Bunco, a centuries-old game of chance, serves as a social catalyst in Columbia

For this club, fun is a roll of the dice


One Friday evening each month, 12 women in Columbia come together to mingle, eat, share news - and roll a few friendly rounds of dice.

Their game is Bunco, an old-time game of chance that has enjoyed a comeback with this group of suburban women, who have been gathering as the Village of Oakland Mills Bunco League for the past two years.

"For us, it's not about the game," said Dione Mahoney. "For us, it's about conversation, it's about what is going on with your kids and the neighborhood."

She adds, with a laugh, "This is also really cheap psychotherapy for us."

The stakes are low - $5 from each player to get in. And there are no winners or losers when the evening breaks up because all the proceeds are donated to local charities and service organizations, such as the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and groups that have helped victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"We really don't need the $50 or $60," said Judy Dudek, organizer of the neighborhood Bunco group. "A lot of people in the group are connected to many causes, and we donate to that."

According to the World Bunco Association's Web site, the game started in England during the 18th century and gradually evolved into a social activity, especially among groups of women, as a gambling outlet.

The game is played by three tables of four players. Each player is given a turn at throwing three dice and matching the numbers - starting with ones, then twos, and so on - until the player gets to a total score of 21. Once somebody reaches 21, the groups rotate tables and another game is played.

The popularity of the game has fueled the formation of Bunco groups around the country, and leagues have popped up in Maryland. The Ludo Club, a social organization in Halethorpe, formed a group of its own last year.

"It brings together lots of different groups," said Kristen Meyer, the club's director.

In Columbia, the Wandering Way neighborhood Bunco night was the brainchild of Dudek, who read about another Bunco group and talked with her neighbors, looking for people to join her in playing.

"I have two dogs that I walk through the neighborhood, and I just invite people - `Oh, we're getting together for Bunco,'" she said.

The nights of conversation around the rolling dice have provided a way to welcome people new to the community and a chance to form friendships, Dudek said.

"Some of them now start to see each other at swim team events and all of a sudden, they see these people and they know them," Dudek said.

At Ruth Ann Quick's house, nestled in a cul-de-sac just off Wandering Way, the women casually talk to one another as they roll the dice, nibble on snacks and talk about movies, weather and community events.

Several hours into the evening, the laughs begin to taper off and the dice stop rolling as one by one each player heads home.

Quick stops in mid-conversation with Dudek and asks her, "Who was the winner?"


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