The Hokey Pokie machine

Before we put our left (or right) hand into our pockets, get out our wallet and shake it all about, let’s be clear about one thing, pokie machines are not designed to help players make money.

Yes, you might sometimes have a win, but if you keep playing, you’ll most likely lose all the money you put in. Pokies are designed to make money for gambling operators and they do, by taking your money.

Australians spend more than $19 billion a year on gambling, around $12 billion is spent on the pokies.

One in six people who play the pokies regularly has a severe gambling problem. It’s not just the money lost, though the average problem gambler loses around $21,000 a year, it’s that many people lose themselves. How much of yourself have your put in to the pokies?

Pokies myths, shake it all about

Early versions of poker machines, the one arm-bandit, had reels inside that spun around to reveal a combination of winning and losing symbols.  But modern pokie machines are hardwired – computer programmed – to show predetermined combinations that will never allow the machine to pay out more than it takes in.

If you opened a pokie machine up all you would find is a computer. The symbols displayed when you win or lose are chosen by a ‘random number generator’. Because the generator is created by computer software, it is possible to make the machine display combinations that are close to winning combinations.  This can make you think that you have ‘almost won’ when you haven’t at all.

“Near wins” and other positive enforcements, like light and sound effects, tell our brains the same thing, keep playing you’re almost there, you’ve almost won. Hokey – it’s a loss dressed up as a near win to encourage you to keep playing.

The reel story

While most of us know there are no longer real “reels” inside, we still imagine our favourite pokie has virtual reels with symbols on each reel. We assume if each reel has 100 symbols on it, each symbol has a 1 in 100 chance of stopping on the centre line.

We unconsciously assume the reels are identical and assume that the chance of getting a winning symbol on reel 2, is the same as getting the winning symbol on reels 1 and 3, 4 and 5.

We think the computer spins each “reel” independently and using a random number generator, the computer chooses the centre-line symbol.


There is no standard requiring balanced (symmetrical) reels. There is no requirement that each type of symbol appears the same number of times on each reel.

In most statistical scenarios, if the reels were balanced (symmetrical) the pokies would be paying out double the money put in – instead of taking 10% to 13% of each and every play.

Most gamblers assume the reels on pokies are symmetrical – that they are balanced.


Reeling you in

I’ve never met a problem gambler who knew the reels were asymmetric or understood how this influenced the play.

What! Are you saying the reels aren’t the same?

NO. The reels are NOT the same.

Some in the industry call this reel starving.

Basically, a symbol will appear more times on some reels but fewer on one. This gives the player the expectation that the reels are identical and the impression that their chances are much better than they really are.

As players we see the reels and often imagine what we see as a near miss. We tell ourselves we’ve almost got it and that’s exactly what the machines are designed to encourage us to think.

We keep playing.  Over time we keep losing.

The machine might tell us we’ve won something, the lights and sounds insist we’re winners but make no mistake, in Australia the machines win more than $12billion a year – they get it from players.

Around 80% of people who contact Gambling Help (call 1800 858 858 anytime) have problems with poker machines.

Real help

If you or someone you care about is having trouble controlling how much money or time they spend on poker machines, free, expert help is available, over the phone, online and in services across NSW.

By seeing an experienced gambling counsellor you can learn more about gambling and how to get control.

You can see a video of how poker machines really work here or contact Gambling Help for a free DVD here.

Real help is available. It’s free, confidential and it works.

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