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Heads I Win, Tails You Lose: Making History on the Toss of a Coin

By Tom Anderson

This article on Consequences in Alternate History will be a little different: instead of following a chain of consequences, we’ll be looking at several specific examples from history of a single binary decision that was truly random.

There are many ways to let chance decide the outcome of a choice. These have been used throughout human history in gambling games, but also for matters of greater moment. For example, the Vikings enjoyed dice games, and according to legend, in 1020 the ownership of the island of Hisingen was settled between the Kings of Sweden and Norway by the throw of two dice. (The King of Sweden rolled two sixes and seemingly won an automatic victory, but the King of Norway rolled a six and the other die split in half, producing a winning total of thirteen). In the Book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples cast lots to decide which of two candidates should replace the traitor Judas, an example of allowing the will of God to show through such an act, which likely represents a longer-standing Jewish tradition going back to the Urim and Thummin of the Exodus. In China the game of roshambo or ‘rock-paper-scissors’ was invented, and has sometimes been used to decide matters of great moment such as (in 2005) which of the great auction houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s would get to auction Impressionist paintings worth millions. Drawing straws, in which case the drawer of the short straw loses, has become associated with soldiers choosing from volunteers for a perilous or even suicidal mission.



However, the method of random chance selection that has seized the human imagination perhaps more than any other is the simple coin toss: heads or tails? Unlike the relative complexities of the methods mentioned earlier, a coin toss is an absolute binary choice with only two possible outcomes—discounting, of course, the frequently-referenced but rarely-witnessed trope of a coin landing on its edge. In an idealised situation, the chance of heads or tails should be identical, a 50-50 shot, all or nothing. This absoluteness is perhaps what has led to such fascination over the ages. The coin toss goes back at least to ancient Rome and China, with the names of the head or tail side changing over the years, and appears to have been used consistently ever since, both for everyday matters, gambling (such as the Australian game Two Up) and, like the other methods discussed above, for deciding weighty matters.

One obvious case seen every day is the use of a coin toss to decide which side shall have an advantage first in matches of many sports: which team kicks off the ball in many versions of football, and which side of the field a team will play from first. In cricket a coin toss decides which team will bat first while the other bowls. One can imagine that many close matches might have had different outcomes if the toss had gone the other way, and the outcomes of games are of interest beyond those of the fans and supporters of the teams in question. For example, the unexpected victory of Ted Heath’s Conservative Party in the 1970 British general election is sometimes attributed to depressed Labour supporters staying home after England crashed out of the (football) World Cup three days earlier, defeated by West Germany (whom they had famously beaten in the 1966 World Cup final four years earlier). This was used as a point of divergence in the seminal British political alternate history “If Gordon Banks Had Played” by psephologist and pollster Anthony Wells, in which the Labour Government of Harold Wilson is re-elected following a better performance by England, and which ultimately leads to a nightmarish outcome courtesy of the IRA and Enoch Powell. Regardless of whether that is the most likely outcome, the fact that it was Heath’s unexpected victory that led to the UK joining the EEC means a different outcome to this election would have very consequences whose significance are very obvious to the reader at the time of this article’s publication.



Coin tosses are even sometimes used to determine the outcome of a sports match explicitly. In the 1968 UEFA European Football Championship, the penalty shoot-out would not be introduced as a method of resolving a tied match until two years later. Instead, a simple coin toss was used to decide whether host nation Italy or the Soviet Union had won their 0-0 semi-final. Italy triumphed, and went on to win the final to become European champions; the final was also an oddity to modern eyes, representing a replay against Yugoslavia after a 1-1 draw. Evidently it would be a bridge too far even in 1968 for a coin toss to decide the outcome of the final!

Beyond the more indirect impact of sport on politics, politics itself is also subject to the whim of the coin toss. Tied votes following recounts may be settled by a coin toss in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom. This has never happened for a House of Commons seat, but has in local elections. For example, in 2007 a West Lindsey (in Lincolnshire) councillor named Christopher Underwood-Frost held his seat against a Lib Dem who had equalled his vote score of 781, thanks to a coin toss. Higher-profile coin toss outcomes have been seen in the United States: in the first contest of the bitterly-fought Democratic presidential primaries of 2016, the Iowa caucuses (a series of public meetings rather than a straightforward vote, hence ties are more likely) there were six dead heats in voting between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. All six resulting coin tosses were won by Hillary Clinton’s supporters, a 1.6% chance overall—which, perhaps, exhausted all of Clinton’s luck judging by her travails later in the campaign. In 2017, elections for Virginia’s 100-seat House of Delegates produced 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and one tied seat. The 94th District had 11,608 votes cast each for both Republican incumbent David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelley Simmonds. Hence a coin toss would decide not only the outcome of that race, but of control of the House itself (as the Democratic lieutenant-governor could break a 50-50 House tie). Yancey won the coin toss and the Republicans kept the House.



Yet in some ways even politics is fleeting. What of the meat and bread of alternate history, the sense that everything seems familiar yet with one jarring element intrudes into our everyday lives and makes us realise that something in this world is wrong? Let us take the example of the city of Portland in Oregon, founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy. The original site of the settlement was known simply as ‘The Clearing’ and it clearly needed a proper name. Both Pettygrove and Lovejoy were New Englanders and wanted to name the new city after a New England settlement—but both wanted it to be their own hometown. Lovejoy was from Boston, Massachusetts, while Pettygrove was from Portland, Maine. They decided to settle it by a coin toss in 1845, best of three tosses, using a coin now known as the ‘Portland Penny’ and on display at the Oregon Historical Society Museum.

Pettygrove won, and so Oregon’s biggest city—and one which has developed its own unique reputation for quirkiness and eccentricity that, along with its historical Japanese population, has won it an incongruous following in Japan—bore the name Portland. Although Portland in Maine has grown to a significant size, undoubtedly it is the one in Oregon which most Americans would think of first on hearing the name. If that coin toss had gone differently, would Oregon’s biggest city instead be called Boston? This scenario was used in passing by Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss in their book “The Two Georges” (which, as it also involves America still being British by the present day of 1996, naturally comes with a considerable ‘butterfly net’ to allow the appearance of characters such as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr.!) However, Turtledove clearly decided that as the original Boston was already a large and important city and would continue to be so, the Boston in Oregon eventually ends up being dubbed ‘West Boston’. One can imagine a situation where a number one destination for Japanese tourists to the United States is not Potorando but instead Nishi Bosuton. And, coming back to Lincolnshire, it would be yet more confusion for the original town of Boston in that county after which the one in Massachusetts was named.


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