Contrary to popular belief, “Bunco” is not an expression used for a gaggle of cops coming down hard on the local mob gamblers. In fact, Bunco is a dice game that originated across the pond in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. In fog-drench England, the game was known as “8 Dice Cloth.” Coinciding with the California Gold Rush of 1949, Bunco made a trek across the Atlantic and then entirely across America before it settled in San Francisco just before the start of the Civil War.
The game was originally played in the muddy streets of the rag-tag towns in California. But after the Civil War, it developed into somewhat of a parlor game, housed in Bunco Parlors across the state. These Bunco Parlors were spearheaded by crooked gamblers looking to make scores on the backs of unsuspecting rubes.
By the turn of the 20th Century, Bunco moved eastward, settling in big Midwestern towns including Chicago, Illinois. During Prohibition, Al Capone perfected Bunco into an art form, and combined with illegal hooch, Big Al made a killing selling booze and Bunco, that is, until the law, most notably the “Bunco Squad,” busted down the doors and arrested everyone in sight.
By the mid-1930s, after Capone had disappeared into the Federal Prison System for income tax evasion, Bunco seemed to disappear with him. Bunco was almost completely invisible up until the 1980s, when it resurfaced in towns across America, as a way of people to drink, gamble, and socialize. But this time, Bunco was strictly on the up and up, and it was played by all classes of people, from the Hoi Polloi-rabble right up to the bluebloods of society.
When hosts and hostesses assemble a Bunco Game, that game is usually arranged like a party, with beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, finger foods, including hot wings and pizza, and party decorations not unlike those seen on New Year’s Eve. The Bunco Game- arrangers sometimes would create “theme” soirees to commemorate such notable events like the World Series, Super Bowl, Valentines’ Day, and even the Kentucky Derby (yes, the ladies must sport tacky hats and imbibe mint juleps).
First off, Bunco is strictly a dice game of chance. There is no real skill involved. You roll the three dice and let the dots fall where they may. The game usually is comprised of 12 players, but either four or eight-player games can also be arranged (both are divisible by 12).
What you need to start a Bunco game is three dice, a scoresheet, paper to make notes on, one pencil for each player, and, oh yes, a ringer, or a bell, to get everyone’s attention when needed.
For clarity’s sake, let’s assume we have 12 people ready to play. These 12 people will be seated at three tables of four, and at each table, there will be two sets of partners. Each partner will be facing their partner, not sitting next to them. One table will be designated as the “head table.”
The game is played in anywhere from two to four sets, with six rounds in each set. Each table will have their own “scorekeeper,” who keeps track of the points earned at that particular table.
However, each player also has their own individual scorecard on which to keep track of their rounds. When they win a round, they insert a “W” on the line of their card corresponding to that round. And when they lose a round, they insert an “L” on the line corresponding to that round. And in the lucky event that a person rolls a Bunco (we’ll explain that later), the Bunco roller will place a mark, most likely a check mark, in the space provided for Buncos on their scorecard. It’s important to note that when a player rolls a Bunco, they, and not their partner get credit for that roll.
Each round, not unlike in a round of a professional boxing match, starts with the ringing of the bell by the designated person at the “head table.” During a round, each player takes turns rolling the dice. The objective is for each player to roll a number equal to the round number they are playing in.
For instance, if a player rolls three “2’s” in the second round, he would earn three points for his team. Two “2s” earn two points, and one “2” earns one point, etc. The numbers on the dice do not indicate a point value, and the numbers on the dice are not added together.
If in any round, a player rolls three dice all with the same value as the round they are playing in, that is called “Bunco!”. But for that lucky player who rolled “Bunco” to receive their points, they must jump to their feet and scream at the top of their lungs,”BUNCO!” Only then will they receive the 21 points a Bunco roll is valued at.
A player keeps on rolling the dice until they “crap out,” or does not roll a number coinciding with the number of the round in which they are playing. When that player finishes rolling the dice, their score is tallied on the scoresheet, or “table tally,” and they hand the dice to the person to their left.
When the head table reaches 21 points, the designated “bell ringer” at the head table then rings his bell, signaling the end of that round.
However, that does not signal that all action must come to a halt.
In the interest of fairness, and to add excitement to the game, all the players who are still taking their turn rolling the dice when the bell rings, including the bell ringer at the head table, keep rolling their dice until they “crap out,” and do not roll a number coinciding with the round they are playing. So, it’s possible, and more than likely, that one or more player can earn a substantial amount of points even after the dramatic ringing of the bell. And in fact, it’s quite possible for a team to win a round without even once rolling a treasured “Bunco!”
When all the rounds are completed, each player tallies the wins and losses on their respective scorecards, along with how many Buncos they produced.
Now, here is when the host or hostess of each Bunco Game can become creative.
After the last dice is cast and the numbers tallied, they can award prizes to the winners, and sometimes ever the losers, of categories. For instance, there can be prizes awarded for: Most Wins, Most Losses, Most Buncos, and even the last Bunco.
These awards can be anything from a pack of dice to a bottle of booze. The more attractive the prizes, the more people will come back for the next Bunco Game at that same venue.