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History and Popularity of Pokies in Australia

The casino games known to Australians as poker machines (or “pokies”) are an import from America – and a popular one at that. According to reports prepared for the Australian Parliament \, 12 billion Aussie dollars a year are spent on gambling, 90% of which is fed into one of the nation’s 200,000+ poker machine games. That same report pointed out that more than ¼ of the nation’s adults played one of these games within the past year, a surprisingly-high number for a nation known more for horse race wagers and lotto betting.

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How did these simple but addictive games because so popular in Australia? An American, Charles Fey, came up with the first rudimentary pokie (which Americans and most of the rest of the world call a “slot machine”) at the dawn of the 20th century. His simple pub game, which paid out candy or cigars and used just three reels of symbols to determine payouts, was a big hit. Other designers altered the game bit by bit and added to its complexity and design until it grew popular enough to leave US borders.

The Early Days of Australian Poker Machines



The first of these types of games appeared in Australia sometime in the first decade of the 20th century. At the time these games of chance were illegal, but they were popular enough to remain an underground favourite in the Commonwealth for five decades. That’s when the next generation of pokie evolution began.

Aristocrat, now the best-known national manufacturer of poker machine games, saw an obvious opportunity for profit in the games, and in 1953 one of their game designers (Joe Heywood) created the first truly Australian poker machine, called The Clubman.

This is more interesting than it seems, considering no part of Australia had at that time legalized playing pokies or any other machine-based games. The government of New South Wales was discussing the regulation of certain types of gaming at the time The Clubman was invented, but the legislation was still years away when Aristocrat started producing the game.

When, in 1956, New South Wales did in fact legalize the games, Aristocrat was in the unique position of already having titles to offer potential bettors. Poker machines were soon a favourite of punters in the territory. Early on, they were played in small numbers in pubs and private clubs, then their popularity spread into larger gaming clubs and gambling. Soon all of Australia had access to some sort of poker machine, though outside of New South Wales the games were likely only found in private social or sports clubs, being that they were illegal. Nearly two decades would pass before bettors in Queensland or Victoria could place a legal wager on what is now by far their most popular game of chance.

The Spread of Legal Gaming in Australia

Gambling legislation in the Commonwealth of Australia is a patchwork of laws and regulations upheld and enforced by various territorial and federal agencies. The shortest version of the story holds that by 1973, the vast majority of citizens could make legitimate machine wagers. Unlike in the US or Europe, pokies gambling in the early days of legalization took place in clubs and pubs rather than large casinos. The territory where most Aussie gambling takes place, New South Wales, is still called “Clubland” by some natives because of the huge number of social clubs that opened to offer machine play in the 70s.

The Rise of Video Pokies

Australian Pokies

Australian Pokies

Aristocrat’s chief rival, American-based designer IGT, started producing brand-new types of pokies in the 1980s that changed the industry. The first electronic-style games were even more popular than the old mechanical versions, and there was an important benefit to manufacturers in that design change as well. Mechanical pokies are limited by the size of the reels on which game symbols appear. Among other features, this limitation kept jackpots low. In the 1970s, a fixed top payout of $1,000 was considered very large.

Once IGT and other designers started using random number generator systems in place of physical pokie reels and symbols, the games could be produced to pay out larger prizes and feature more options, which in turn drew in larger crowds.

The 2001 Interactive Gambling Act

The Commonwealth Parliament passed what is known as The Interactive Gambling Act of 2001 on June 20, 2001. Nicknamed the IGA, this set of rules made a number of official announcements about online wagering within the country’s borders.

Most importantly, the IGA specifically states that it is illegal for Web-based casinos to accept cash wagers from Australian residents online. It’s important to note that the IGA does not make it an offense to place an online wager from within Australia’s borders, it simply makes it a crime for an Internet casino to provide their services to Aussies. Interestingly, the government has not once prosecuted a gaming company for doing business with their citizens, so Web betting is still a major business on Aussie soil.

21st Century Play

Pokies games on the Internet make up a larger segment of the industry than ever before, and that trend continues. Mobile gaming is a growing segment of online gambling that is driving that segment of the industry’s overall growth. These days, Australians have access to online versions of machine and table games on their personal computer, smartphone, or other gadget that’s Web-enabled.

What does the future of Australian pokie play look like? If the current trends continue, most people will play their machine games over the Internet (either on a laptop or smartphone) within the next five to ten years. It’s unlikely that a set of laws more than a decade old (the IGA of 2001) will suddenly be enforced when the Commonwealth has yet to act on it, so even if outright legalization of Internet betting doesn’t occur, citizens of the Commonwealth will have more, not less, access to the game that’s become something of a national gaming pastime – poker machines.

2 Responses to History and Popularity of Pokies in Australia

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