Arts & Entertainment

THE NAKED CITY – A BRIEF HISTORY OF GAMBLING

Not everybody will agree with me but I find the rising Crown Casino tower at Barangaroo downright scary. Its bulging frame, which will eventually dominate everything within cooee, looms over the waterfront resembling a Godzilla or Transformer-like monster. Its architectural merits aside I have to say I find it incredibly menacing, even more so with the raging controversy that has surrounded the Crown empire in recent weeks.
Gambling in NSW is an unstoppable behemoth that has accelerated year after year, ever since the Government started to release the brakes. Back in the immediate post-war era, there were no pokies, no legal off-course betting on the nags and only a limited number of State-run lotteries. There was, of course, an underbelly of SP bookmakers and a small number of illegal casinos. For the average Joe, gambling meant a day out at Randwick, a weekly lottery ticket or even a flutter on the ‘Lucky Envelopes’. The latter were a very low key form of gambling, run by sellers in the street and often organised by some kind of charity. The most you could win was two or three quid and they were the 50s version of instant scratchies.
Gambling in the late 40s and early 50s was not always seen as socially acceptable, frowned upon by many church groups and moral campaigners. You needed a permit to run a charity raffle, the police came down hard on illegal SP’s and you were mixing with the criminal milieu if you chanced your hand at an illegal casino.
Come 1956 and the age of innocence was clearly over. Melbourne had the Olympics but Sydney, and indeed all NSW, had the pokies as the Government legalised the one-armed bandits in all licensed clubs. Macquarie Street now had a seductive whiff as to just how much could be gouged from the tax on pokies and eight years later the TAB was born, to take on the SP’s and allow legal off-course betting on the various codes of racing.
The early TAB’s had no televised racing and winnings could only be collected at the end of the day but the floodgates were well and truly open. One by one the various “it will never happen” taboos began to fall like ninepins. Betting on football was introduced but other sports were clearly seen as out of bounds. ‘The Government will never allow poker machines into pubs’ was a familiar cry during the 70s and 80s.
Come the late 90s and any pub in NSW without pokies, like the defiant East Sydney Hotel in Woolloomooloo, was an anomaly. Star City Casino, which had opened in 1995, was busy bussing pensioners from the burbs for a day on their own impressive armoury of the slots. The initial surge of gambling had become a tsunami with the new millennium about to see the most rapid proliferation of betting ever, fuelled by a buoyant economy, the internet, massive deregulation and Government budgets highly dependent on wagering revenues.
Corporate bookmakers entered the fray, the TAB was privatised, lotteries and scratchies abounded and Government gambling revenues soared. You could gamble on who was going to win the next Federal Election or stay up all night betting on the trots in Sweden or the English Premier League.
In a few year’s time, we’ll have another casino in Sydney, the ‘Crown Transformer’, albeit one supposedly reserved for the international high rollers. ‘Whale’ watching could soon become a new tourist attraction in the Darling Harbour precinct. If this exponential spread of gambling continues you can only prophesise as to what mutations await us. Surely the pokies will burgeon like an army of Daleks and we’ll soon see them on the Light Rail, at the airport, in hairdressing salons and in doctors waiting rooms. They could even develop their own form of artificial intelligence. Supermarkets like Woolies, now divested of their pokies, might offer a two-up style, double or nothing payment at their check out machines – sure beats a free Ooshie.
We could almost reach a point where there is zero left to bet on, apart from when the world will end and on what day the rapture will take place. Only the virtuous will ascend to the heavens so best not have a TAB ticket or $20 scratchie in your pocket when the mass ascension begins. You can bet on that!

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