Heads or Tails: A Taste of Two-up on ANZAC Day

April 25th is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC – Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – Day was originally instituted to honor the soldiers who took part in a battle in Gallipoli, Turkey, during WWI. (Read more about it in this post).

I would recommend Turkey to anyone. Seriously.

Thousands of Aussies & Kiwis flock to Turkey year-round. Sometimes it’s a special trip, booked far in advance specifically to be at ANZAC Cove on April 25th. Sometimes, it’s part of a larger trip, worked in with Istanbul, Cappadocia or Dalaman holidays (which is what we did in May 2009). Turkey is a site of great historical significance to many of the Australians and Kiwis I’ve met, and Gallipoli is on many Antipodean bucket lists.

But on home soil, there are some pretty strong ANZAC traditions. And one of those traditions is two-up.

Two up in Australia
Right back atcha, buddy. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The History

Australian soldiers used to play two-up – a gambling game – to pass the time at Gallipoli. If you travel to Turkey for ANZAC Day, chances are good that you’ll still see a fair bit of two-up being played. In Australia, two-up is actually illegal – except on ANZAC Day, when people turn out in droves to play it at pubs.

The Game

In the Turkish trenches, the game was traditionally played with two pennies. The spinner tossed the pennies until they produced two heads or two tails – ‘two-up’. These days three bronze coins are commonly used to speed things along and produce a result every time.

The Bets

You bet ‘heads’ or ‘tails,’ and you can bet against anyone in the room. So it might look a little something like this:

You: (waving a $20 note in the air) $20 a head?

Stranger: $20 a tail. (Hands you $20 because heads always holds the money)

Emcee: Come in, Spinner.

Spinner flips the coins. Winner takes all.

Any number of bets can be alive at any time, and you can win big – or lose big, depending on your luck.

The Odds

50-50. Tempting, isn’t it?

The Dangers

Obviously, you can lose a lot of money. But you’ve also got to keep an eye on Heads, who is liable to disappear into the crowd, taking your money with him, no matter what the result. If this happens, it’s more likely to be as a result of too many beers and forgetfulness; intentional theft on ANZAC Day is unlikely and would be patently un-Australian.

The Day

ANZAC Day begins in a similar manner whether you are in Turkey or Australia: with a dawn service to pay respects to fallen soldiers. In Turkey, the dawn service is often followed by a tour of the actual battlegrounds, something that takes precedence because you have made such an effort to travel. In Australia, many people flock to the pub, where they apparently have a glass of rum and milk.

I don’t understand it either.

This was the year: my third ANZAC Day in Australia, and I hadn’t done anything remotely ANZAC-y. Hadn’t been to a dawn service, hadn’t had a glass of rum and milk (because ew, right?), hadn’t seen a parade, hadn’t pinned a sprig of rosemary to my shirt, and hadn’t played two-up.

This year, one of those things was going to change, and it involved gambling.

We went to meet friends at a pub near Darby Street. It was packed. We went to the next pub. It was packed. We went to our last-resort pub. It was less packed, so we went in. After someone handed me a beer, I slipped around the corner and flattened myself against the wall.

Because it was chaos. It was exactly how I pictured a cockfight, except with coins instead of roosters. And less blood. There might have been roosters, I don’t know. I couldn’t see into the middle. What I saw were bodies smashed together, hands waving money above the crowd. There was a lot of shouting and cheering.

ANZAC Day Two-up
In my younger years, I would have climbed up on that platform. Not so anymore.

After everyone finished their first beer, we slunk off to the nearby bowling club for a rousing game of lawn bowls – much more my speed. I never played two-up, in the end.

My holiday in Turkey four years ago actually resonated more with me in terms of ANZAC Day, probably 1) because I’m not Australian and 2) because nothing beats being there, seeing where it all happened.

ANZAC, Gallipoli, Turkey
Statue in Gallipoli, Turkey.

But there is something that managed to bring Turkey and Australia together for me:  an elderly gentleman, comfortably installed on a bar stool at the bowling club, proudly displaying a row of colorful ribbons and medals on his chest. As people walked past, many stopped to offer their respects to him.

Looks like I managed to glimpse the spirit of ANZAC Day after all.

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  1. If you get caramel-flavoured rum it tastes amazing with milk. I’d brought some back from holiday with me once and couldn’t stop drinking the stuff. People thought I was weird though. Hope I get to experience an ANZAC day next year, although I might be betting with $1 rather than $20!

    1. That actually sounds pretty good. Granted, most caramel-flavored stuff sounds good to me, but maybe next ANZAC day I’ll bust out the rum/milk combo. And oh yeah. I’m a $1 better all the way. Putting $20 on a bet would be way too stressful!

  2. So funny that the game is illegal except for one day… probably makes even more people want to play it on ANZAC day! I wonder if it’s illegal in Turkey too…

    1. I wondered the same thing! No idea whether or not it’s legal in Turkey. I couldn’t believe the crowds at all of the pubs. Spilled beer, no room to move…I have to say that lawn bowls was much more appealing, even if it’s legal every day of the year!

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