History of the Coin Toss

What do a football game, the movie Scarface, and a certain New Zealand Lottery game have in common?

A coin toss!

In football, a coin is tossed to determine which team starts with the ball.  Actor George Raft became famous as the “coin flipping gangster” for his role in the movie Scarface.  In New Zealand, a popular lottery game called “Big Wednesday” utilizes the coin toss to determine whether the winner receives a cash jackpot or a larger jackpot full of luxury prizes.

During a coin toss,  a coin is tossed in the air so that it flips from side to side several times.  The parties in conflict call either “heads” or “tails” while the coin is in the air. When the coin lands, the party whose chosen side is facing up is declared the winner. Seems like a fairly simple concept, but where did this idea come from?

“Pile ou face” by Ipipipourax – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pile_ou_face.png#/media/File:Pile_ou_face.png

Not a ton is known about the history of the coin toss or how it evolved over time. There is some evidence that coin flipping dates all the way back to ancient Greece. Although they didn’t use coins, boys used to paint one side of a seashell with black pitch while leaving the other side white before flipping it in the air and calling a side.

The use of coins for this game is credited to the Romans, with their version called navia aut caput (“ship or head”). They believed the chance of the flip was an expression of divine will. In Britain, the game was called “cross and pile.”

Over the years the coin toss has been used to resolve conflicts, both big and small.

For example:

  • In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright were trying to decide who was going to be the first to test their flyer (airplane).  Wilbur won the toss and on December 14, attempted to make history.  Unfortunately, the plane stalled and he was unable to get it into the air.  Three days later, his brother Orville gave it try and became the first person to fly.



  • Portland, Oregon received its name after a friendly “best out of three” coin toss.  The town was founded by two men from New England (one from Boston and the other Portland, Maine).  Each wanted to name the town after their hometown. Guess who won?
  • The famous racehorse, Secretariat, was given a home as the result of a coin toss. Penny Chenery and Ogden Phipps were in competition for the foals sired by the well known racehorse Bold River.  Phipps won and chose the filly (female), leaving the colt (male) to Chenery.  Penny named him Secretariat and he grew to have a heart 4 times the size of a normal horse and was a triple crown winner at only 2 years old.

    From resolving a friendly argument to naming a whole city, the coin toss is a tried and true method of conflict resolution.  What things in your life have been decided with the flip of a coin?  Let us know in the comments!

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