It doesn't take long for the action to heat up at Kathy Leone's home in Colleyville, Texas. "Gravitate, kids!" Leone calls out, signaling the end of lunch and the time to begin the afternoon's main event--playing bunco. As games go, bunco ranks pretty low on the skill scale. It requires none of the strategy or finesse of bridge or even poker. It's pure luck and the roll of the dice. Players take turns trying to make three dice turn up as ones in the first round of play, twos in the second and so on. Rolling three of a kind is a "bunco."
Within minutes of Leone's summons to play, dice are rolling, Chardonnay is flowing and 12 women, ranging in age from their 40s to their 60s, who call themselves the "Bunco Babes," are engaged in rowdy competition. Two hours later, the players who have racked up the most points share the $60 the women threw into the pot at the beginning of the game. But everyone goes home happy. "If you're not in good spirits when you walk out the door, it's your own fault," jokes Barbara Baker, who has played with the Babes since last year.
Originally a Victorian parlor game, bunco made its way to the U.S. in the mid-1850s as a gambling game known first as "banco" and later as "bunco" or "bunko." During the Gold Rush, a crooked gambler in San Francisco is said to have used the game to bilk some Forty-Niners out of their money, turning its name into a general term for cons. In 1996 Carlsbad, Calif., toy marketer Leslie Crouch packaged its components under the title It's Bunco Time!!! and started marketing it to women. Now, on any given night, groups all over the country gather together in what has become the female bonding experience of the moment. In Contra Costa County, Calif., women's bunco games rival bridge parties in popularity. In Garden City, N.Y., 10 new bunco groups have started in the past two years, with waiting lists of women eager to get in on a monthly game. Like reading groups, Tupperware parties and quilting bees before them, bunco games give women an opportunity to break away from their routine and nurture a camaraderie.
"Women tend to have to account for their time more than men do," says Elizabeth Long, a sociology professor at Rice University who has studied women's book groups. "It makes an exit more legitimate if you can say, 'I'm getting together to play bunco or bridge' rather than 'I'm going out.'"
Cathleen Rodriguez, 33, of Sugar Land, Texas, plays in two bunco groups, is an alternate in a third and has become such a bunco enthusiast that she self-published Dice with Spice: A Bunco Cookbook, with recipes and menus for bunco parties. For her, playing bunco is "time away from being Mommy and wife, to laugh with the gals and have a good old time," she says. "I would take on another group, but my husband says I've used up my fun quotient for the month." Single women, weary of smoky bars and disappointing blind dates, enjoy the parties too. "For us single gals, it's a night in," says Leah Hudson, 30, of Dallas. "Instead of fighting over a man, we're fighting over a $10 prize."