From Rottnest Island, off the shores of Perth, to Queensland’s Gold Coast, every patriotic Aussie poured from their homes on Tuesday to join in the communal celebration of Anzac Day. The morning began with a somber overture, collectively mourning the casualties of Australia and New Zealand in World War I. As the afternoon sun rose high in the sky, the atmosphere lifted as everyone pulled out their coins to play Two-Up.
For anyone living under a rock – or perhaps reading this from outside the realm of Oceania – Two-Up is a gambling game that has become the marked tradition of Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand. It is as important to us as the food on our tables, the clothes on our backs, even the fresh air that we breathe.
We Aussies have a reputation to uphold. We’re universally known for enjoying a flutter, and there’s good reason for it. It’s in our blood, dating back through the centuries. If given the choice between our smartphones or Two-Up gambling on Anzac Day, I bet the majority of us would choose the latter. Yes, it’s that big of a deal.
History of Two-Up Gambling
There’s no specific documentation to pinpoint the exact origins of Two-Up, but historians tend to agree it evolved from an 18th century English/Irish game known as ‘Pitch and Toss‘. Played mostly by the impecunious, this game involved pitching a coin towards a wall, and betting on who’s would land the closest without touching it.
In Two-Up – as the name implies – there are two coins used. Each punter places a bet on whether the toss will result in two heads, two tails, or one heads and one tails. Their wagers are traditionally made by placing their stakes upon their head.
Wagering atop one’s head may sound curious, disorganized, perhaps even a bit silly. But in truth, it’s one of the game’s features that makes it so immensurably entertaining.
This is no regular coin toss, either. The coins are fitted into circular slots on a wooden paddle, one showing heads, the other tails. With a flick of the wrist, the coins are tossed into the air.
The earliest documentation of Two-Up gambling in Australia comes from David Collins, the first judge advocate of New South Wales in 1798. He detested the activity, authoring a warning to colonists. The report said those who “tossed up” would “often lost the very shirts on their wretched backs”. That did little to sway the game’s avid enthusiasts.
Australian soldiers play two-up during World War I near Ypres, 23 December 1917, photo Australian War Memorial Museum
Two-Up’s popularity continued to grow, spreading across the country with the gold rush of the 1850’s, and even more so with subsequent gold rushes.
During World War I, Australian soldiers played Two-Up as a way to pass the time and forget about the woes of war, if only for a few moments. Its prevalence in the trenches of the Somme was profound, and explains the heavy correlation between the gambling game and “diggers” clubs when Anzac Day, April 25, rolls around.
On all other days of the year, Two-Up gambling is strictly prohibited. The majority of Australian and New Zealand territories lift the ban for this celebratory 24-hour stretch. Those few jurisdictions that don’t allow one day of legal Two-Up gambling simply turn a blind eye.
2017 Anzac Day and Two-Up Gambling
The Harbard Digger’s Club in northern Sydney’s Freshwater was bustling with thousands of Two-Up players on Tuesday. There were no record keepers on hand, no officials from Guinness to take a count, but according Matty Vandenbergh, who played referee for the club’s games, the world record for most Two-Up players in a single location was obliterated this week.
“We’ve got the biggest number of people playing at the same time, with anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 at one game,” he told the Australian Associated Press.