The exact origins of the game are obscure, but it seems to have evolved from “pitch and toss”, a gambling game involving tossing a single coin into the air and wagering on the result of the toss which was popular amongst poorer English and Irish citizens in the 18th century. The predilection of the convicts for this game was noted as early as 1798 by the colony’s first Judge Advocate, as well as the lack of skill and consequent losses at it.
There is evidence to suggest that pitch and toss had evolved into two-up, using two coins by the 1850’s, and the game was played on the goldfields of the eastern states, and spread across the country with subsequent goldrushes elsewhere in Australia. As time passed, increasingly elaborate illegal “two-up schools” grew around Australia, to the consternation of authorities but in fact with the assistance of corrupt police officers.
The game was played extensively by Australia’s soldiers during World War I, and games of two-up at which an even blinder official eye was cast became a regular part of ANZAC Day celebrations for the returned soldiers.
The games continued illegally for most of the 20th century throughout Australia, exclusively involving men and usually only Anglo-Australian men. Two-up was the basis of one of Australia’s first major illegal gaming operations, the legendary Thommo’s Two-up School, which operated at various locations in Sydney (sometimes even on boats and hired ferries) from the early years of the 20th century until well after World War II. Crime writer David Hickie claims that Thommo’s was turning over tens of thousands of pounds annually by the 1920s, and it is generally acknowledged that it flourished for decades thanks to endemic police and official corruption.
Legal two-up arrived in Australia with its introduction as a “table” game at the new casino in Hobart in 1973. Laws were subsequently passed legalising two-up on Anzac Day and also legalising it at several two-up schools in outback towns (mainly as a tourist attraction). Two-up is now played at many of Australia’s casinos, but from the 1960s onwards it began to drop out of the illegal gaming culture. It was at first supplanted by the card game baccarat, which enjoyed a considerable vogue in the 1960s at the numerous illegal gaming houses around Sydney, but ultimately it was overtaken by the mainstream adoption of poker machines (slot machines) in NSW clubs. It is also played at Returned Serviceman’s Leagues (RSLs) on Anzac Day.