It's a mere game of dice and chance, but it's survived at least two centuries. In some cases, it's been outlawed.
Bunco began as a popular 18th-century family-friendly parlor game in England. Also known as "Banco" or "Bonco," it migrated to the United States in the mid-1800s, and later on in that century, became a vehicle for speakeasy swindling as a gambling sport in some parts of the country.
Today, people, mainly ladies' groups, are reclaiming the game as an excuse for a ladies' night or a more leisurely party, with food, drinks and prizes. This week in the Berkshires, there are two opportunities to get in on the game. At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum will host a "Play Bunco!" afternoon, in its fashionably Victorian surroundings. Then at 7 p.m., on Thursday, the Junior League of Berkshire County will host its annual "Bunco for Books" event in Pittsfield to benefit its community and literacy programs.
Veteran Bunco players Mary Ryer and Lori Allessio will be facilitating Sunday's event at Ventfort Hall.
Ryer said her group of women have been gathering to play Bunco at each other's homes in Pittsfield and Dalton for 38 years.
She was introduced to the dice game by a cousin, who once asked Ryer to fill in for a woman in her group. Ryer enjoyed it so much, that she and her friend, Sharon Carlo, decided to start a monthly Bunco meet-up of their own.
Asked to describe the game of Bunco, Ryer said, "It's a game of chance you play with dice." She said there are two ways to play it; fast and competitively, or slow and for fun.
"I prefer to play slowly, so you can sit and enjoy the company," Ryer said. "Once you take the opportunity to play, you'll love it."
Ryer said she was taught to play in groups of four. According to the website of the World Bunco Association, eight players divide themselves among two tables. Each table divides itself into two teams facing each other, with each player earning points from dice roll combinations for their team.
Each roll consists of rolling three six-sided dice. One player from each table starts the game by trying to roll "ones" during the first round, then "twos," then "threes," and so on up to six.
The games between teams take place simultaneously, and are paced by a head table or a person ringing a bell or calling for the round to start. For each die rolled showing the number up in the round, a point is scored. A player keeps rolling as long as they land on point-scoring numbers. If a person rolls a three of a kind of the number for the round, for example, three ones for the first round, then it's considered a "Bunco," and that phrase is usually shouted out with an exclamation point, much like in bingo.
Each round concludes when either the head table reaches 21 or calls its first "Bunco." At the end of each round, each player changes partners, and/or tables, thus making it a highly social game.
Point tallies are kept on paper, and at the end of the time (usually two to four sets are played), there are multiple winners, including the most Buncos, the most wins, and the most losses.
Typically, halfway through an afternoon or evening of Bunco, the host offers refreshments, like chips and dips, candy or other appetizers, coffee, tea or, in many groups, cocktails.
Ryer and her friends typically have a spread of M&Ms candies, popcorn, chips and taco dip. They don't play for money, per se. They each contribute $6 to an envelope to play, and the winner goes out to buy prizes for the following week.
"Over the years, I've taken home dishes and flatware, hanging plants, gardening things, gift certificates and knickknacks," Ryer said, "It's fun, and you never know what you're going to get."
More so than the game and the prizes, both Ryer and Lorri Allessio, another Berkshire Bunco player, say that the reason they really play is to get quality time with friends.
"What makes the evening so special for me is the fact that, while the game is easy and fun to play — and we always have really yummy desserts afterward — it really is the friendship that the group has maintained over the years we've been together," Allessio said.
She added, "We've been a support group of sorts for one another through the birth of babies, divorces, death of spouses, death of members, birth of grandchildren, and cancer survivorship and loss — all the large and small events that shape a person's life and attitudes."
Ryer and Allessio's group still has four original members, but over the years has taken in new members and substitutes with equal adoration.
"In addition, we treat ourselves to a nice dinner out once a year to celebrate another wonderful year together," Allessio said.
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
Bunco in the Berkshires ...
• "Play Bunco!" will be hosted at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, 104 Walker St., in Lenox. All levels welcome. Call 413-637-3206 to reserve a spot. Admission is $15 per person and includes refreshments, prizes, and a cash bar.
• "Bunco for Books" will be hosted at 7 p.m. Sunday by the Junior League of Berkshire County, at 75 South Church St., in Pittsfield. All levels welcome. Admission is $20 per person, and includes appetizers, drinks and prizes. New and gently used children's books will also be collected at the event for Berkshire United Way's new Book House initiative. Info: Email email@example.com, visit jlberkshires.org, or find them on Facebook.