Donna Hunt, Amy Williams and Mari Waldrip laugh their way through a round of bunco during a recent game in Kenai.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"Did you bring your ear plugs?" one woman asked as the game was about to begin.
The game is bunco. The object is nothing more than rolling the right dice at the right time for 24 rounds. It's fast-paced and it all depends on luck, but it is F-U-N.
It's a valid question. These women have reason to be excitedly loud. They only get to play once a month.
Bunco has become a popular parlor game with groups getting together nationwide to roll the dice and test their luck.
This month, Georgia Poynor is hosting the game. Her kitchen counter is spread with chilli, cheese spread, wine and an assortment of baked goods, but something is missing. Jennifer is late and she has the dice. No one is upset, but everyone is ready to play. For now, the focus remains on the food.
According to Poynor, this group is one of the oldest in the peninsula area. It originally began as a group for the women working at a local bank, but the roster has changed as members stop playing and replacements are found. The last original member of the group dropped out about two years ago.
"I am not sure how bunco got its start," Poynor said. "I got involved after being badgered for about a year to substitute one night. Once I went once, I was hooked and became a regular."
Jennifer is the last to arrive and the game promptly begins. The women split up, sitting four to a table at the three card tables placed in the living room and the head table in the dining room. Each woman has her own scorecard to keep track of the wins, losses and buncos she earns throughout the course of the game.
The rules to the game seem complicated at first, but they're fairly straightforward. There are three dice placed on each table. The goal of round one is to roll ones. Each one is worth one point. Three ones is a bunco, worth 25 points. Three of any other number is worth five. For round two, the goal is to roll twos. For round three, threes, and so on up to six. Then the game starts back at one.
The person sitting across the table is your partner. Each round, partners change as players move around and change tables. One partner is responsible for counting the points for both members of the team. At the end of the round, the team with the most points moves up a table and the one member of the losing team changes seats to get a new partner the next round.
Each player rolls until they get a roll worth no points, then the dice are passed to the left.
The head table sets the pace of the game and a round is over when a team at the head table reaches 25 points. The other tables keep playing past 25 until a player at the head table rings the bell signaling the end of the round.
Players change spots and play resumes with another bell.
After playing through each number twice, Poynor and her friends take a break to socialize and enjoy the food brought by all the regular members of the group.
"I don't do a lot of socializing outside of the office, so for me, this is a fun thing to do that doesn't mean a huge commitment," said Kari Evanoff, who was out of town for the last game. "It's only once a month and we have such a good time together good camaraderie and great food, too!
"I look forward to playing every month and really hate when I have to miss it like I did this month."
About 75 percent of the ladies in the group either work together or have in the past.
"(A lot of us) work at the Division of Public Assistance, so as you can imagine, the stress-relieving aspects of bunco are important to us," Poynor said.
"Some of the girls in our office (at the Peninsula Job Center) got involved in a bunco group a while back," Evanoff said. "A few years ago, I started subbing occasionally and really had a good time. When a permanent spot came open, I grabbed it! I knew many of the players already, but got to know some other folks because of it, too."
Bunco is not just popular on the peninsula, the game has drawn a worldwide following.
"I heard on the radio that they are having a fund-raising bunco convention, so clearly it is definitely a nationwide hobby," Poynor said.
The World Bunco Association (WBA) started in 1996. According to its Web site, it "is dedicated to the organization, preservation, promotion and the expansion of Bunco group activity."
The Web site features links to a store where bunco gifts can be purchased, bunco news features and a brief history of the game, which dates back to the 18th century.
Bunco, originally named 8-Dice Cloth, was originally played in England and was introduced to the United States by a gambler in 1855 during the gold rush in San Francisco. According to the WBA site, the gambler made frequent stops on his east to west travel to San Francisco and made various changes to the game, which he called banco. After a few years, it became bunco, or bunko.
Around the same time, a Spanish card game, banca, and it's Mexican alternative, monte, also made their way to San Francisco. The card and die versions of bunco were widely played in gambling locations called bunco parlors. The word bunco soon became synonymous with scams and swindling "confidence games." By the late 1800s, bunco was being played in major cities across the country. Before World War I, bunco had a seemingly permanent place in the homes and parlors of the American people. Bunco was a popular game in the speakeasies of the prohibition era and raiders of these businesses became knows as "bunco squads."
After prohibition, bunco's popularity spread into suburbs and small-town America, but it declined significantly in major cities and not much is known about the game up to 1980. According to WBA, the game has re-popularized since that time due to "a return to traditional family values, a sense of neighborhood and community, and the desire and need for social interaction."
Although the rules can vary from group to group, WBA has posted official rules of the game on its Web site.
The site also gives general guidelines for starting a bunco group.
"To start a group you just need either 12 or 16 people (three or four tables). Pick a night and go for it," Poynor said.
The game can be played by a group of women, like the one Poynor plays with, or it can be organized other ways.
"A couple of people in our group play in other groups, too, including one who plays in a couples group," she said. "They actually travel, stay in a hotel and try different restaurants, experiences and then play bunco as part of the weekend."
Hannahlee Allers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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