The history of pokies is not quite as long as other forms of gambling, such as blackjack, roulette, or horse racing. Poker machines were invented less than 120 years ago. Some might be surprised to learn the pokies have been around since the 19th century, but gaming machines have a much shorter history in Australia.
This pokies timeline will provide a short historical overview of reel-game mechanical devices, then cover in greater detail the gaming machines of Australia. To provide a better understanding of the current legal landscape of Australian gambling, various gaming laws which pertain to Aussie pokie machines will be discussed along the way. These will be brief, to avoid too technical of a discussion. This chronological history of pokies will start with the mechanical era, discuss the electronic gaming machine, cover the advent of online pokies, and even look ahead to the near-future of Australian poker machines.
The story begins in the United States, birthplace of the poker machine.
Charles Fey Invents Poker Machines
Charles Fey was a German immigrant to the United States, who eventually settled in San Francisco. Charles Fey owned a machine shop, but he was also an inventor. In the late-1880’s and early 1890’s, Charles Fey began designing gambling machines. In 1895, he succeeded in building the Liberty Bell machine, which used three mechanical reels to randomize symbols.
Within a few years, Charles Fey had marketed these machines to bars and saloons across the San Francisco Bay area. The locals called these “slot machines”, and they became popular. At first, gamblers could play for money, but it was the Age of Reform in the USA, so local and state laws soon banned betting for cash. The Liberty Bell machines instead paid out in fruits, gums, and other small items. In time, many of the reel symbols depicted types of fruit, a practice which came down through the decades. This is why they called pokies “fruit machines” in the United Kingdom.
Las Vegas Slot Machines
Eventually, poker machines were banned in California, and then throughout the United States. It wasn’t until 1931 that a U.S. state–Nevada–legalized casino gambling. Nevada was a vast desert with a sparse population, and it was the Depression Era. The state’s leaders faced a severe shortage of revenue, so they allowed gambling in the hopes of collecting tax revenues to keep the state solvent. In the 1920’s, Los Angeles had begun to grow into the metropolis it now is, while the movie industry became well-placed in Hollywood. Las Vegas became a viable place to live in the 1930’s, because of the construction of the nearby Hoover Dam, so the city was built to draw the rich and powerful of nearby Los Angeles.
After World War II, America faced a time of unparalleled prosperity. Americans coming back from the war wanted to build families and make a fortune, but they also wanted new and glamorous forms of leisure. With the creation of the interstate highway system and jet engines in aviation, the US was easier to get around than ever before. In the 1950’s, Las Vegas became a gambling destination not only for wealthy Americans, but also for middle class tourists and vacationers.
The poker machine appealed to these gamblers, because it offered a game which required no skill or mastery to play. The Fifties and Sixties were a time when mechanical marvels seized people’s imaginations, so the so-called slot machines became a popular attraction at the Las Vegas casinos–though not as popular as they are today.
Pokies Come to Australia
It was in this era that pokie machines came to Australia. New South Wales became the first Australian state to legalize poker machines in 1956. This form of gambling became a favourite in NSW pubs and clubs, then spread fairly quickly throughout much of the rest of Oz. Often, poker machines could be found in social clubs, sports clubs, and RSL clubs. The first game produced in Australia was Clubman Pokies, designed by Joe Haywood.
Aristocrat Leisure Limited
To provide the devices which would be used in New South Wales, in 1953 Len Ainsworth founded Aristocrat Leisure Limited. Aristocrat gaming machines were the first to appear in the gaming venues of Australia. Over much of the 60 years since the company was formed, Aristocrat remained the largest producer of pokies on the continent. These days, Aristocrat Leisure Limited is second only to the American company, IGT, in placing poker machines in Australian casinos, clubs, and pubs. Its classic machine is Queen of the Nile, though the company has numerous other iconic titles in their game line.
The Ainsworth family continues to hold significant stock in the company to this day, though Len Ainsworth founded a second gaming company in 1995: Ainsworth Game Technology Ltd. Both corporations remain headquartered in an around Sydney, New South Wales. A year after Ainsworth left his original company, 1996, Aristocrat’s IPO was listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. By that time, a revolution had taken place in the gaming machine industry.
Australian Casino Gambling
Casino gambling was banned in Australia until 1973. All machine gambling took place in clubs and pubs, making that form of pokies gambling the archetypal way to gamble in Australia. In fact, New South Wales is sometimes referred to as Clubland, because about one-half of all Australian clubs are found in that state.
“Superclubs” like St George Leagues Club began to appear in 1963. The NSW people began to complain that the club owners were forgetting their community spirit in pursuing crass profits from gaming, a belief which might have led to the opening of land-based casinos in Oz. In 1973, the Wrest Point Casino opened in Tasmania. This gaming house would be far outstripped by the casino developments of the 1990’s, which were armed with the next evolution in poker machine design: video pokies.
International Game Technology
International Game Technology, usually referred to as “IGT”, had been around since the 1950’s. The American gaming machine company remains headquartered in San Francisco, birthplace of the pokie. IGT remained a small-time player for several decades, but it began to make inroads with its video poker machines in the early 1980’s. In 1981, the company went public. In the 1980’s, IGT Australia was established to enter the market Down Under.
In these years, IGT began to debut technological advances in the gaming market. The most important of these was to make poker machines electronic instead of mechanical. This was a profound change in the market. When gaming machines were mechanical, they were limited in the size of their jackpots by the limitations of the reels. When a reel had to conform to size standards, only 3 reels were viable and those reels could not contain too many symbols. A fixed jackpot of $1,000 was considered a big prize.
After the inception of the computerized chip, a random number generator could produce results and the video reels could be increased to accommodate much larger payouts. The family 5-reel electronic slot machine came into being. With these, high fixed jackpots were available. Within a few years, progressive jackpot pokies would be created.
IGT used progressive or accumulated jackpot poker machines for popular games like Wheel of Fortune, then later the wide-area networked progressive jackpot poker machines like Megabucks. Once people could win lottery-style payouts on the poker machines, these became the most popular and profitable games in the casino. These days, pokies account for between 60% and 70% of casino revenues.
The invention of the electronic gaming machine brought with it a wave of innovations beyond the accumulated jackpot. Game developers eventually introduced modern multiple paylines, free spin features, bonus games, and the gamble feature. By the 1990’s, the entire industry was changing. Meanwhile, Australia’s government was beginning to wake up to the potential advantages and potential dangers of the gambling industry.
Ainsworth Game Technology
“Pokie King” Len Ainsworth formed Ainsworth Game Technology in 1995. Along with IGT and Aristocrat, Ainsworth forms the big three poker machine companies in Australia. Ainsworth Game Technology is known for its multi-tiered progressive jackpots, found on Double Shot, Triple Shot and Quad Shot machines.
The 1990’s – Golden Age of Pokies
The 1990’s became an era when many of the casino and club gaming companies gained massive boosts in revenues. Laws were still lax and the market was unsaturated, so casinos began dotting the landscape and both domestic and international gaming companies began operations. Poker machine manufacturers like Konami from Japan, Sydney-based WMS Gaming, and Aruze Gaming from Japan all joined the action. Konami Australia is known for games like Money in the Bank and Incan Pyramid.
WMS, which was founded in 1943, has legendary games like Jungle Wild, Li’l Red, and Zeus Pokies. Another growing player in the market is the collaboration between Star Games, Bally Gaming, and Shufflemaster. These companies may not be well known in Australia, but the three big American companies which have merged with Bally’s and is trying to build a presence in Australia.
The 1990’s proved to be a golden age for pokies players. This was when the progressive jackpots became a popular feature on games, while the pubs and clubs still had unfettered play on the local gaming machines.
Western Australia Pokies
The Burswood Island Casino was established by Perth businessman Dallas Berger in 1985. After 20 years in operation, Kerry Packer bought the complex in 2004. His son, James Packer, renamed the casino Crown Perth in 2010. Due to laws in Western Australia, though, poker machines are not allowed in the complex. This illustrates why Aussie gamblers need to learn about the local, state, and federal laws in their area, because Australia is a patchwork of gaming laws.
Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex
In 1994, a gaming operation open on the north bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne. This was the casino which would go on to become the Crown Melbourne. It would be 1997 before the Crown Melbourne complex on the Southbank Promenade would be opened. The new casino, which became the largest casino in the Southern Hemisphere, was owned by the media mogul, Kerry Packer. His company, Crown Limited Group, would go on to become the leading land-based gaming company in Australia. That makes Crown Ltd the leading poker machine company in the land.
The Star Sydney Casino & Hotel
In 1995, the Sydney Harbour Casino opened in New South Wales. The gambling establishment would be renamed the Star City Casino, and then the Star Sydney Casino and Hotel. These days, it is the second largest house of gaming on the continent. For the past two decades, the Star Sydney has been the sole licensed casino in New South Wales. In 2013, Crown Group won the right to build a new billion-dollar complex in Sydney Harbour–a structure that will become the Crown Sydney. These days, TABCORP and Echo Entertainment own the Star Sydney Casino.
Interactive Gambling Act of 2001
The Interactive Gambling Act (2001) was passed on June 20, 2001 by the Australian Commonwealth Parliament. The new law, usually called the IGA, made it illegal for online gambling operators to offer real-money interactive betting to Australian residents on the Internet. These same operators are not allowed to advertise real money gambling services, including ads for online casino games like pokies. Residents who access these services online do not commit an offence. Also, gaming companies based in Australia can legally offer their services to punters outside Australia.
The only exception to this latter code is a ban on those from “designated countries”. To be designated, a foreign government can make a request of the Australian government, but that country must have corresponding legislation which bans the same games.
Contrary to popular opinion, domestic and foreign online gambling operators are banned from accepting Aussie gamblers. The government has never prosecuted international gaming companies for accepting Australian players, so these companies continue to accept real money play from Australians. Complaints are filed with the Australian Broadcasting Authority (http://www.acma.gov.au/).
Online Pokies in the 21st Century
In the 21st century, online pokies are a bigger part of the total gambling industry than ever before. Dozens, if not hundreds, of online casinos compete for customers. Despite the IGA, foreign companies from the UK and elsewhere try to sign up players and have them play for real money. Australians are willing to oblige at websites like Spin Palace, Ruby Fortune, Mummy’s Gold, and Cabaret Club. These companies use software from Microgaming, the most popular and widespread online gaming software in the world.
Players can use either a personal computer or laptop notebook to log onto these sites, register an account, fund the account with a deposit, and be gambling on pokies for real money within a few minutes. While IGT and Aristocrat design and market online pokies, it is companies like Microgaming which dominate the market.
Mobile Poker Machines – The Future of Pokies
Mobile pokies are now available to Australians, too. These are electronic games available on mobile devices like Android smartphones, Blackberry phones, and Windows Mobile phones. With an Apple iOS app, players can enjoy mobile pokies on their iPhone, iPad tablet computer, or iPod Touch. These downloadable applications are found websites called “mobile casinos”, which are much like the traditional online casino, except they contain casino apps instead of casino software.
These two types of interactive gaming tend to be found on two different sites, because of the complicated legal situations in some countries around the globe. In Australia, mobile pokies are treated much like online pokies. Looking ahead to the future, it is expected that mobile gaming will one day account for more revenues than online gaming on a desktop computer or laptop notebook. This demographic change might occur as soon as the period between 2015 and 2020.
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