After a morning spent in a mechanically ventilated office, taking calls, replying to emails and crossing off to-do lists, we decide upon a most exquisite indulgence, to bask in the sunshine down by the lake. Hoping to open a neutral but interesting topic of conversation with my colleague, A-, I casually announce that tomorrow I’m playing two-up. I slowly chew a bite-sized portion of a home-prepared salad, patiently waiting for her response. Raising her eyes towards mine, A- finally asks, ‘how do you play two-up?’ I try to recall particular details of the game that I participated in a few years ago at the Lord Dudley in Paddington, but the only feature still vivid in my mind, is the roughly hewn ambience of heat, sweat and noise. ‘I can’t remember,’ I say, failing to discourse on insights initially promised. My reply trails off into the autumn ether. With her interest in the topic waning, A-’s attention wanders down the grassy knoll and into the lake, joining a team of contented ducks.
The absence of anything vaguely resembling an eventful occurrence sees the remainder of the working day slip away like a toy boat in a forgotten stream. I get off the bus at Darling Street, mount my bicycle, parked nearby, and meander down the narrow and placid evening streets of Rozelle. The historic street-corner pubs, with their old-world English charm, are deserted. The locals must have turned in early, so they can attend the dawn service in Loyalty Square, Balmain. Maybe I’ll do the same.
It’s 9am. I’ve slept in, and I’m late for work. The sweet sound of children’s laughter in the Montessori school playground, that spills over the edge of Smith Street into the narrow one-way street below, where I live, is curiously absent. Before the impulse to crawl out from beneath my cosy blanket takes hold, the delicate thread that connects me to the outside world – my consciousness – pulls at the frayed strands of my memory, setting in motion the dawning realisation that today is Anzac Day, a public holiday.
I help myself to a fried egg with avocado on toast. In between generous gulps of my first coffee for the day, I fiddle with one of the bicycles lying around my crammed apartment. In mid-life, one finds succour in bicycle maintenance, a pastime which has the added benefit of being affordable for a gentleman of modest means.
I’m attempting to install a steering stabiliser. I’ve done this before, so it should only take five to ten minutes. But somehow, I manage to muddle up the installation. Losing track of time, I anxiously rummage through the spare parts box, trying to find a suitable substitute for the plastic-encased nut that I’ve just stripped. I look up and gaze at the empty coffee cup teetering in slow motion on the edge of the kitchen bench. Marking the silence of time, my manual wristwatch makes a rapid succession of tick-tock sounds. Although my appetite stirs for a second cup of coffee, I’m too absorbed in what I’m doing to make the effort to grind the roasted beans and brew their coarse mixture with the stovetop espresso.
M- jumps into an Uber and texts me: ‘I’m on my way babe.’ She always calls me babe. I glance at my watch. It’s almost midday. We’re due to meet in half an hour at The Balmain a rejuvenated pub situated at the corner of Mullens and Reynolds. I picture the traffic funnelling her from the north shore across the iconic Harbour Bridge and onto the Western Distributor. Soon she’ll be shuttling westbound over the suspended concrete behemoth of Anzac Bridge, heading towards Rozelle Junction. Whenever anticipating M-’s arrival, I experience a bout of nervousness, a sensation that rapidly dissipates once we’re in the same room.
Formerly work colleagues, these days M- and I catch up sporadically. During the long interregnums life goes on. When we finally get around to reacquainting our relationship, there always someone new in her life, a new name, a new photo. Tall, white, hirsute and ruggedly handsome, sometimes his mouth is smiling, other times, the wistful gaze of a divorcé stares into the out-of-frame distance.
I reluctantly set aside the botched stabiliser and prepare for our rendezvous. Surveying my wardrobe, I decide upon a comfortable and easy-going look. I select a Brooks Brothers buttoned-down long sleeve shirt, freshly pressed Country Road denim jeans and a pair of chambray Toms slip-ons. Outside in the sun it’s a comfortable twenty-five degrees Celsius, the sky a mesmerising infinite blue. You couldn’t ask for more sublime weather on a day like this. Deciding which men’s fragrance to wear, I pass over the woody scent of Legend Night by Mont Blanc, for the citrus summer notes of L’Eau D’Issey by Issey Miyake.
I arrive at the pub ten minutes later than the agreed meeting time of 12.30pm. By any standard of social decorum this is poor show, as I only live a five-minute walk away. In M-’s world, there is a high premium placed on punctuality. But isn’t the measure of a good friend one’s willingness to tolerate tardiness with good cheer? She gives me a big hug before tainting the genial mood with a matter of fact announcement that ‘S- is joining us.’ Wondering how I should interpret this omission, I puzzle over why she hadn’t told me earlier about our unexpected guest. Noticing the conspicuity of my lukewarm reaction, M- cobbles together a sloppy and improvised explanation, one that fails to move me. Perhaps tardiness and surreptitiousness make good company.
I was introduced to S- last year at the Royal Randwick Racecourse. We were there as guests of M-’s who was celebrating her birthday. S- has a good face. It’s fixed with a permanent expression of joy, imbuing him with a childlike aura. I can see his appeal to M-, or indeed to any good-natured soul. He enjoys telling jokes, to the extent that he cannot help presume upon the humour of any stranger prepared to lend him an ear. We are not spared. Although his punchlines lack sufficient punch, the way he greets the awkwardness of the moment, with a winning grin, makes one smile if not chortle.
M- orders the first round of drinks. She’s drinking Pinot noirs. I’m on the Pinot gris. Yin and yang. At this particular interval of the day the gravitas of the occasion – honouring the young men who unwittingly sacrificed their lives for King and Country – is supplanted by drunken revelry and overt flirting. With an impressive air of regality, handsome lads dressed in uniform sweep into the room, the medals awarded to valorous forefathers, pinned proudly to their self-consciously inflated chests. We momentarily turn our attention in their direction, before returning to the pub rituals of boozing and braying above the din.
It’s my turn to shout M- a wine. We agree to meet at the two-up arena. Having escaped the scrum at the bar, I return with our wines. The swelling crowd is limbering up in anticipation of two-up, a peculiarly Australian form of gambling. Only small side-bets are being placed at the moment. There is a guy in the middle of the melee tossing two coins above his head with the aid of a wooden paddle, called a kip. He looks harassed and dishevelled. In due course I will come to appreciate both the dubiousness of his position and the rules of the game.
M- turns to me with a beaming grin, enthusiastically declaring just how much she loves Anzac Day. I infer from this statement the obvious fact, that she, like many good young men and women here, conflate Anzac Day with two-up. It’s not hard to see why. It really is a lot of fun. But also, intense, complicated and at times, extreme. I’m on my way to hangover town. Unlike M-, I always eat something with or after the first glass of wine. Maybe it’s a Greek thing? But today I’m caricaturing a typical Aussie male and not fairing particularly well at that.
The two-up arena is located on the lower deck at the rear of the pub in a square patio measuring 30 square feet, or thereabouts. M- and I take our positions at the edge of the patio which has a raised seating area, a kind of refuge from the madness. Gesturing toward the elevated bench behind us, she assures me that if there’s a crush this is our back-up plan. The arena comprises two regions divided by a circular boundary called the ring, measuring 10 feet in diameter. The ring is only inhabited by three people: the spinner, boxer and ringer. This is where the coins are tossed. The area beyond the ring is where side-bets are placed by punters. Nobody is compelled to place bets outside the ring and it’s perfectly acceptable to look on at the action, while socialising and drinking
It’s difficult to fully appreciate the essence of this hallowed form of gambling, unless one is amongst it. (As a brief aside to my cultural Anthropology friends, I wonder if Clifford Geertz’s ethnographic concept of thick description wasn’t also inspired by the idiomatic sense of the word; that is, being in the thick of it). And if one should have the uncertain honour of being the spinner – the person responsible for tossing the two coins – he or she, if they are sensitive to their surroundings, may come to develop an insider’s knowledge of the game and its stakes.
The totality of players in the game is referred to as a school. The meaning of school may seem to point to the collective noun: a school of fish, a school of sharks, a school of whales, and so on. But its context as a verb is more instructive for understanding what’s at stake in the game: to school or be schooled. The spinner is schooled, and thereby disciplined by the group of players, in terms of the correct way of spinning the coins. For example, to spin the coins legally, so they are tossed above the spinner’s head, is a mark of good behaviour. If the spinner fails to carry out their duty, they are met with social opprobrium, and are subject to summary punishment by the group. The reason for this is simple. Every poor toss results in an undue delay in the group’s gratification, whose members have a fifty-fifty chance of winning each bet.
Then there is the team of the boxer who manages the game and the bets, and the ringer (colloquially referred to as ‘ringy’) who calls the wins and has oversight of the coins. The division of labour between these two roles is not strictly enforced, well at least not in our game. The boxer and ringer work as a tag-team, interchanging roles and responsibilities as the game of chance rapidly unfolds. The allusions to the pugilistic aspects of the activity are evidently expressed in the language of the game: ring, boxer and so on. Though structurally similar, two-up affirms the spirit of the actors in a prize fight rather than the contest itself. It’s a symbolic celebration of unfettered male machismo, tempered by the rules of fair-play and reward.
Being between spinners, and encouraged by M-, I sheepishly volunteer to toss the coins. Standing in the centre of a two-up ring holding a kip in my hand, is not something I ever pictured myself doing. But I’m determined to get into the spirit of the game. Inspecting the kip, I notice that it has two shallow circular grooves, that loosely hold the two coins with a white X marked on their tails. The purpose of marking a coin’s obverse side, is so that the ringer can quickly identify which side each coin has landed on, thereby hastening the tempo of the game.
It’s not packed to the rafters yet, so the boxer is able to manage the game without the ringer’s aid. Only later, when the space is brimming with a full contingent of hot and sweaty bodies, does the boxer call on his counterpart’s backup. The boxer, a tall and handsome thirty-something Anglo-Australian with good skin, light-brown hair and a warm smile, gives me a friendly rundown on the rules of engagement.
For a spin to be legal, I have to flip both coins above my head and they need to land in the ring. If the coins yield two heads or two tails, this produces a result. If one of the coins lands on tails and the other on heads, then the coins are at odds with each other and a result is not registered. The spinner automatically gambles for heads and whatever amount he or she bets on, the boxer solicits an equal sum from a punter or punters in the crowd. Typically, the spinner is expected to have some skin in the game in the way of a significant bet. I only put down twenty dollars, which is pretty lean compared to the amounts some of the other spinners wagered. If the spinner wins three heads in a row, then he or she may opt out of the game and take their winnings.
A swarm of faces stare at me intensely. I avert my gaze away from the crowd toward the kip. The sinews and muscles in my forearm tighten as I adjust my grip on the paddle. My heart is pounding in my ears. I do my best to steady my hand. I toss the coins into the air. But for some reason only one coin leaves the paddle. Inspecting the kip I’m alarmed to see the other coin sitting snugly in one of the grooves. The mood of the gathered crowd darkens.
Having apprehended my state of anxiety, the boxer, who could easily pass for a clinical psychologist of some eminence, patiently encourages me to have another spin. Bracing myself, I flick my wrist again. Success! What a relief. Both coins spin elegantly in slow motion, sailing poetically above the overzealous mob. It’s two heads. I win! I’m on forty dollars now. Yelps of delight and groans of despair envelop my ears, for half of the group’s fortunes either rise or fall with each successful spin that yields a result. Getting ahead of myself I calculate that my spins have to yield heads two more times in a row before I can bail out with one hundred and sixty dollars.
I spin again. This time one of the coins fails to clear my head. The punters immediately put me on notice. ‘Come on mate! Bloody toss it!’ cries one of the guys whose moods shift across his unfriendly face like a dust devil in a deserted town. The tone of his voice strikes a series of menacing notes, none of them in key. Mean-spirited people, I find, are completely bereft of a musical ear. Here goes. On this occasion I toss it hard and high and one of the coins lands outside of the ring. Despite its illegality, the muscularity of the throw gives me enough credibility to silence my disgruntled friend. Another foul though, I fret to myself, and I’m done for. I toss again. Both coins clear my head, just! Relieved, I chart their arc as the coins succumb to the force of gravity. ‘Tails!’ cries the boxer. I’m out! I’m also glad to hand the cursed kip back to its rightful owner.
I move through the crowd, observed but unnoticed. Without the kip I am invisible. I walk up to M- and relieve her of the cup of Pinot Gris she has been nursing for me. On account of my brief and unconvincing performance, a toast is out of place. I sip my wine, timidly, behaviour proper to a figure of diminished stature. A dull headache begins to spread across my forehead.
The Spirit of the Game
The intensity of the game is rapidly building. In the space of a few minutes the room has become so densely packed with bodies that I notice some concerned punters, mostly women, climbing the stands to perceived safety. I survey the faces in the crowd. We are mostly men, aged between twenty-five and forty, of Anglo, Arabic, Asian and European descent. Notably absent are black fellas and generally dark-skinned people, which is a bit disappointing. Fortress Australia, still?
Wild gesticulations transpire around the perimeter of the ring – the waving of hands above heads and below backs, paper notes (not coins) being exchanged at a frenetic pace, shouting and the vying for attention – an altogether hysterical scene not dissimilar to the one you might encounter at a public auction, a thriving fish market or stock exchange in the throes of a financial meltdown. ‘Twenty on heads! Does anyone want to go me twenty on tails?’ cries a private school boy-cum-executive, balancing a beer in each hand. ‘How do you play again?’ I quiz M-, conscious of the slightly perplexed expression I’m evincing. M-, a superb communicator, patiently reminds me of the rules. The penny drops!
A wave of familiarity floods the secret chambers of my mind. I surrender to the urge welling up within. My hand involuntarily shoots up above my head, waving a ten dollar note like it’s a flag. I can hear my not-masculine-enough sounding voice strain above the din ‘Heads! Heads! Ten dollars on heads!’ A tall broad-shouldered Lebanese-Australian male, well dressed, no older than thirty, turns his head and nods affirmatively in my direction. His natural healthy tan and athletic body are enhanced by a fitted white short-sleeved tee. The owner of a finely shaped nose that flatters his handsome face, he replies in a friendly tone, ‘yeah, all right. Ten dollars on tails.’ He entrusts me with custody of his ten-dollar note.
Our side-bet, occurring in parallel with the spinner’s main bet, is replicated around the room, so that there are literally dozens of side-bets occurring simultaneously, often between perfect strangers. The quantum involved in each side-bet varies depending on the highest common denominator of cash each pair of players are willing to punt on.
Bets are now placed. All faces turn towards the centre of the ring. The boxer places the coins in the kip. The spinner tosses! The coins flip above his head and land within the ring. The boxer calls it. It’s a legal throw. Heads! I win! I notice my defeated opponent’s magnificent chest deflate in response to the disposition of the coins. What was his, is now mine. But, as the saying goes, easy come, easy go. It won’t be long before the ten-dollar note I just won, slips through my fingers.
This seemingly inexhaustible routine is repeated without intermission. The drama of the game centres on the ritual of communication. Identifying and confirming a betting partner relies on direct eye contact, exaggerated physical and facial gestures, shouting, and as a last resort, physical intervention, by walking up to an individual and gently tapping him or her on the shoulder. The tap, a strategy of last resort, may seem like an enterprise fraught with risk, but it’s not out of place in a raucous crowd where even the stoutest set of lungs are drowned out by the noise.
Not being timid by nature, or perhaps because she over-compensates for being so, M- playfully grabs the money from my hand and marches up to a random gentleman and gets right in his face in a way that only she can. His eyes light up like a poker machine. Much to his chagrin she hands the cash back to me and gleefully cries ‘Oh, you lot are betting against each other!’ You gotta’ admire her spunk.
Like a brook that runs effortlessly into a creek, the thing that keeps the game flowing, without disagreement or dispute, is the cultivation of a sense of mutual trust and an ethic of responsibility. These qualities are intrinsic to the success of the game. The person betting heads enjoys quasi-banker status. He or she safe-keeps their opponent’s money before the throw and until such time that a result is known. On a practical and perhaps superficial level, heads enjoys the upper hand. If heads wins, he or she is not required to collect money from their opponent: it’s already in their possession. Any other perceived advantage of playing heads is wishful.
That said, the magic of gambling is founded upon the stubborn age-old belief in charms, lucky numbers and winning streaks. Despite all rational explanations and calculations to the contrary, betting on heads (or tails for that matter) in the belief that doing so will improve once chances, is a form of self-deception that is particularly prevalent on the 25th of April. From time to time I hear sporadic cries break out in the crowd of ‘tails never fails in NSW!’ If I were more inclined to superstition I’d swear that this incantation influenced the side in which the coins landed. One wonders, fancifully perhaps, if this local saying didn’t originate within the mandala-like boundary of the ring, or maybe even here at The Balmain when it once traded under its geographically designated name: West End Hotel.
In any case, the heads rule, if we can call it that, is not rigidly enforced. A bit of give and take is expected. For example, during one bet in which I placed a fiver on heads, it was physically impossible for me to take my opponent’s money prior to the toss, which I ended up losing anyway. A spirit of group cooperation was dramatically evident when a human chain was instantly formed to convey the money I owed my victorious opponent, from one end of the over-crowded room to the other.
So, you see, two-up, although played as a collective, is very much a series of private games between two individuals. This tête-à-tête arrangement gives rise to personal introductions between strangers, flirting and the establishment of temporary pacts of trust. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I failed to witness a single episode of a punter not honouring a bet lost.
I don’t have any serious reservations about readily admitting that I flirted with a number of women in the crowd, often under the very noses of their male partners. Two-up contains an element of deferred sexual gratification. Deferred, because gratification of the sexual kind is imagined but seldom realised. Only an uncouth individual lacking any sense of social grace would come to the game expecting it to be otherwise. However, if done in a tasteful and respectful manner, the art of flirting between two people who are naturally attracted to each other, can be likened to the light flutter of a butterfly’s wing upon a maiden’s blushing cheek. I completely appreciate why M- thinks this is the best day of the year.
I bet mostly fivers, calculating, quite erroneously, that switching between heads and tails might improve my chances. Tallying my wins and losses after each throw of the coins, it gradually dawns upon me that I’m losing twice as fast as I’m winning. I eventually find myself fifty dollars down. Being on a defined budget, I decide it’s time to pull out of the game. I notice that the females in the group are generally more inclined to call it quits earlier than their male counterparts. Does it come down to nature or nurture, that females appear to possess a more evolved sense of self-preservation and personal control over their own will power? Perhaps the premise of this question is sexist.
Given the fast and furious pace of the game, this advantage proves critically important. If one fails to exercise a sense of moderation and proportion, a few minutes spent wagering fivers or tenners can quickly deteriorate into an aggregate loss of a hundred dollars. In the midst of it all, I remember thinking how grateful we should all be that two-up is outlawed on the other three hundred and sixty-two days of the year in NSW. But I’d rather two-up any day the week over the insidious scourge of the poker machine.
For those willing to take notice, remarkable rituals of masculinity are unfolding in the ring. No longer distracted by the physical and psychological demands of placing a bet, I turn my powers of observation, limited though they may be, to the drama unfolding in the ring. The boxer, a genteel private school boy-type is now joined by his charismatic counterpart. Enter the ringer!
This ringer is an intensely interesting study. An archetype of the true blue Aussie male, he is handsomely rugged with a ruddy complexion. His dark features suggest black Irish descent. He is hatted with a bedraggled brown Akubra. His fitted denim jeans and white Bonds tee-shirt are filled out by the contours of an impressively beefy but muscular frame, the kind of body that is indicative of a strict diet of red meat and beer. This young strapping lad, probably in his early- thirties, seems born to be a ringer. Every gesture, every move, every articulation of his thick-set carriage, entirely bereft of grace or poise, seem perfectly adapted to the drama of the game.
He is a figure of complete focus and concentration. Under his gaze and tutelage, the coins are sacred objects, mana, forces of both good and evil. He is at his most dramatic not when the coins yield a result, but whenever there is a foul or when the coins are at odds with each other. He is in fact altogether mute, incapable of discourse, communicating with the crowd through a sweeping range of facial and bodily gestures and subterranean sounds that do not form words, but at the level of meta-communication are perfectly intelligible to all those present. I should qualify these observations by stating that he possesses a larrikin streak with a cheeky grin, betraying an element of artifice in his person. Perhaps he is just role-playing. This is hinted at later, when I see him in repose, casually sitting on a bar stool having a beer with his mates. Outside of the ring, his stature is somewhat diminished. But I digress.
In the presence of the ringer, testosterone levels escalate dramatically. A mysterious vortex of power draws us into a spiralling whirlpool of Eros and Thanatos. We bear witness to spectacles whose vigour is equal in intensity to the coursing passion between two perfectly matched bodies. We are now, as the anthropologists would say, in the limen. A space of in-betweenness where desire, religion and magic are intertwined in ways that science’s noble but relatively cumbersome technique cannot hope to disentangle.
Ritual and Desire
A ridiculously good looking fellow in military uniform emerges from the obscurity of the crowd into the public glare of the ring. His steady shoulders and timeless classical features are irresistible to any man or woman, irrespective of aesthetic or sexual predilection. With a winning smile and an air of easy confidence, he skilfully tosses the coins in the air with a deft flick of the wrist. The crowd swoons. Not once does he throw a dud. In between spins the ringer passes the spinner a beer – symbolic of a magic virility potion – which he sculls in ten seconds flat. I navigate the perimeter of the ring to get a clearer view of this lad’s stunning face. I draw closer. Gazing into his beautiful visage, what I glean is profoundly unsettling. His pupils, virtually extinguished, have been replaced by two large dull orbs. Gasp! The crowd has taken possession of his person. In a complete trance, the spinner is, for a moment, transfigured into a vessel of our fears, hopes and aspirations.
During his brief but illustrious tenure as spinner, I witness him perform this awesome drinking feat three times in a row. Each instalment is accompanied by a full-throated primal chant: ‘Scull! Scull! Scull! Scull! Scull! Scull! Scull! Scull! Scull! Scull!’ Delivered in staccato notes, the chant builds and builds in tempo and volume, until it explodes into a deep ejaculatory cry from the bellies of a hundred grown men.
Positioned at the opposite corners of the room, M- and I make eye contact. Cool, calm and collected, she seems indifferent to the commotion swirling around us. With a subtle inflection of her feminine eyebrow she gently signals that it’s my shout. When I return with our Pinots, I notice that the brave spinner-warrior has been substituted with a man who in every respect is his complete opposite. As this miserable half-man assumes the stage it becomes immediately apparent that he is at risk of completely retarding the pace of the game. His poor sense of coordination is astounding, becoming the useless architect of five fouls in a row. The crowd’s displeasure is audibly conveyed and the boxer, as if to appease the seething mob, commands the recidivist to do his penance: ‘Drop and give me ten!’ he cries. Apart from being completely uncoordinated, the spinner isn’t in the best shape either. In normal circumstances, it’s inconceivable that he could manage even a single pushup. But here he is – his nourished gut bouncing off the ground – greedily drawing strength from the constellation of bodies agitating around the perimeter of the ring. However, tomorrow, when the residual adrenalin has leeched out from this poor fellow’s torso, he will be forced to reckon with his own physical limitations. One can only pray that he has a strong heart.
A sequence of male spinners, none of them of notable merit or personality, keep the game purring along with the odd scull or pushup to vivify the mood. The monotony is broken by the sudden appearance of a female punter in the ring. Her performance with the kip is lacklustre and she seems entirely confounded by the situation she finds herself in, managing only one successful throw before bombing out. But the novelty of a woman in the masculine domain of the ring, makes her utterly compelling to watch. I can’t remember if she elected to scull a can of beer instead of submitting to a humiliating regime of pushups, but the former prevails. There is something profoundly unsettling at the spectacle of a tribe of drunken men circling a lone woman, as they mindlessly chant the heathen’s paean to Dionysius. The first reluctant glug of beer is utterly cringeworthy. By the third and decisively final swig, time seems to shudder to a complete halt like I imagine it would for terrified passengers on a stricken airliner. Her recalcitrant body recoils violently and the crowd leans back, bracing itself for the inevitable. She sprays the profane liquid across the sacred boundary of the ring, showering a huddle of male buffoons with the sticky wet substance. Those taking delight in her failed performance certainly get their comeuppance.
It’s mid-afternoon. M- and I tacitly agree that we’ve had our fill of two-up action for the day. We slowly make our way to the bar to meet with S-. S-, being a bit of a fox, had slipped in unnoticed earlier in the afternoon and won a decent amount of money as a spinner. Thus, there’s an expectation that he will shout us a round of Pinots, which he duly does. But I have absolutely no intention of imbibing another drop of alcohol today.
S- shares a few bland jokes, followed by an awkward pause. M-’s keen eye has noticed my lack of mental presence at our small soirée. My eyes are wandering around the room spying on all the lovely local and out-of-towners. She asks me what’s wrong. Apart from my headache, there’s nothing really wrong with me. But I feel obliged to feign some deeper more personal affliction. I mutter something vague and nonsensical about being overwhelmed by life’s sturm and drang. M-, unmoved by the inauthenticity of my response, decides it’s time to call it a day. We say our farewells, promising to catch up soon. I drift back to my apartment around the block. My head is pounding like a proverbial hammer.
Having slept through the remainder of the afternoon, I wake up to a brilliant sunset, its magical beams gilding Lilyfield’s distant skyline with a golden glow. The water and fruit I consumed before I crashed seem to have eased my throbbing headache. I also happened to figure out a simple but effective remedy in my sleep for saving the bicycle stabiliser – nothing a few washers and a serrated nut can’t fix!
Participating in and observing a game of two-up has been a profound sociological experience. It has also been a delightful leisure activity. I have thoroughly enjoyed playing, drinking, socialising and subsequently essaying the drama of the game. I even managed to take a couple of pictures and shoot a short video of the action, uploading it onto Instagram. I believe that I have acquired a decent grasp of the rules of the game and have attained some invaluable insights into their social significance. At the very least, I feel confident enough to comprehensively answer A-’s question.
So, how do you play two-up and win? The short answer is by getting into the spirit of the game. Although not mutually exclusive, winning money and having a great two-up experience do not have to accompany each other. Everyone’s a winner when the game is simply one of enjoyment and mutual respect. I appreciate that this economic answer doesn’t quite nail it. Although I felt I had reasonably dealt with the above question, a few days later when recounting this story to my friend Ben, over a couple of wines at the Welcome Hotel in Balmain, I arrived at a more circuitous, albeit blunt, conclusion.
With the blessing of government, gaming machine companies conspire to rip us off with the illusive promise of an instant windfall. Unlike two-up, where during the course of play, wealth is redistributed amongst players so that winnings remain in the game, the faceless and soulless poker machine siphons vast amounts of money from the punter’s wallet that they will never ever see again.
The social intercourse one enjoys in a game of two-up is replaced by solitary confinement in a darkened room, made barely tolerable by a symphony of flashing lights and seductive melodies. The warmth of a human body is substituted with the radiant heat generated by a cunning electronic monolith, as thousands of computations behind the magical display, dazzle, delight and trick the player into emptying their pockets of hard earned cash and stuffing it into the black void of the note acceptor. Is this what fair-play and mateship are really all about?
Two-up, on the other hand, is a democratic form of gambling. The comic ringer and loveable boxer, while respected, are far from being considered figures of authority. We’re all in this together. There are no captains of industry or owners of capital seeking to pervert a pleasurable game of chance between a room full of mirthful players, into a profit driven enterprise. In a game of two-up the people are in the saddle. The house-rules are fair and transparent. And the winner is known to one and all. That’s why everyone is a winner in a game of two-up, irrespective of whether they come out ahead or not. It reeks of socialism doesn’t it? Maybe that’s why the NSW government only tolerates two-up once a year. Ben also reminded me that the government doesn’t collect tax revenue on the winnings, which is not an insignificant point. I’d like to conclude with a ditty, apropos of the spirit of two-up.
You’re a winner if you make a friend
If you win with modesty’s measured grin.
You’re a winner if you pay when due
If you exit with grace’s timely cue. ✏️