MELBOURNE -- Australia has been a trendsetter for the world's gambling industry, and last week it unveiled its latest innovation: an all-purpose betting center called Tabaret.
It's as if somebody took Caesars Palace, automated it, computerized it and shrunk it. Here, you can bet on thoroughbreds, trotters, greyhounds, tennis, golf, cricket, U.S. basketball, electronic games of chance. Yet the whole operation fits compactly into a few rooms on the ground floor of a downtown hotel and can operate with only two employees.
The first of many projected Tabarets, this is the creation of the Totalizator Agency Board, or TAB, the quasi-official body that operates the off-track betting network in the state of Victoria.
In some ways, the TAB found itself in the position that the American parimutuel industry does now. Operators of established gambling games face huge potential competition from casinos and especially from sports betting. U.S. racetracks have responded by fighting vigorously against the legalization of wagering on pro football and other sports. But the TAB took the attitude that it couldn't stop these trends so it might as well join them.
"We could see the changes coming and we made a decision to diversify and protect our revenue base," said Neil Walker, general manager of the TAB. "We could introduce them in ways that don't destroy the racing industry, because racing still gets its share of any money that is funneled through us."
Tabaret isn't as glitzy as a Las Vegas casino. but it is a stylish, comfortable facility that can accommodate 800 people. Like all of the TAB outlets, it offers virtually nonstop racing action. More than 60 races a day may be simulcast on its TV screens from horse and dog tracks in every part of the country.
But unlike normal TAB outlets here, there are no betting windows. All the wagering is done at self-service terminals, similar to the ones used at many American tracks. When a patron enters Tabaret, he establishes an account for the day, deposits his money and is issued a plastic card with which he will do all his betting. (It's of the same type used for security purposes in nuclear power plants).
Sports betting at Tabaret offers fixed odds, as opposed to the parimutuel system used for horse racing. If you put your money on Greg Norman to win the Australian Open at 4 to 1, you get 4 to 1, regardless of what other bettors do, which means that the TAB could conceivably lose money on a given event.
"This means you are functioning as a bookmaker, doesn't it?" I asked Bill Roffey, assistant general manager, who oversees Tabaret.
"Sort of," he replied, and then amended his answer: "Yes."
However, TAB's computers will be monitoring the action and adjusting odds accordingly, trying to keep the books in balance. And TAB eventually will introduce wagering with point spreads. Here, again, the whole function will be fully computerized. If a 6 1/2-point favorite in the Super Bowl was taking an abundance of action, the computer would decide when the point spread ought to be raised to 7.
If Tabaret has quietly entered the bookmaking business, so has it entered the slot-machine business. Slot machines -- called "pokies" here -- abound in other parts of Australia, but they have been forbidden in Victoria, and the premier of the state declared they would never be legal here. So the TAB got electronic wagering approved under the law that lets them conduct sports betting, and devised computerized sports games that function essentially like slot machines.
Instead of resembling the boisterous slot-machine area of a casino, Tabaret looks and sounds like a video arcade. On a video tennis game, the bettor makes his wager with his plastic card and then watches a point played out, all done with computer graphics and sound effects.
If the bettor's player hits the ball out of bounds, a voice from the machine yells "Out!" and he loses the wager. If he wins the point, a forehand shot pays 2 to 1, a backhand 5 to 1, a volley 10 to 1, a lob 30 to 1, an ace 100 to 1. Similar games are based on bowling, golf and Australian football.
This is an ingeniously backdoor way of offering types of gambling that were previously illegal and, Roffey said: "Initially there was a bit of hostility. But it's died down because this is what the public wants."
The very creation of the TAB had been based on the reasoning that this is what the public wants. Australians were betting so much money on horses illegally that the state figured it might as well legalize off-course betting and get revenue from it.
Similarly, it is hard to suppress sports betting in a country that loves both sports and betting. Australia has recognized that fact a bit more quickly than the United States. It hardly makes sense that when Tabaret customers bet on the Super Bowl next month, tax revenue from their wagers will go to hospitals, charities and the racing industry, but when most Americans bet on the same game, the proceeds will go to illegal bookmakers or organized crime.