Morality, law and the addictive business of gambling

Fiona Nicoll, The University of Queensland

Michaela McGuire Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law, Melbourne, University of Melbourne Press, 2014 (192 pp). ISBN 9-78052286-239-3 (paperback) RRP $24.99.

Last Bets is an important and intriguing account of the morally ambiguous space that casinos occupy in contemporary Australian society. Its publication is timely as the prospect of federal gambling regulations to minimise individual and social harms from poker machines has quietly faded from the political horizon.

Author Michaela McGuire reminds us of a high profile protest against the opening of Melbourne’s Crown casino in 1997:

[Actress] Rachel Griffiths staged an infamous protest when she ripped off her kimono to reveal her bare body painted white, a crown of thorns encircling her head. Later when asked by the media why she felt compelled to strip in order to get her point across, she replied simply, ‘If I didn’t flash my tits, you wouldn’t have put me in the paper’ (p. 98).

Almost two decades later McGuire makes a different kind of protest, deploying her considerable literary skills to mark ongoing social concerns about this powerful corporation.

The book centres on the death of 40-year-old Anthony Dunning in July 2011 at Crown after he was critically injured by security guards in process of removing him from the venue. The casino’s failure to contact the police immediately limited access to witnesses and staff who might have testified about Dunning’s forceful restraint and the injury of two of his friends. While the security guards were ultimately charged, they were not convicted of using excessive violence to remove him from the premises.

The case triggers McGuire’s powerful aversion to gambling culture.

The case triggers McGuire’s powerful aversion to gambling culture; she remembers her first job as a waitress in the high rollers’ room in the city’s Treasury casino with visceral distaste. Her encounter of the news of Dunning’s death while on holiday with her boyfriend in the Czech Republic provides an opportunity to investigate her strong aversion to gambling and illuminate associated social and legal issues. McGuire’s misgivings about gambling are reinforced as she encounters responses from police, witnesses and friends of the deceased. She is particularly disturbed by an unscripted statement on the news by a senior police officer: ‘I think [Crown Casino] probably had a moral obligation to contact the police.’

This concern that Crown is somehow above the law set McGuire on course to answer a series of questions in her book:

What had really happened that night? How had it become writ that the casino’s security would function as rogue operators? Was there anyone at Crown that night who thought to question protocol? Were the bouncers involved concerned? Did they think to call the hospital? Or was Anthony Dunning just another drunk patron, that Sunday evening just another night on the job?

Skilfully integrating participant-observation research, interviews and generic conventions of autobiography, gonzo journalism, courtroom drama and participant-observation, Last Bets traverses numerous sources, from legal documents and ‘courtroom antics’ to personal memories and interviews with different ‘players’ in the legal gambling arena. The result of this work is a refreshing intervention within debates about gambling that have become increasingly stale through ideological framing as contests between ‘Nanny state wowsers’—on one hand—and ‘greedy neoliberals’ on the other.

GAMBLING’S BIG BUSINESS AS USUAL

McGuire begins her research while working in a legal office near the Magistrates’ Court where the case against Crown bouncers is being prosecuted. The Court’s task is to determine whether the death of Dunning was due to ‘gross negligence by the casino’, ‘an unlawful and dangerous act of assault’ or ‘a dangerous and unlawful act of manslaughter’ (pp. 14–15). While her work on the case is tolerated by her employer and the legal and non-legal actors involved, most are bemused by her interest. As she continues to attend court proceedings she becomes acutely aware that those involved are wondering ‘what are you still doing here?’ Questions she is asked frequently include ‘Why gambling?’, ‘Why this case?’, ‘Why are you interested?’, ‘Aren’t you bored?’

Although these questions are not exactly hostile, they are reminiscent of police at a crime scene warding off curious bystanders and voyeurs away with a less than reassuring statement ‘Move along folks. There’s nothing to see here’. Academics Richard Woolley and Charles Livingstone address an active discouragement of the curious and concerned in their research on the challenges of implementing harm minimisation measures for players of electronic gaming machines (or ‘pokies’). They argue that a ‘comfortable orthodoxy, the discourse of business as usual’ (2007, p. 361) significantly circumscribes the vision of government and industry stakeholders. And this makes it extremely difficult to lobby for policies that might prevent individual and social harms caused by the prevalence of pokies in everyday suburban spaces of sport, hospitality and recreation.

McGuire becomes fascinated by individuals involved in the courtroom drama.

McGuire’s determination to get to the bottom of what happened on that night at Crown casino clearly unsettles ‘the discourse of business as usual’ that prevents serious public debate on gambling in Australia. She was interrogated about her interest in the case so many times by:

journalists, lawyers, gamblers, judges, associates, psychiatrists – that I could soon parrot the same answer without even thinking. Gambling is big business in Australia, I would begin. I’d quote Senior Sergeant Ron Iddles’ perfectly innocuous remark about the gap between what is legal and what is ‘probably moral’ that had not left me. It was this murky area that interested me, where the politics and psychology of gambling always winds up. And because it is murky it leaves an enormous power imbalance (p. 53).

In her search to extract some clarity from the murkiness McGuire becomes fascinated by individuals involved in the courtroom drama; from friends who accompanied the deceased on the night of the tragic events, to the muscle-bound bouncers who struggle to fit within their allocated seats, their Crown counsel, family members and internal and independent witnesses. She also introduces us to a cast of characters whose involvement with the case is more tangential but no less central to the larger story she seeks to tell: an uncle with a gambling problem, a casino chaplain, and David Walsh, Australia’s most famous professional gambler and arts philanthropist.

GAMBLING ADDICTION: CORPORATE CONSPIRACY VS INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY?

The dangerously captivating space of Crown’s gaming floors is evoked though the cross-examination of witnesses. These include a 57-year-old, teetotal, small-business owner who came forth after hearing of Dunning’s death. Having dropped into the casino after dinner with her ex-husband and some friends, the witness was playing poker machines when she saw Dunning walking through the space and confronted by security guards. She recalls being disturbed when security ‘pushed everyone back so they couldn’t see or hear what was happening’ (p. 56). Defence lawyers try to discredit her account by pointing to a discrepancy of two and a half hours in the timeframe she gave for the events.

McGuire puts this discrepancy in a broader context, drawing on her own experience of losing track of time in the grip of her Candy Crush gaming addiction. She also consults the expertise of US gaming machine expert, Natasha Schull, and a local professor working in problem gambling research and treatment. Schull’s explanation of how poker machines transport players into ‘the zone’ of play where ordinary experiences of space and time are suspended leaves no doubt that the witness might have easily misjudged the time of the event by hours. The local professor’s view is that the line separating problem gambling from a desire to find escape from ‘societal malaise’ is a fine one:

It’s somewhat comforting … that addiction to the machine zone is an expression of an essentially human problem: of fear, of loneliness and uncertainty. Candy Crush and pokie machines haven’t created problems that didn’t already exist, but the cynic in me can’t forgive the fact that they haven’t solved any either (p. 62).

This raises some important questions. Do the developers of entertainment products have a moral obligation to contribute to the broader social good? Does their failure to do so make them scapegoats for conspiracy theories?

McGuire investigates dark rumours about violent deaths on Crown premises.

Another chapter examines disturbing witness statements by a couple. The husband—who is partially deaf—acts out the scene he remembers: ‘“The dead man went down – pooooof! [and] I am shouting, ‘You are choking him mate’. I say this three times … His face turns red then blue then white”’ (p. 91). His wife called emergency services after seeing the scuffle between Dunning and the bouncers and hearing the screams of his friend: ‘She saw screens being brought over to where Dunning was, and “at some stage” it occurred to her that casino staff members were attempting to cover up what was happening’ (p. 93). Her 000 call is played back to the court: ‘The bouncers have jumped on a man and he can’t even breathe. I can’t talk, they’re watching me. They’re choking him. I don’t know if he’s breathing. I can’t stay, I have to go’ (p. 96). This evidence reinforces an impression of witnesses made afraid by the sudden and excessive violence toward a patron by Crown security and concerned that it was being covered up by venue staff. And it prompts McGuire to investigate dark rumours about violent deaths on Crown premises including the presence of ‘suicide traps’, to discretely remove bodies and the existence of a morgue on the premises. These rumours are denied by Crown’s chaplain who points to the overlooked value of free will in debates about problem gambling, vouches for the characters of the accused bouncers and notes James Packer’s contribution to the local economy and his creation of Indigenous employment opportunities. The comfortable discourse of gambling as ‘business as usual’ is brought to bear once again against more sinister interpretations of Crown’s operations.

PROFESSIONAL GAMBLING: AN INSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE

McGuire’s search for examples of other legal actions against Crown Casino, provides details of a case decided by the High Court in 2013. Property developer Harry Kavakas brought legal action against the casino for offering him around $10 million in enticements to play in spite of his documented history of gambling problems. Crown successfully defended the case on the grounds that ‘what happened to Kavakas was unfortunate but ultimately his responsibility’ (p. 48). Suspecting that ‘The truth lies … somewhere between Kavakas’ accusations and Crown’s spin’ (pp. 48–49), McGuire seeks understanding from the charismatic and elusive figure of David Walsh—a man who has built a fortune and Tasmania’s major art and tourist attraction, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) from his gambling success.

The most seductive promise gambling industries offer punters is that their manufacture of chancy events might place us in the path of a lucky windfall. However this is not the way gambling looks for professional gamblers who succeed in making a living (or better) from wagering. There is more to gambling than tragic stories of ruthless corporate predators and problem gamblers as their helpless prey or—more prosaically—of legitimate businesses providing services to individual consumers who are ultimately responsible for their decisions. Gambling’s inextricability from the ‘real economy’ of late capitalist societies affords new opportunities for enterprising individuals capable of operating in grey zones of the marketplace where regulation does not yet exist or does not quite extend.

Walsh’s meditations on the complexity of chance are fascinating.

In this context, McGuire’s conversations with professional gambler and arts patron, David Walsh, present an alternative framework for understanding the tragic events at Crown. Far from reproducing familiar ideological conflicts between freely choosing individuals and socially irresponsible corporations, Walsh doubts the author’s capacity to capture the issues within a book ‘You’ll never be able to encompass all the psychology, the politics, the complexities, the compulsions, the mathematics.’ (p. 108). He prompts her to consider the distinction between mathematical probabilities—knowledge of which makes professional gambling possible—and random experiences of luck and misfortune in everyday life. While Walsh’s meditations on the complexity of chance as a cosmic force involving calculations beyond the scope of ordinary citizens are fascinating, they bring McGuire no closer to locating a ‘conveniently located space between morals and the law. Did such a space exist? Did it even matter if it did?’ (p. 151).

INCONCLUSIONS

The verdict of the trial clears the three Crown security guards of responsibility for Dunning’s death. But it also allows information about previous assault charges against two of them to be publicised. They are convicted of these charges and their security licences suspended. McGuire struggles to accept the suppression of this information even though it was done to avoid prejudicing the jury in the Dunning case. After some detailed research on laws applying to security and police personnel, she begins to see Crown casino less as an exceptional space. Instead she finds herself reappraising the capacity of the law itself to deliver judgments that are moral and legal. Dunning’s family’s reluctance to participate in her research has left her with very little insight into who he was. Towards the end of the book, she wonders whether she ‘sided with a dead man because it was easier to identify with a character who only ever appeared to me on a silent [CCTV] screen’ (p. 190). For a brief moment she appears to wonder whether, perhaps, after all, ‘there is nothing to see here’ and it is time for her to ‘move along’.

This sense of resignation to the ‘discourse of business as usual’ is undermined in the book’s epilogue. At a private social function held at Crown to entertain high profile poker players she observes one of the bouncers who appeared in Dunning’s case. He is ‘having a good time, smiling and joking, a wealth of expressions crossing a face on which I’ve only seen different shades of boredom and guarded contrition … across a courtroom … In a couple of weeks he’ll be back in court for breaking the wrist of a casino patron’ (p. 196). The lack of narrative closure offered by the book is telling and ultimately satisfying. McGuire is ultimately unable to clarify the distinction between ‘what is legal’ and ‘what is probably moral’. Instead, she leaves readers with the unsettling thought that our trust that such a distinction creates room for gambling industries to thrive in an ambiguous space that is neither quite above nor altogether within the law.

REFERENCES

Livingstone, C. & Woolley, R. 2007, ‘Risky business: A few provocations on the regulation of electronic gaming machines’, International Gambling Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 361–376.

Dr Fiona Nicoll is a cultural studies academic from The University of Queensland. She has written extensively on cultural aspects of gambling in Australia and her book Gambling in Everyday Life is due for publication with Routledge at the end of 2015.