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Back at Bunco: Group restarts after 14 years on, seven years off

Marble Falls Bunco group

Playing the middle table during a recent game of Bunco are Barbara Walker (left), Kathy Wright, Nita Winselt, and Jennifer Greenwell. After 14 years of play and a seven-year hiatus, the Marble Falls Bunco group started playing again in May. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

In an attempt to escape baby bedtime routines at least one night a month, a group of about 16 Marble Falls women met for Bunco over a span of 14 years. After a seven-year hiatus, in which most of them have sent their now-grown children into the world, they are back together, rolling the dice and reconnecting every second Tuesday of the month. 

Two of those seven years were, of course, under COVID-19 restrictions.

“We started because we wanted to get out of the house,” Barbara Walker said. “Now, the kids are gone and we need to get out of the house.”

Meetings fizzled after 14 years as their children entered middle and high school and life became an event-scheduling nightmare. Now empty nesters, they bought a new bag of Bunco dice last May and rekindled the tradition.

Previously known as Bunco Babes, they currently call themselves Bunco Babes: Back in Pair-a-Dice. Other new names have been suggested, including Bunco Group Take 2, Dicey Gals, The Rollin’ Sixes, Bunco Beauties, Escaping the Husbands, and, a suggestion from the husbands, Hen Party. 

Sticking with a name doesn’t actually fit this group, which has developed a more laid-back attitude from its previous iteration as it deals with a different set of life issues. 

On the night this reporter paid a visit, about half of the group of 13 wore matching purple T-shirts in support of player Melinda Savage, who was undergoing surgery that day. 

The “Still Savage Strong” shirts prompted one player to suggest the night’s winnings go to Savage, who is traveling regularly to M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston for cancer treatments. The suggestion was shouted out over a rumble of voices deep in conversation. 

“Yes!” several yelled back, and the decision was made. They are used to being summoned to action by a shout or the ringing of a bell, at least on Bunco night. 

September’s game was played at OutBack Patio Furnishings, which is owned by player Judy Miller. They meet at Miller’s business when no one else can host that particular evening. When at someone’s home, the host provides the meal. At the store, everyone brings their own along with desserts to share. 

The game involves three or four tables of four players, depending on how many show up. At the sound of a bell from the head table, teams of two each begin taking turns rolling three dice, looking for sixes. If you get a six, you count it as one and continue to roll until you don’t get a six. 

If three sixes are rolled at once, all four people at the table dive for the dice. Whoever comes up with it gets to count it. You know it happens when a table erupts in screams and arms start flailing.

Reminiscing is also part of the fun.  

“Tell her about the time we invited our husbands to play,” someone shouted to Patty McAlpin before the game began. 

McAlpin was chosen as the unofficial spokesperson for the group. (“I’m not the leader; I’m just the loudest,” she told this reporter.) 

“It was too hard for them,” she said. “We scared them. One time they played, and that was it.” 

Although an aggressive physical battle over a triple six frightened the men, the women swear they are not competitive.

“We just like being together,” Karen Maples said. “Sometimes, we have so much fun, we forget to play.” 

This is hard to believe as the head table rings the bell, and the women team up around the tables and start rolling dice. The continuous yelling and laughter easily drown out the soft tumble of dice on white linen tablecloths. 

The goal is to get to 21, but everyone plays on until the head table reaches that number and rings the bell. Then, the losing teams at each table move to another table. And on it goes until someone yells “last game.” 

Which is not really the rules of the game. Neither is only rolling for sixes. The rules with this bunch are malleable. They have changed over the years and sometimes from month to month. 

One old rule was that whoever hosted got to make the rules. They also used to have theme nights, which is part of this recollection. McAlpin asked everyone to bring their wedding albums for a dinner of Hawaiian Pile On (a layered dish of Hawaiian flavors). In planning for the party, she decided to look up the actual rules of the game. 

According to the official rules, each round features a different number starting with one and moving to six. Players have to remember which number they are looking for and be ready to grab whatever that is when it rolls in threes. McAlpin decided to do it that way. 

“They didn’t like that, so you know what they did?” she said. “At the end of the night, they emptied out all the hole punchers all over my living room because they didn’t like me changing the rules.” 

The hole punchers are used to record wins on yellow cards each player wears around their neck. They quickly fill up with yellow circles of paper, which make a nice confetti that can be hard to vacuum.

“We couldn’t keep track of what we were looking at,” Kathy Wright said. “It made it too hard.”

“I don’t change the rules anymore,” McAlpin said. 

They also don’t do themes anymore, like the times they dressed up as movie stars, wore ugly sweaters, or came as hillbillies. They also used to do cookie and ornament exchanges, but no one wants to put that much effort into it now.

“We had more energy back then,” Wright said.

“This has brought a little fun into our lives,” McAlpin added. “Back then, it was what we needed in our lives at the time. We needed adult stimulation and things to do with friends. Now, we just need time together.” 

The bunk on Bunko

Bunco made its way to the United States from Europe in the 19th century. Originally known as eight-dice cloth, it gained popularity during the Gold Rush in California. Based totally on luck, it was a big hit with gamblers, who met in Bunco parlors to play. It was a regular pastime in speakeasies during Prohibition — for players and the law enforcement officers, or Bunco squads, who raided the games. It became a family game in the 1980s.

suzanne@thepicayune.com