A landmark trial began Tuesday against Australian casino giant Crown and gambling slot machine maker Aristocrat, alleging players are misled or deceived about their chances of winning.
The Federal Court case was brought by lawyers Maurice Blackburn on behalf of gambling addict Shonica Guy, who suffered significant losses playing what are known in Australia as poker machines.
"I started playing the pokies when I was 17. Poker machines took over my life for the next 14 years," she said.
"This case is not about seeking compensation for what I lost -- I just want to make sure what happened to me doesn't happen to anyone else."
Gambling addiction is a major problem in Australia. Advocates for reform estimate that people lose around Aus$12 billion (US$9.6 billion) a year -- with losses spiralling since the first machines were built in 1953.
A public inquiry in 2010 disclosed there were 115,000 "problem gamblers", whose habit can lead to serious health, family and financial issues. Another 280,000 were categorised as at "moderate risk".
The legal case centres on the design of the "Dolphin Treasure" machines at Crown's flagship Melbourne casino, which offer cash prizes to players who line up matching symbols across a series of spinning reels.
It claims that the true chances of winning are misrepresented, with four of the reels the same or similar size with around 30 symbols, but with a longer fifth reel, which has 44 symbols.
This means it is much harder to land on the best symbols and get the highest prizes through a match on the fifth reel, the court heard.
- Millions of spins -
Among other charges it also says Crown's assertion that people can expect on average to win back 87 percent of their wager is misleading given this is calculated on millions of spins over the life of the machine and not from an average gambling session.
The legal action says the losses can be much more.
"This is a landmark pro-bono action that we hope will shine a light on what we believe are grossly unfair practices within the poker machine industry," said Maurice Blackburn's Jennifer Kanis.
"The gambling industry is well aware of the research outlining the harmful effects of problem gambling on vulnerable people, and they have been for many years.
"Our concern is that despite these known risks, the industry continues to exploit vulnerable problem gamblers, by knowingly designing machines that are misleading and deceptive."
Crown and Aristocrat strongly deny the allegations, with Crown saying it would be "vigorously defending the claim".
Aristocrat also "emphatically rejects any suggestion that its games are designed to encourage problem gambling, or in any way fail to comply with all relevant regulations and laws".
Guy is seeking an injunction banning Crown from operating Dolphin Treasure or any machine with a similar configuration, and for Aristocrat to stop supplying them.
The Alliance for Gambling Reform said although Guy might be the sole plaintiff, she was representing thousands of Australians.
"This trial can't come soon enough -– it should have happened years ago to mitigate the enormous harm which is imposed on communities year after year by a rich, powerful and well connected industry," said alliance director Allison Keogh.