By Spencer Fowler Steen
Anna Bardsley lost ten years of her life gambling in Melbourne’s CBD.
During this time she spent tens of thousands of dollars on pokies – money she said she never would’ve dreamed of spending.
But now, Ms Bardsley is performing in a play called What’s Your Gamble at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, starring a cast of recovering gambling addicts who act out their stories in an effort to aid recovery and speak out for those who can’t.
In the play, she sings lines such as: “welcome to the Tabaret” and “back yourself, you’re a winner” with mock razzmatazz designed to highlight the insidious allure of gambling.
“There’s no stereotype of the ‘problem gambler’ – it could be anyone,” Ms Bardsley said. “I was a business woman at the time.”
“There are no visible signs and the shame and stigma is enormous. It makes it really hard for people to ask for help.”
Paul is another performer in the play who introduces his story by announcing his past gambling habits like a caller at a horse race.
“See the lonely mechanic heading to the pokies and he’s just lost another thousand,” he said.
Paul played low-stakes gambling games with his family and friends from a young age.
In his teenage years, he started gambling in the CBD at places such as the Gold Nugget on Lonsdale St, and Clocks, conveniently located near Flinders Street Station where he caught the train.
Paul’s gambling addiction culminated in a two-week gambling spree in which he lost a million dollars from a trust fund set up for him and his brother on online betting sites.
“We didn’t speak for almost three years,” Paul said.
“But eventually we came to an understanding that we’ve invested that money into rebuilding our relationship and our family.”
Paul said the night after the spree, broke with nowhere to go, he headed to Crown Casino to watch the footy because he felt like it was a “warm, friendly” place.
Louise, another performer, said she used to gamble at gaming venues in the city such as the Black Opal on Swanston St after trying to escape pokies in the south-eastern suburbs where she lived.
“I pretty much came to a standstill, I wasn’t looking to date or meet anyone,” she said.
“I ended up in dead-end jobs to get money. My life stagnated.”
As the play demonstrates, gambling harm isn’t inflicted on just the gambler.
Fellow performer Sunenna Shama acted out her experience of having her life turned upside down by her gambling addicted partner.
At one stage, she couldn’t afford kindergarten for her children due to her partner’s gambling addiction, so she traded a place to live for someone to look after her kids while she worked full time in a factory to make ends meet.
One day, Ms Shama came home from work to discover her children’s carer packing her bags. The carer was claiming she had stolen her money.
The bank statement she handed Ms Sharma confirmed that Ms Sharma’s husband had indeed withdrawn money from her account.
Stuart McDonald, a schoolteacher from Preston, is another Melbournian recovering from a gambling addiction which largely played out in the CBD.
A diehard Bulldogs fan, Mr McDonald spent thousands of dollars – sometimes his whole pay packet – at the pokies inside Marvel Stadium every home game they played. “Places like The Welcome Stranger were also right next to the tram back to Preston, so I just popped in,” Mr McDonald said.
He said simple reforms such as stricter service of alcohol at pokies venues and maximum bets of one dollar per spin – which would limit people’s ability to chase their money – would go a long way in minimising harm in the CBD.
Australians spend more per person on gambling than any other country in the world – almost double that of New Zealand, according to the Alliance for Gambling Reform.
In 2017, the Australian gambling industry pocketed $24 billion, largely from Australians who can least afford it.
The City of Melbourne is currently reviewing its gaming policy to minimise gambling related damage in the CBD.
But the proposals are still being considered by council and will not affect Crown Casino, a popular haunt for gambling addicts.
Ms Bardsley hasn’t gambled for 14 years thanks to a writing program started by acclaimed Australian writer, educator and human rights advocate, Arnold Zable.
Mr Zable said “responsible gambling” was a “bullshit” term.
“We cannot forget that it’s an industry that preys on misery, that preys on addiction, that preys on people’s trauma and fear and draws them in to this vortex which leads to so much suffering and so much ruin,” he says.
“We always have to be aware that behind this lurks a monster. And this monster is the gambling industry.”