Heads or Tails

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Heads or Tails is a coin-tossing game. Most coins have a side where the imprint of a person's head, such as a current or former head of state, is impressed — this side is called the "heads" side. The other side is called the "tails" side, irrespective of its design. Technically, the heads and tails sides are known as the obverse and reverse, respectively.

In 1870 Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes heads in a similar way and details tails as being the opposite and obvious reverse to heads. The expression 'can't make head nor tail of it' expresses this concept of opposites.

Generally, one person throws the coin up in the air, and the second person must predict which side of the coin will lie face up after it rests back on the ground. A correct prediction results in a win. Another variation has the person catch the coin in one hand and slap it on the back of their other hand. Traditionally, the second person calls out "heads" or "tails" while the coin is in the air.


National variations

The Australian game of Two-up is closely related, and involves traditionally two coins of equal value. Two-up is illegal except for on Anzac Day. Coin flipping as a game was known to the Romans as "navia aut caput" (ship or head), as some coins had a ship on one side and the head of the emperor on the other.

A related game, Cross and Pile, was played in England for many centuries. The cross was the major design element on one side of many coins, and the Pile was the bottom part of the die used to cast the other side of the coin (see hammered coinage). Cross and Pile is derived from the Greek pastime called Ostrakinda, played by the boys of ancient Greece. Having procured a shell, they smeared it over with pitch on one side and left the other side white. A boy tossed up this shell, and his antagonist called white or black (In the Greek, nux kai hemera, that is, 'night or day') as he thought proper, and his success was determined by the white or black part of the shell being uppermost.

In Italy this game is called Testa o croce, in Spain Cara o cruz and in Catalonia the game is called Cara o Creu (all "head or cross"). In Germany the game is called Kopf oder Zahl and in Greece Korona i grammata ("head or number", because the other side shows the coin's value). In Latvia the game is called Cipars vai ģerbonis ("number or the coat of arms"). In Ireland it is usually called Heads or Harps (Irish: Ceann nó Cláirseach), since the obverse side of Irish coins (both Euro and the former currency, the Irish punt) always shows a harp. In Brazil, it is called Cara ou Coroa ("face or crown"). On Brazilian coins, one of the sides are called "Cara" (marked with a face); the other side is called "Coroa" (crown, or another symbol). In Mexico it is called Aguila o Sol (Eagle or Sun), while in Peru it is called Cara o Sello ("face or seal", because the other side shows the Great Seal of the State). In Argentina the game goes by the name of "cara o ceca" or (more rarely) "cara o cruz", like in Spain. In Russia it is called Орёл или ре́шка (Oryól ili réshka - eagle or lattice), similar in Polandorzeł czy reszka. In Hong Kong, it is called 公定字 ("Head or word"). On Hong Kong coins, the obverse side of the coin are words that describe the value of the coin. The reverse side, however, is a flower after transferring sovereignty to Communist China, but Hong Kong citizens still use the term "head" (as coins issued before 1993 used the portrait of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom) to call the game. In Norway kron denotes the side that shows the kings profile, while mynt is the side that showns the coins value. Swedes use krona eller klave ("crown or hoof"), as old Swedish coinage depicted the regent (or the insignia of the regent) on the obverse (the word "crown" often being used to mean the king), and a highly stylized heraldic shield, reminding people of a hoof, on the reverse. In Israel the game is called Ets o Pally ("tree or Pally"). This name originates in the time of the British Mandate of Palestine when the coins bore the value of the coin with an olive branch on one side and the name Palestine on the other. Today Pally usually refers to the value side of the Israeli coins, while Ets refers to the other side.

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