why illegal gambling is central to the Anzac mythos

Two-up is an Australian game of chance in which two coins are placed on a small piece of wood called a “kip” and tossed into the air. Bets are placed on whether the two coins will land heads or tails up. It is one of the main activities of Anzac Day celebrations – and a beloved tradition.

The word ANZAC was created in 1915 as an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. In 1916 it was used emblematically to reflect the traditional view of the virtues displayed by those in the Gallipoli countryside, especially as these are considered national characteristics. This group of national characteristics includes camaraderie, daredevil larrikin, anti-authoritarianism and egalitarianism.

The two-player game has become revealing of these qualities. The friendship was evident in the way the game brought together people from disparate backgrounds. Larrikinism was evident in the defiant rejection of authority and convention.

Two-player gambling has always been illegal, as gambling is an unregulated form of gambling (although from the 1980s it became legal in most Australian states on Anzac Day). But despite the illegality, it was widely considered the fairest game of chance, and by the time of World War I the verbal command for coins to be tossed was not “come spinner” ( as it is now) but a “good start”. Indeed, the important Australian concept of “fair go” was partly cemented by its role in the game.

The duet was the common pastime of urban working-class man, and it feeds into the elements of egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism that are at the heart of both Anzac mythos and Australian mythos.

Two original 1915 Australian pennies in a kip from which they are tossed.
Roland Scheicher / Wikimedia

Life together and times of war

From the beginning of the First World War, the duo took on great importance among the Australian troops. Soldiers reported two players playing each other on the battlefield during the Gallipoli campaign, even under shellfire. As the war dragged on, many stories were told of Australian soldiers’ obsession with playing it.

In 1918, war correspondent Charles Bean studies the daily life of a company of Australian soldiers stationed at a brasserie in Querrieu, northern France. He attached great importance to the duo, writing in his diary in 1918:

Two-up’ is the universal hobby of men. … It’s a game that starts every quarter of an hour or lasts all afternoon. The side road outside becomes a perfect country party every evening with bands playing these games – a large crowd of 70 or 80 down the street in the middle of the road; a small crowd of maybe twenty in the doorway higher up. … Gambling is supposed to be illegal, I think; but in any case in this company we wink at it.

The duo was important not only to distract soldiers from the realities of war, but also to create a strong sense of community. Photographs from the war that show the men playing in pairs reveal how it brought them together physically in communal activity.

This helps explain why men, who in civilian life may have had little or no interest in the game, joined in the camaraderie and fun of the fair for two, and so obliterated the boredom, isolation and loneliness many experience in wartime. .

Australian soldiers playing in pairs during the First World War on the front near Ypres, December 23, 1917.
Australian War Memorial Museum

Anzac day and tradition

Playing for two has become an integral part of diggers’ memories of the wartime experience, especially during the commemoration of Anzac Day. By the 1930s, playing in pairs after the Anzac Day march had become a strong tradition.

As the ranks of diggers in both World Wars dwindled, the structure of Anzac Day changed focus. In recent years, the Dawn Service has grown significantly in popularity, while the Anzac Day march has suffered from dwindling numbers of veterans. The streets of Sydney and similar cities are no longer dotted with two-on-one afternoon matches. Games have moved to pubs and clubs, and they are largely played by people with no war experience.

People who play the game on this day do not do so for a deep gaming impulse or because they would like to play the game every other day of the year. They play together because it is part of the meaning of Anzac Day.

Anzac Day has always combined solemnity and festivity. The Dawn Service commemorates the landing at Gallipoli and the sacrifices that followed. His mood is solemn.

Read more: Honor the Anzacs by making the duo illegal again

In the past, returning soldiers reminisced, told war stories, drank and played together. The soldiers are deceased, but their larrikinism survives in the tradition of the game they passed on to their descendants.

We should not underestimate the importance of rituals like this – the two-player game is a means by which Australians can become not just observers, but participants in their history and myths. Two-up is a ritual that connects the present to the past on this single day of the year.

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