Later this month, we stop for a day to mark the sacrifices of the volunteer army which sailed across the seas a hundred years ago, to fight for Queen and country.

Maybe it's now time we also paused to pay tribute to another troop of selfless volunteers, the army of gamblers who day and night, leave their warm homes to venture out to the nearest slot machines, to throw away their hard earned dollars, so that amateur rugby and ice hockey and other good causes continue to prosper.

Given the high number of casualties, they are our modern-day kamikazes. The Department of Internal Affairs estimates there could be up to 60,000 problem gamblers. The Problem Gambling Foundation claims up to 100,000. Among them, gaming machine addicts predominate, the ministry estimating that one in five of gaming machine regulars "are likely to score as problem gamblers".

In 2003, the politicians recognised this, introducing a levy on casinos, non-casino gaming machines, horse racing and the Lotteries Commission, to fund the social costs associated with problem gambling. This year's levy is $18.84 million ex GST, a drop in the bucket given the money spent.


The corner pub pokie players are the true storm troopers, last year accounting for more than $856 million of the total $1967 million spent at legal gambling venues. Casinos came next on $434 million, then Lotto, $404 million and NZ Racing Board at the back of the field on $272 million.

Where all this money ends up is hard to keep track of, but the Problem Gambling Foundation endeavours to monitor the 37 per cent of pub pokie profits that have to be paid out to charities. In the 2010/2011 year, it identified $274 million of grants, $12.08 million going to the arts, $122.41 million to community activities and $139.31 million to sports. Rugby was the big winner on $28.84 million, with racing well behind on $13.32 million, cricket on $8.3 million, racquets, $5.37 million and hockey/ice hockey $5.15 million. Oh yes, working class rugby league did get $3.5 million.

Looking at these vast sums, you might have thought the volunteer gamblers of Aotearoa had done their bit to prop up the casinos, the private clubs and the nation's charitable ventures, but no. Multi-millionaire Prime Minister, John Key, reckons they're good for one more squeeze - strictly for the public good of course.

He and his fellow millionaire, Minister for Economic Development, Stephen Joyce, are poised to appeal to the gamblers to make one big patriotic push and fund a $350 million International Convention Centre for him and his mates at SkyCity Casino.

The Government will do its bit by changing the law and permitting the casino to install up to 500 new pokie machines to add to the 1647 they already have. SkyCity is also demanding an extension of its casino license beyond 2021.

Current Affairs show 60 Minutes claims that each SkyCity pokie brings in $143,000 a year, which means, by my calculations, that an extra 500 would pay for the convention centre within five years.

If our gamblers could achieve that challenging target, then who could begrudge them a day set aside to praise their selflessness. It would be an opportunity to highlight the public spiritedness of a group who tend to live on the wrong side of the tracks - people more often in the news for their antisocial behaviour.

A breakdown of pokie machine venues highlights how they are concentrated in the poorer parts of town. In Newmarket/Mission Bay/ Remuera where rich folk live there are just 77 gaming machines. In the last three months of 2011, they siphoned up just $899,280 from Mr Key and his neighbours. These are the folk most likely to be wanting - and using - a fancy new convention centre. But to attract sufficient funding, SkyCity is going to have to entice the more willing gamblers of South and West Auckland to their new lair.

Manurewa, for example, has 162 pokies, which brought in $3,510,927 over the same three-month period. Manukau City residents were even more willing, pouring $4,055,024 into the South Auckland centre's 207 local machines. Papatoetoe's 102 pokies vacuumed up $2,144,576, Howick's 144, $2,432,987. Not to be outdone, the gamblers of Henderson spent $3,517,421, Otahuhu $2,661,400. Compare that to the miserable performance of the Auckland City CBD, with just $2,832,138.

Of course, beneficiary charities will be crossing fingers and hoping that if the gamblers of the South and West of Auckland head for the glitter of SkyCity's new gaming facilities, they won't stop patronising the local pub pokies as well. Otherwise, there'll be a major fall off in grant monies to the charities. Under the gambling laws, 37 per cent of pub pokie takings have to be channelled through trusts and paid to charities. Casinos like SkyCity only have to pay 2.5 per cent of their income to charities. If that happens, among those who might suffer is the impecunious Otago Rugby Union. The Sunday Star-Times recently revealed that more than $5 million of past poker machine income for the union came from three Auckland pubs it once owned, most of the money coming from a bar in Manurewa.

Such is the way we fund sports and other community activities in this country. A day off to reflect on that seems long overdue.