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Aussies to Punt--on Anything!

April 24, 1988|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer

The crowd was cheerful in the new casino near the harbor of Townsville, a tropical city that serves as a jumping-off place for Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Girls strolled in wearing summer dresses that seemed more church than Las Vegas. Men were mannerly. Bets were small.

Maybe the night was young, but it rang with decency and humor. Most amazing was the pervasive good will of casino employees, who took the time to coach neophytes at roulette wheels and craps tables.

For me the most intriguing game was at the back of the room, where players stood shoulder to shoulder in a tight circle. In some countries such posture would indicate a cock fight, in others a high-stakes marbles match. But in Townsville the ring was the arena for a home-grown Aussie game: two up.

It was born in the outback, someone said, this heads-or-tails coin toss with a few simple rules. Anyone in the circle may place bets, but the tosser--called the spinner--is chosen at random by the boxer (the head dealer).

Two Coins Used

As I puzzled over the play, the boxer gave the nod to a young blonde in a frilly pink dress who was teetering on white high heels. She stepped into the ring and giggled nervously. He handed her what appeared to be a flat wooden knife and then placed two coins on it--one heads up and one tails.

"Come in, spinner," he called, signaling that play should begin.

She flipped the coins into the air, but the dealer judged it foul.

"You have to toss them at least a meter above your head," whispered the Aussie at my side. "And they have to spin in the air."

The coins were placed back on the narrow paddle and this time the girl got it right. It's a game where two heads win, two tails lose; five successive "odds" (one coin heads, the other tails) means that all players lose and the dealers clear the boards.

Or, as my Aussie mate explained, "You must retire and leave your money behind."

Two up is a popular game, but Aussies don't need a casino to inspire a wager. They will place a bet--or a "punt," as they say--on just about anything. There is gambling on football, harness racing, dogs and thoroughbreds.

Melbourne Cup

The gambling madness peaks on the first Tuesday of November, when every Australian seems to have a bet on the two-mile thoroughbred race that's known as the Melbourne Cup. There are office pools and top-hat-and-tails parties on Cup Day, a holiday in the state of Victoria.

Live TV coverage goes on for eight hours. The horses are off at 2:40 p.m., and the nation comes to a halt.

It is talked about for weeks in advance; everyone has opinions.

"Forget what you see in the newspapers," a bellman told me at the Regent Hotel in Sydney. "The favorite never wins." Jacques, the suave concierge, was sly when I asked for an insider tip. "Put your money on No. 27," he whispered. There were 26 horses in the running.

In that hotel's dramatic atrium lobby I met Ted Wright, the California-born manager. We talked of the horse-racing frenzy and then of the U.S. college football season. He had played on the 1963 University of Nebraska team that trounced archrival Oklahoma, the alma mater of many in my family.

Having been in Australia for a spell, I'd caught gambling fever. We shook hands on a wager for the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, which was just weeks away.

I lost $2 on Regimental March in the Melbourne Cup. But Ted Wright's silver dollar came in the mail after Oklahoma beat his team. By then I was back near the fast lane in Southern California; two up seemed an innocent world away.

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