Melbourne's Crown Casino

Melbourne’s Crown Casino Fined $300K Over Pokie Tampering

Melbourne, Australia’s Crown Casino has been fined AU $300,000 over the unauthorized “blanking” of wagering buttons from at least 17 “pokies” (slot machines) on the casino’s floor, and follows an investigation into Crown’s illicit slot-machine manipulations undertaken by gaming regulators in the Australian state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne.

By Travellers travel photobook from Melbourne, Australia, Australia (Crown Casino, Melbourne CBD) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The rules-breaking manipulation of the pokies was brought to regulators’ attention by whistleblowing Crown employees, who told regulators that they had been ordered to “blank”, or disable, wagering buttons on certain machines corresponding to lower bets per line, with the intent to induce customers into selecting higher wagering options on its machine. Other allegations made by the whistleblowers on topics such as avoidance of money-laundering protocols are believed to be still under investigation.

Regarding the pokie blanking, in a bit of a disgrace for Crown’s management, they were caught in a lie. The casino first denied that the blanking had ever occurred, as the scandal first received prominent media play last October when Australian Member of Parliament Andrew Wilkie fired off a complaint about Crown. Wilkie also forwarded evidence to the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR), the regulator charged with policing Crown’s offerings.

Crown Executive Chairman John Alexander responding with an open letter attacking Wilkie, with statements such as the following: “I am angered and disappointed by the outrageous allegations that have been leveled at us by Andrew Wilkie. If he believes he has evidence of wrongdoing, he should stop the political games, step out of the parliament and make his claims without privilege.”

Then, as the investigation continued and more evidence accumulated, the casino changed its story, admitting that some machines had been blanked. Crown’s “corrected” statement asserted that only 17 machines (out of 2,628 on the casino’s floor) had been blanked, for a three-week period stretching from late March to early April of 2017. Crown also asserted that it was done on a trial basis, while Alexander seems unlikely to launch another public attack on Wilkie regarding the matter.

In March, in a statement acknowledging the VCGLR investigation, Crown offered this: “The commission’s view is that the trial involved varying a gaming machine type and certain games in a manner that required the commission’s prior approval. Crown Melbourne’s position is that the trial did not require prior approval, and therefore there has been no contravention of the GRA [Gambling Regulation Act].”

Yesterday, once the $300,000 fine had been made official, a separate Crown statement offered this:

The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (Commission) has issued a letter of censure to Crown Melbourne and imposed a fine of $300,000 on Crown Melbourne in relation to the Gaming Machine Trial. A copy of the release made by the Commission today is attached.

The Commission accepted that the contravention was not deliberate and that the Gaming Machine Trial did not impact on the return to player ratio.

While Crown Melbourne’s position throughout this process was that the Gaming Machine Trial did not require the prior approval of the Commission, Crown Melbourne respects the Commission’s decision, which brings this process to a close.

However, it may not be the last time Crown is involved in an unseemly story centered on their pokies. In a story broken just this week, and again involving evidence submitted by MP Wilkie to Victorian regulators, Crown appears to have been supplying casino-branded plastic picks designed to be jammed along the edges of pokies’ wagering buttons, allowing the machines to be forced into a rapid, continuous-play mode that violates Victoria’s gaming regulations.

Crown Casino Melbourne poker pick allowing continuous play. (Source: ABC Australia)

Another part of the new allegations involves supplying favored patrons (read: heavy-duty, possibly addicted gamblers) with “multiple” player loyalty cards that allow tracked play for a patron to occur on several machines at once.

There’s a whole of wrong with all of this. First, for our US-based readers, anyone familiar with video slots in a bar has likely seen one of these machines being “picked” for continuous play; traditional toothpicks or those tiny plastic cocktail skewers are the most frequently used picks. (I’ve also seen it, albeit rarely, in a couple of upper-Midwest tribal casinos.)

Video slots and pokies rarely have auto-play functions, and that’s because the lack thereof is a preventive measure against problem-gambling behavior.

Then Crown has gone and made it worse, if the allegations are true, by issuing these multiple loyalty cards to hard-playing patrons… along with the pokie picks. I’ve seen a few casinos that will issue two working loyalty cards, and it’s a rare night on a casino floor when I don’t spy some slots addict playing two machines at once. (For this writer, that’s the signature indicator of slots addiction; if one machine at a time isn’t enough to satisfy your jones, you’ve got a problem.)

Adding the cards to the branded picks, though, happened in at least one of the instances brought to regulators’ attention by MP Wilkie. If true – and we’ll likely find out at a later date – it seems well over the line of responsibility casino behavior. It’s not only not preventing addictive behavior, it’s actually encouraging it. That’s to Crown’s shame, and quite possibly, to its further negative financial and brand-equity impact.

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