The Australian game of Two-up (which originated from the older British game of pitch-and-toss) is a more modern kind of private coin-tossing match.  In this game, two pennies are placed on a flat stick (called the “kip”) and are thrown into the air by the “spinner.”  The bettors place their money on whether the coins its illegality (and therefore in spite of police raids), two-up remains and flourishes as almost an Australian grand national game.

The original connection between divination of the future and coin tossing has never quite died away.  For instance, by throwing three coins six times and noting the arrangement of heads and tails, you can find the place in the I Ching (the ancient Chinese oracle book) that refers to your future.  And many Malayans and Koreans will toss a coin in the morning to decide which side to get out of the bed, thus pointing the whole of that day in a direction approved by fortune (and, incidentally, shirking responsibility for its outcome).
The Koreans also have a proverb: “Who continues the world must continue at fan-tan.”  It alludes to the belief that a husband can copulate productively only after winning three successive fan-tan holdem poker game in the interval between two  of his wife’s menstrual periods.  In fan-tan, an unknown number of beans, coins or other small objects is concealed under a cup, and the four players bet in advance on whether one, two, three, or no beans will be left after the remainder have been taken away in groups of four.  The proverb thus seems to jeopardize the future population of Korea somewhat more than the actual population figures indicate.

Fan-tan is widely played throughout the East, and has also been exported to Portugal (along with other games using jackstraws or elongated wooden dice with notched edges instead of spots)from Macao, the Portuguese colony in China.  Of course, practically any kind of gamble is widespread in oriental countries – except Borneo and Thailand.  But both the Borneans and the Thailanders play more games with tops than with cards, dice, or anything else.  The tops are identical with the “teetotum” used in India-that is, pentagonal wood block carved to a point at one end and with a short wooden stem projecting from the other for spinning it with.  The five angles are notched with from one to five notches, and in the poker basics game the players bet on their scores with each spin.

The Western world’s game of put-and-take (rarely encountered since  the 1930s) uses an octagonal top marked P1, T1, P3, T3, P4, T4, P-all, and T-all.  A player puts or takes from a central pool according to the side that lands uppermost.  I suspect that the reason for the virtual disappearance of put-and-take from the English and American gambling scene is that too many loaded tops were being used.  In other words, there was a great deal too much putting by novices and taking by cheats.

Cheats, of course, can turn almost any game to their advantage.  In coin tossing, for instance, there is the standard routine of the coin with the same figuration on both sides.  And there are several other more complicated gimmicks.  A coin with a tiny nick in its edge on one side, when spun like a top on a side from the sound it makes when landing on the other side.  A practiced trickster can identify that sound and will be betting that, blindfolded, he can guess which side up the coin will fall.  And a coin with a slightly rounded edge on one side will always fall on that side when spun.  Also, a practiced cheat can identify by touch the underside of a coin as he catches it after a loss, and can turn it over by sleight-of-hand  before displaying it.

There are a number of games that are never played fairly.  Many of them involve mechanical contrivances found in fairgrounds or pin-table salons, and the chances of winning anything (other than a token “bait” prize) are nil.  The oldest of all these games, however, is not mechanical but depends on sleight-of-hand.  In Chapter 2 I mentioned one of its manifestations – three-card monte  (also called find-the-lady or the three-card trick), in which the victim bets on which of the three cards is a queen, after the three have been put face down on a flat surface and shuffled around by the quick-fingered operator.  This widely known cardsharp’s trick derives from a game variously called thinblerig, cups-and-balls, or three sea shells.

Three sea shells (also called the shell game ) is the oldest form.  It is referred to in a Chinese story of the third century b.c. and in a letter written in the second century a.d. by the Greek rhetorician Alciphron, who describes a peasant being inveigled into a  game people play during one of the many festivals in honor of the gods.  In the shell game, three hollow shells are put on a flat surface and a small pebble is concealed under one of them.  The victim watches the operator push the shells around and tries to guess which shell is

concealing the pebble at the end of the maneuver.  The pebble is then extracted by sleight-of-hand, so that whichever shell the victim bets on, he loses.  After he has made his bet, the pebble is cunningly replaced under one of the two shells he hasn’t bet on.  Or, alternatively, the shells can be moved around with such speed that it is impossible to keep sight of the important one.  (This is usually the method used in the three-card version of the trick.) Often the operator has a partner pretending to be an ordinary bettor.  He is allowed to win heavily, in order to attract (and reassure) other learn seven card playing players.

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