SYDNEY -- Inside the VIP lounge at my local pub, there are few signs of luxury -- no receptionist to welcome a very important person, no waiters circulating with canapes and free drinks, and no comfortable armchairs. Instead, the interior is semidark and the only seats and drink trays are in front of 20 electronic gaming machines -- better known in Australia as poker machines, or "pokies."
In the world of Australian clubs and pubs, a "VIP lounge" sign is the not-so-secret code for the presence of poker machines, given that advertising them is prohibited. Every day, these flashing signs confirm that Australia has a gambling problem, and the state of New South Wales is the biggest addict of all. Playing the pokies or having a punt on the horse races is part of the social life of many people, but comes with terrible losses for some.