Hunter punters may have saved $28.7 million dollars by not playing the pokies in the 25 days since pubs and clubs closed, the NSW government's most recent gaming machine data suggests.
While regular pokie players might have a little more cash in their bank accounts than usual, there are concerns the closure of pubs and clubs could actually lead to a rise in problem gambling as some punters are likely to shift to online platforms.
Licensed venues with gambling facilities, and TAB agencies, have been closed for the past month due to the government's restrictions on non-essential services.
The closures are unprecedented as gambling facilities, especially pokies, have been accessible in some form almost every day of the year for decades.
Pokies have been allowed in NSW clubs since 1956 and in hotels since 1997. Other forms of gambling have been around even longer.
Government data shows in the year to the end of November 2019, Hunter pubs and clubs made $422.9 million in gaming machine profits, or about $1.15 million per day.
Based on those figures, Hunter punters have saved $28.7 million dollars over the 25 days venues have been closed - assuming none have begun gambling online.
Sonja Pohlman, a clinical psychologist lecturing at the University of Newcastle, believes regular venue gamblers will be dealing with a significant change.
"It may be a shock for some people as they may not have been aware of how gambling was functioning in their life until now," she said.
"That's a tough pill to swallow, especially when everything else is not exactly smooth sailing and the path ahead is uncertain.
"If this is the case, then accessing [gambling help] sites that are understanding and supportive of the change process can be helpful."
Ms Pohlman said it was difficult to predict how the lockdown would influence gambling habits long term, but there would likely be an increase in online gambling.
"Many who gamble online will also choose to gamble [on] electronic gaming machines in clubs as well, however there are a number of people who just prefer EGMs," she said.
"These people may not trust the online platforms or prefer the social aspect of being in a club.
"However a number of studies of people who gamble regularly have shown that people choose to gamble on the internet when it is convenient and accessible, so it's reasonable to think that even given other reservations people may have about online gaming, numbers will increase during lockdown."
She said people with issues gambling online tended to be younger, but they had "a lower recognition of problems" and were "less likely to seek help than those who use a land-based platform".
Elizabeth Ferfoglia, a Hunter-based gambling counsellor with Mission Australia for the past 10 years, is expecting an increase in clients who develop problems gambling online.
"We're not seeing a lot of new people to our services yet, and that is because people are feeling like, 'the pubs and clubs are closed, I can't gamble and my problem doesn't exist'," she said.
"However existing clients are saying to me, 'I'm spending a lot of time at home, I'm lacking my routine and structure, I'm online and I'm looking up sites to gamble'.
"They can move onto offshore gambling, which is illegal in Australia. They're sites from oveseas that we can't control.
"People go on there and do not realise they can lose all of their money; those sites can close down tomorrow, there is no protection. There are big issues when people go down that path."
Ms Pohlman said "similar to problem alcohol use", some people's gambling habits would increase and others go down "during this time".
But the lockdown presented all gamblers an "opportunity for change" with home isolation offering time to reflect on past behaviour.
"Any major social challenge like this can present an opportunity for change, and I think like with problematic alcohol use, we aren't talking about one single group of people with the same set of motivations and needs driving behaviour," she said.
"Similar to problem alcohol use, some gambling behaviour will increase and some will go down during this time."
Ms Ferfoglia said gambling was a coping mechanism or an escape for many people, and without it they might turn to alcohol, drugs or other behaviours.
She advised anyone who thinks they might have a problem to contact a counsellor to discuss their gambling.
NSW Gambling Helpline - 1800 858 858
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