Once a month in East Dallas, dinner is served early, chores quickly accomplished, and families left to fend for themselves as women gather together for an evening of fun, conversation, and food. It’s Bunco time and whether you spell it Bunco or Bunko, this game of dice, luck and prizes is catching on all over East Dallas, with new Bunco groups starting up all the time.
Though many Bunco groups are often made up of busy women who see Bunco as a way to keep up with people they don’t get to see on a regular basis, one East Dallas group came about a bit differently and share a common denominator.
“Our group is from a block in the neighborhood so it was a fun way to meet people. Everyone lives on the same two blocks of Avalon,” says MaryBeth Shapiro. “It is really fun because there is a wide range of ages. It is refreshing because it gives a new perspective for mothers with older children and mothers with young children.”
Their lives filled with the needs of their families and community, these women have found Bunco evenings as something they can do just for themselves and served as a welcome respite from their responsibilities.
“I started this group about a year ago,” says Lisa Rubenstein. “I thought it would be a good get-together for the moms. It’s not so much the game as it is a good excuse for a bunch of people to get together. It’s a lot of fun.”
The women also find it fitting that a much earlier group of Avalon Street women used to meet in much the same way and for the same reasons.
“There was a social club that started in the 1950s called the Avalon Sewing Group,” says Shapiro. “When we were toasting the end of the year, one woman said it was kind of neat that there was another Avalon Street group before us.”
Like the Bunco group of today, the Avalon Sewing Group was made up of women who lived on Avalon Street and met regularly to sew and socialize. Then, as now, they formed a sort of network that watched out for each other’s families and offered advice and friendship.
“It is as much of a support group as it is anything else,” says Shapiro.
So what exactly is Bunco? For starters, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment — three die and a score tablet for each table, one hand bell and you are in business. A Bunco group is typically made up of 12 women, though the number varies with each group and occasionally couples will play. Typically, each member pays $5 a month for prizes for the winners — there are prizes for everything — even one for the person with the most losses or most ties. The prize can either be a small gift or money. Bunco evenings are held at a different house each month and the hostess is responsible for refreshments and prizes.
The object of the game is to earn 21 points, which are earned when the rolled dice match up with the designated number for that round. If the designated number is a three and a player rolls the dice and gets all threes, the player gets an instant “bunco” and 21 points. More likely, the player will only get one three or none and earns points accordingly.
Everyone tries to earn their way to the “Head Table” where they want to be simply because it is the head table. This table is also the keeper of the bell, which is rung when a team at the head table reaches 21 points.
While game rules will vary from group to group, everyone agrees the game is almost ridiculously easy to learn and, frankly, the players make no excuse about its simplicity and usually rebuff anyone who wants to make it more difficult.
“It is very simple,” says Kerri Jacobson, who sometimes subs for the Avalon group. “It is a mindless game. That is what is good about the game, you can roll and dice and still talk. I would compare it to a women’s poker team.”
And because you can learn the game in minutes, it leaves lots of time for socializing and catching up on neighborhood news in a relaxed setting. Four people play at each table but this changes frequently, giving everyone a chance to talk to every person there.
“Every time you move up, you switch partners,” says Shapiro.
Once introduced to Bunco, it is not unusual to find that many players join more than one group or will substitute for a number of groups. And while it is usually an evening of camaraderie, some groups have been known to get very serious about the roll of the dice. At these more competitive gatherings, players report it can get downright serious. For instance, in some Bunco groups, when someone gets Bunco, each woman at that table gets a chance to grab — or sometimes lunge — for the dice and win the points.
“There are grabbers and there are non-grabbers,” says Shapiro with a laugh. “Our group is more relaxed. We just play the regular Bunco and baby Bunco.”
Jacobson, who subs for two different groups, has played for both competitive groups and more laid-back ones. While admitting that it can get a bit loud and even risky at the more competitive games, she enjoys both kinds.
“I have experienced both kinds but with that grabbing thing, you can get scratched accidentally,” says Jacobson. “It’s a competitive game. It’s been fun both ways.”
When someone can’t make a meeting and a substitute can’t be found to replace her, Bunco players have a contingency to deal with it by having a “ghost player” (sometimes called a dummy) to take the place of an absent player. Another player has to roll for the ghost who moves around just like any other player. For this East Dallas group, though, the game is so popular, there is usually no need to resort to a phantom player.
“We don’t often have to have a ghost because we usually have an extra person or two,” reports Shapiro.
Though the Bunco game of today is by hard-working and certainly law-abiding citizens, most players will be surprised to learn that it wasn’t also the case.
To see how this craze got started, you would have to go back all the way to England in the late 1800s where Bunco was originally known as 8-Dice Cloth. The World Bunco Association reports that it was unknown to the United States until it was introduced to San Francisco in 1855 during the Gold Rush by a crooked gambler. The swindler made some changes to the rules of the game and renamed it Banco as he traveled from the East to West coast with numerous stops at the gold fields. He found many men with easy money to squander on gambling. A few years later, the name was changed again; this time to Bunco or Bunko and was frequently played at numerous gambling locations known as Bunco Parlors. Soon, the game earned a very shady reputation and the term Bunco came to mean anything to do with confidence games, scams or swindling.
By the end of the century, the game returned to respectability and became a family game played in many homes. But not for long as the game once again became infamous. According to the WBA, Bunco gambling parlors resurfaced all over the country during prohibition and the roaring ’20s. The most infamous speak-easies and Bunco dice parlors were located in and around Chicago, Ill. And while many present Bunco players may not realize it, there really was a Bunco Squad made up of detectives who raided those Bunco playing parlors! Not to worry, though. After prohibition, the illegal form of Bunco playing declined and not much was heard until the early 1980s. Since then, the game has returned to the neighborhood scene as a popular, and legal, outlet for social interaction.
And what about the men in these Bunco playing households? Most have the attitude that it is a good thing for their wives and a great way of bringing the neighborhood together.
“It’s a wonderful group of ladies,” says Kenny Rubenstein, Lisa’s husband. “It is just another way of bringing the neighborhood together.”
Still, he does take precautions on Bunco nights.
“When I walk the dog late in the evening while there is a Bunco party going on, I take a route that does not go near the house where the group is playing,” says Rubenstein. “I don’t want to get caught in the crossfire!”
For more information:
World Bunco Association
6419 LaPaloma St.
Carlsbad, CA 92009
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