Story: Gambling

The first European settlers bet on many games and sports – cards, boat racing and even greasy-pole fighting. By the 21st century Lotto was the most popular gamble taken by Kiwis, although more money was spent on poker machines.

Story by David Grant
Main image: Electronic gaming machines, or pokies, in a pub

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Gambling in the 21st century

In 2011 New Zealanders spent over $15 billion on gambling. Around 43% of that was on non-casino gaming machines (pokies). The rest went on casino gambling, lotto and sports betting.

Lotto was the most popular form of gambling, with half of all New Zealanders buying at least one Lotto ticket per year.

The Gambling Act 2003 ensures that every year a proportion of gambling profits is returned to the community.

Cards and games

In the 1830s the first European settlers bet on cards and billiards. Dice and coin games grew popular, and from the mid-1860s Chinese gold miners brought games such as fan-tan and pakapoo.

In the 1960s housie (similar to bingo) became New Zealand women’s most popular form of gambling, and many went to regular housie nights.

Sports betting

As early as the 1840s men raced whaling boats, waka and dinghies, while bookmakers set odds on the results. On-shore contests included running races, skittles, sack racing, feats of strength and more.

Horse racing evolved as the colony’s most popular betting sport. At first betting at the races was controlled by bookmakers, but they began to be replaced by totalisators (automated betting machines) from 1880.

In 1910 bookmaking was made illegal, but it continued underground until the government-run Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) grew so popular it drove bookmakers out of business.


Colonial New Zealanders subscribed to ‘art unions’, paying to go in the draw to win an art work.

By the 1920s numerous organisations used lotteries (or raffles) as fundraisers, and prizes included houses, cars, boats, buggies and animals.

In 1961, New Zealand got its first regular, state-run lottery – the Golden Kiwi. First prize was £4,000 ($162,000 in 2012 terms).

Lotto, pokies and casinos

In 1987 the government set up the New Zealand Lotteries Commission to run Lotto. Within six weeks of the game’s launch a million New Zealanders were playing.

Golden Kiwi sales declined until the lottery was closed down in 1989. To replace it and raise money for the Auckland 1990 Commonwealth Games, the Lotteries Commission introduced Instant Kiwi scratch cards.

The government legalised pokies for clubs and hotels in 1988, and legalised casinos the following year.

Opponents and social impact

Until the mid-20th century the Protestant churches and women’s groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were the biggest critics of gambling. Its association with drinking and prostitution was also thought to threaten public morality.

From the 1980s opposition to gambling was motivated more by concern for the social impacts on individuals, their families and their communities. In 1988 the government funded the creation of the Compulsive Gambling Society to help.

How to cite this page:

David Grant, 'Gambling', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by David Grant, published 5 September 2013