting market long dominated by monopolies – ie the same TABs – which had the blind support of racing establishments geared to preserving traditional arrangements at any cost.

Yet, despite some improvements, the subject of betting continues to be dominated by negative views – from politicians, academics, churchmen, wowsers and others – all screaming for bans and all grabbing media space disproportionately. What about some pro-active thinking?

For a start, it is a good bet that problem gamblers emerge from the ruck of mug gamblers. They almost certainly lack ability in arithmetic and could not be bothered to study the form and thereby graduate to the true punters’ ranks. Why not address that first?

For example, barely a word has been said about the decline in high school mathematics numbers. Formerly, some sort of maths was compulsory through to the final years, now you can delete it entirely and substitute woodwork or drama or whatever. Youngsters therefore go out in the world without a vital skill, especially not anything to do with statistics. How, then, can they assess the price of a runner? Do they know if they are getting ripped off or not?

The industry is equally at fault. It has made no attempts to educate newcomers about racing or betting. Unfortunately, the ranks of tipsters are full of betting suggestions which have no hope of producing a win – boxed Trifectas, for example. These are losers before the race is started (they assume each runner has an equal chance when the opposite is normally true).

Yet those boxed Trifectas are the base of popular Mystery bets which TABs like to thrust in front of casual visitors to the ticket counter. Not only do they have TAB shareholders laughing all the way to the bank but – due to their volume – they also effectively destroy the dividends ultimately paid to genuine punters.

And do those gamblers realise the TABs are whipping 20% to 25% out of the Trifecta pool before they work out the dividend, or more than double what the pokies take? In NSW at least, the law requires pokie deductions to be displayed prominently, while club brochures go to some trouble to warn pokie players about the tiny likelihood of winning a jackpot. No such requirements apply to TAB bets.

Worse, Tabcorp repeatedly displays false dividends for First Fours, and occasionally for other bet types. The amounts are frequently in excess of the total available in the pool, indicating that Tabcorp is using some sort of multiplier that is different to the standard $1 used for other bets. To say this is pulling the wool over their eyes is putting it mildly.

The fairly recent introduction of races, or even whole meetings, for slow dogs which are impossible to predict also makes a farce of the punting caper.

In short, the industry is treating its customers like mugs, so that’s what they are getting.

Racing and wagering is based on knowledge yet the industry expects newcomers to obtain that by osmosis. It will not happen. Hence it is relying now more on hope than skill, which is the very point that separates punting from mindless gambling – including problem gambling.

Sports betting is a bit different because it’s newer, it’s fast growing and the consumers know a lot more about it. Even so, the emotion is there, too. Like comments on problem gambling, it attracts a variety of views. However, a filter is still required. For example, one of the most outspoken is Peter Fitzsimons of the Sydney Morning Herald. He gained his moment of fame playing rugby union in a lilywhite amateur era, one long forgotten now. Today he earns a living talking about many sports which would be in some danger were they not strongly supported by betting commissions. It’s reasonable to agree with his noisy campaign against advertising to children or the excesses of the Tom Waterhouse case but what you have to remember is that Fitzsimons is opposed to all sports betting, not just the overdone bits. That’s a pointless argument because it will never happen, so it therefore reduces the impact of the valid parts of his case.

The proposed SA ban on any advertising at sports venues, including on TV, may be a good thing. Who wants the fun at the football confused with betting opportunities? The ban would have a huge effect on media policies everywhere, toning down the excesses and restoring the game to its prime position. It will still need fine tuning, though, as with the logos on players’ jerseys.

But it is a lesson that controls can be introduced in a sensible way, without resort to emotional outbursts, dubious surveys and pressure from a biased minority. As most people would know, many Australians like to have a bet. Just do it at the right time and in the right place. And make sure there is strong competition for your dollar.

Besides, for most people, having a few small bets is a lot cheaper than buying a ticket to a concert.