Three dice, Too fun

Bunco players just can't lose - yes, there are prizes to be won in the game, but the evening's really just an excuse to get out and enjoy themselves.

February 17, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

You have to love a game where it's just as important to have good snacks on the table as it is to keep score. Maybe more important.

Bunco - a dice game that started in Victorian England and is now played mainly by groups of women - has been called "bridge for the brainless," but that doesn't speak to its real virtues.

The fun has less to do with the play of the game (the rapid, repetitive throwing of three dice) than with the scoring and the fact that bunco encourages both conversation and a certain amount of rowdiness.

It's a chance for the women who play, often stay-at-home moms, to get out of the house, interact with other women and eat everything from sushi to Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, depending on what the hostess of the month is providing.

"We're not playing for blood," says Helen Eastman, which may be the understatement of the year. The 41-year-old science writer, who has three boys, started her own bunco group in Ellicott City 2 1/2 years ago to have a set time (the second Friday of every month) with her friends.

Surprisingly for such a good-natured and sociable activity, bunco has a shady past. It was a gambling game in the West during the Gold Rush, and the word "bunco" - also spelled "banco" and "bunko" - came to mean a swindling game, as in the expression "bunco squad."

Plenty of time to talk

To understand bunco's appeal, you need to see a group in action. Take the ladies of the Deer Season Run club in Columbia. Most of them are in their 30s and 40s. They all have busy lives and didn't do much with the other women on their street before Gayle Tobin, 42, moved in three years ago and asked her neighbors to play.

"It's a no-brainer," is how she describes bunco, which leaves plenty of room for gossiping and more serious conversation, even during play.

Tables have been set up in Dottie King's living room, dining room and kitchen. The women take their places, four to a table. One person is scorekeeper; she writes rapidly, barely keeping up as the dice are thrown over and over again as quickly as possible. Tobin has the technique down: She shakes and then tosses the dice with both hands, putting some English on them. The others at the table throw more casually, barely seeming to look where the dice fall. The game could be intense, but an absorbing conversation about the coming neighborhood block party is going on at the same time.

A break halfway through the evening will provide more time for the whole group to socialize, while the women dig into the cheese and crackers, miniature cream puffs and other good food laid out on the kitchen counter.

"Bunco!" yells Ella Jordan, 34, a school teacher with two kids, as she throws three of a kind that's the same number as the round being played. She races off to the dining room to pick up the bunco token - a silly hat - which she'll wear until the next bunco is thrown. Play resumes quickly when she returns.

After rounds of frenzied dice throwing, players leap from their seats at the bing! of a bell rung when someone at the head table reaches 21 points. Losers move to one table; winners to another.

`A great social get-together'

"Before I didn't know the community well," says King, 53, the hostess for the night who works at Northrop Grumman and has two children. "It's a great social get-together for the community. Now we get to see people's homes, we have a night out once a month."

The group has 16 regulars and 8 substitutes. (Twelve regulars - three tables - are more usual.) They rotate hostess duties. The women ante up $5 each, which is split up at the end of the evening for prizes.

"The appeal is that it's not rocket science," says Leslie Crouch, founder of the California-based World Bunco Association. "All you need to know is how to count - and you don't need to count very far."

There are no hard statistics available, but judging from the ever-increasing sales of the "It's Bunco Time!!!" game and the ever-increasing number of hits on Web sites dedicated to the subject, bunco is growing in popularity.

(And speaking of the boxed game - there's a brilliant marketing strategy for you. Tens of thousands of them were sold last year, says Crouch, and she expects hundreds of thousands to sell this year. Remember, the only thing you have to have to play bunco is three dice. The game retails for $19.95.)

Although present-day bunco is usually played by women, their husbands occasionally get into the action.

"We played couples bunco once," says Jordan of the Deer Season Run group.

"The men were really competitive," she adds, as if the idea that somebody would really care about winning is a little odd. "They started calling the rounds innings."

Maybe it is strange that anyone would care much about winning a game whose purpose is mainly social, except that there are prizes at the end of the evening. But no stranger than the fact that there is a World Bunco Association.

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