Heads or Tails: The History of Flipping Coins

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The idea of flipping a coin and seeing what side lands face-up is hardly new. This simple type of game is believed to have originated in the Roman Empire under the name of Heads or Ships, so how has it remained so popular until modern times and with the latest technology now used?

How random is a coin toss? - Numberphile

Gambling on Coin Flips

Flipping a coin and betting on the outcome provides us with one of the easiest-to-understand types of gambling games. Back in those Roman times, the player who had the Emperor’s side of the coin always won, while the side with the boat’s prow was always the loser.

The basic gameplay hasn’t changed hugely since then but current live-streaming technology has added a new edge, as we can see in the new versions featured in the live casino games from Paddy Power. In this case, the Crazy Coin Flip game from Evolution has different phases leading up to the flipping of a coin, with red and blue sides used. It’s listed alongside more traditional casino games such as baccarat and blackjack, so it’s joined the established casino classics as a viable live gambling option.

Flipping Coins for Entertainment or Making Decisions

Some huge decisions have also been on the toss of a coin. One of them was held in 1969 to decide the ownership of a foal who was yet to be born at the time and who turned out to be Secretariat, arguably the greatest racehorse to ever compete. Flipism is the name given to this method of making decisions, and it’s commonly used in deadlock situations where there is no rational way to make a decision.

Going further back in time to 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright had to decide which of them was going to take their first powered flight at Kill Devil Heights in North Carolina, with Wilbur winning the toss of a coin and getting the chance to make history.

Coin flips are often used in sports, usually to decide who starts a game. The NFL’s Super Bowl games use a specially minted coin that is sent to the sport’s Hall of Fame after use. Some huge sporting events have even been decided on the toss of a coin, such as when the Italian soccer team won the 1968 European Championship in this way.

Coin Lands On Its Side During Coin Toss (Colombia vs Paraguay)

The Math Theory

While it seems like this game gives a 50/50 chance of winning, Stanford math professor Persi Diaconis has suggested that the chances are really 51/49. This is because of a natural bias that shines through no matter how many tosses are made. He also discovered that a spinning coin will land on the tails side 80% of the time, possibly because the head of the penny used was heavier than the other side.

The chances of a coin landing on its edge are said to be 1 in 6000, but this is exactly what happened in a Copa America soccer match between Colombia and Paraguay in 2016. Both captains and the referees were left momentarily shocked as they looked at the coin stuck in the turf before tossing it again.

It seems that the simple pleasure of flipping a coin is something that will never lose its charm. We’ll probably also see it continue to be used for more than just entertainment purposes, as it’s an easy way to settle disputes and reach a clear decision when the options can’t be separated in any other way.