For the first few minutes after everyone has arrived, dropped her coat on the bed, grabbed a drink and a handful of M&Ms there is actually intense interest in what comes up when the three dice are rolled. After all, it's called "bunco night," not "get together, eat, drink, talk, console and commiserate" night. It's just that as the game continues, your mind and mouth are free to fill in the gaps between rolls.
Bunco is a game of dice, luck and prizes. For the women in Nancy Russell's bunco group, it's also a once-a-month excuse to get together, away from husbands, boyfriends, babies, play groups and jobs. The group formed about two years ago, when the two Shannons (who know each other from church) decided to ask around and see if they could scare up enough people to play.
"In St. Louis, it can be hard to break in if you haven't been here for a long time," explains Shannon McCollough, who moved here from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Back in Tulsa, all her friends played bunco, and she went to their group, although after several years she still wasn't in the inner bunco circle. Starting up a fresh group in St. Louis was a chance to change all that.
From the first two, a group that now numbers about twelve on any given bunco night was born. And from the beginning, it's been a pretty egalitarian crowd.
"To me, the cool thing about our bunco group is that no one came in knowing more than one or maybe two other people," says Nancy Russell. People knew someone from church who asked a neighbor, or a friend from high school, or their veterinarian.
"What's really funny is that now, when you come, you probably don't even spend two minutes talking to the person you first brought in to the group," notes Nancy Akins. But you're guaranteed to do lots of talking with someone.
That's the great thing about bunco: it's just mindless enough to not distract players from the good stuff, finding out what's been going on with everyone since last bunco night. For the record, bunco is a progressive dice game, similar to Yahtzee!, in which players try to roll a certain number on the dice. Say the specified number is three: one three is good, two threes are better, and three threes, well, that's a bunco. And that's mighty good. Points are assigned for each roll, and the goal is to reach 21. Although there is no betting per se on each round, each player throws five dollars into the pot at the beginning of the night, and it's redistributed at the end for most wins, most losses, most buncos and myriad other minor victories. It's pure, unadulterated chance and in St. Louis, thousands of people are playing.
In the mental space players don't spend thinking about complicated strategy, the more important business of life can be processed. Around the bunco table, no subject is off-limits. Potty training, pets, marriage, birthdays, illness, religion and Lasik eye surgery swirl around in the conversational soup. Two years into meeting every month, it dawns on Nancy Russell that two of the other players are cousins. The other Nancy confesses that the first person who knew she was pregnant (besides her husband) was a female acquaintance at bunco.
"Oh, you can always try to figure out who's pregnant at bunco by watching who's not drinking wine," laughs Nancy Russell. A quick look around the table, and the sole iced tea drinker has to fend off intimations of a maternal glow. Buddy the bunco dog, the only male allowed in the room, wanders underneath the table, snuffling for crumbs.
It's not uncommon for the group to only get through one or two rounds of bunco in a night, what with all the talk around the table and planning that must go into next month's bunco (Who's hosting next month? Are there any birthdays to celebrate? Shouldn't someone make photocopies of the new list with everyone's phone number and e-mail address?)
By the time everyone's gathered her things and gotten ready to go, Nancy's husband Evan returns home from his self-imposed exile. He watches the last clusters of women, still talking on their way out the door. If there's a trace of wariness, it wouldn't be entirely unwarranted.
There are no secrets at bunco.