Australia Week: Michelle Langstone remembers a sticky Sydney afternoon playing Two-Up, the rowdy game of luck that’s only legal to play on Anzac Day.
The game is straightforward. The “Spinner” stands in the centre of a ring formed by a throng of human bodies, almost all of them clutching a schooner of beer. In the Spinner’s hand is the “kip”, a small, flat piece of wood on which sit two coins. Depending on where you play those coins might be old pennies, shined for the occasion, or more modern currency. They might have white crosses painted on the tail sides of the coins, for easy visibility. Everyone standing in the ring makes bets to either side of them about which way the coins will land — two heads, two tails, or one of each. Then comes the hearty bellow “COME IN SPINNER!” which signals the bids have come to an end, and the coins are set to fly. All eyes on the Spinner, who savours the moment, grinning, before tossing the coins in the air with a neat flick of the wrist, dozens of pairs of eyes trained on where they land. The result is announced to the crowd. Shouts of happiness, groans of despair, the odd “Well fuck me!” and you’re onto the next bid and toss. The crowd swells and moves like a wave, people retreat to the bar for another beer, and others take their place; it goes on for hours as the people change and the proceedings grow louder.
The first time I ever visited Australia I made $130 in an hour playing Two-up in a Sydney RSL with some old codgers on Anzac Day. Being jostled with a crowd of strangers in high spirits, handing over cash begrudgingly when you lose, snatching a cool five buck note with a grin and a wink when you triumph, the volume rising, the bitter smell of beer and damp carpet, and those war stories flowing freely on what feels like the one day of truly open camaraderie between Aussies and Kiwis — it’s a bloody delight. I was 24 years old, I had no money, and I was over in Sydney trying to get an acting agent. I didn’t know anyone in Sydney except the mate of a mate, who took me out for the day, and introduced me to the best gambling game I’ve ever played, dropping me right in the middle of a cultural phenomenon that I have remembered with affection every Anzac Day since. The money I won playing Two-up meant I could afford to have breakfast in a cafe, and buy train tickets to meetings. But for that one glorious day I just traipsed around RSLs and pubs in the Eastern Suburbs, playing a coin game with a lot of veterans and generations of their offspring, and it was brilliant.
It’s only legal to play Two-up on one day of the year in Australia — Anzac Day. It gives a kind of ceremonial importance to the event, because if you could play it every day it would lose its appeal. It’s not a game of skill in any way, just luck, pure and simple, and these days probably much more about comradeship and sharing a drink than getting money out of people, though that’s an added bonus. Two-up was originally brought to Australia by the English and Irish. Evolving from a single coin toss, and the better for it, the illegal gambling game was most likely played on the convict boats on the way over. Later, it was played extensively by Aussie soldiers in the first world war, where the higher-up in command turned a blind eye, because it kept troops entertained in bleak conditions. Now every year the battalions are remembered, and the game is resurrected in their honour.
You can imagine it played in the trenches in the war — in darkness the flare from matches struck to light cigarettes would have licked the faces of the pennies as they fell into the dirt, illuminating them for a second. Or in the daylight, over tin mugs of tea, the exclamations of weary winners, bleary-eyed after a night under shellfire. That toss of coins like an emblem for the life or death sentence hovering over every day of war — no more than luck, perhaps no less than fate. Now, in swollen rooms on a remembrance day, old men come back to play in honour of those first veterans, who called their bids and hoped for better days. A rheumy-eyed bloke beside me taught me the rules and didn’t mince words, said each Anzac Day he came to this RSL and met with the remaining members of his second world war battalion. “Less of the buggers each year” he said through a thick throat, face reddened from beer.
I’ve heard that some venues have different rules to others — sometimes three coins are used, and people monitor the validity of the toss and the honour of the bids more stringently — but on that day at the Bondi RSL, it was a rowdy, robust and lucrative endeavour, played by cheerful and eventually booze-shined people. And that’s the way I always think of Australia, both as a place and as a population — the people are as noisy and cocky as the birds, the opportunities to turn a buck are cheerfully met, and there’s very often a unifying spirit that reveals itself in the pints that get poured. I played in that room for a few hours, walking away with just under a hundred bucks after I’d bought a few rounds of beers and bowls of hot chips for the bunch of blokes who had taken me under their wing, calling me “Tinny for a sheila”.
We moved to another RSL, just to see, and it was jammed there too, but with a much younger crowd, and a different energy. On Hall Street in Bondi one of the pubs was so full we couldn’t see through the doors. In others, the rings of people were so huge and loud you couldn’t make out what was going on. Fights broke out in the street, always young guys blazing with alcohol and nowhere to put the feelings of regret and loss that pass over you on Anzac Day. On the bus on the way home I folded the notes carefully into my wallet. We passed the war memorial on Oxford Street, where soldiers young and old spilled out onto the footpath from a more formal acknowledgement of the day, their medals and shoes gleaming in the sun.