By Becky Hanks
Valley Women Writer
3:52 PM PST, February 22, 2011
On a recent Thursday night in Brawley, the clatter of dice and clamor of 12 women chattering and laughing is broken by enthusiastic shrieks of “Bunko!” A wooden spoon is tossed through the air, and then the commotion is temporarily halted by the ding-ding of a chrome bell as half the women rise from their tables and scramble to sit at another.
The merriment stems from a “bunko” game night organized by Annette Fortier, the group’s founder, and her friends. It’s a fun-filled, rowdy good time for these women who cherish their “night out with the girls.”
The word “bunko” is believed to stem from an alteration of the Spanish card game “banca,” or the Italian word for bank, “banka.” A progressive dice game of chance, it is played by at least four separate groups, maybe more, in the living rooms and games rooms of Imperial Valley — and all over the United States.
Typically, groups consist of 12 women who meet once a month at the homes of different hostesses. Some groups have participants kick in a small fee, usually $5 to $10, to fund prizes for the winners. Membership is limited to 12, but pre-screened substitutes join in if someone must miss a night. If a member leaves the group, usually a sub is asked to join, especially if she fits in well with the personality of the group.
The game consists of three tables of four people. Those seated across from each other are partners. At the signal, women take turns rolling a set of three dice in an attempt to roll the number of the “round” they are on. For instance, during round one, they try for ones; round two, twos, etc. Each time the number comes up, the roller and her partner gets a point. When three of a kind of any number is rolled, they receive five points.
The biggie of the night is a “bunko,” or three of a kind of the round they are in. When this occurs, the player is required to yell “bunko,” and the “traveler,” usually a stuffed animal, toy or spoon, is passed to her. The player still holding the traveler at the end of the night wins a prize.
When the “high” or lead table reaches 31 points, they ring a bell and the partners with the lowest score move down to the “low” table. The partners with the highest scores at the “low” and “middle” tables move up to the next table, and then play resumes.
With more than a dozen variations in the rules, each bunko group adapts the ones they like, allowing it to foster its own personality. One thing is a given — it is a good, loud time for all who attend.
After playing as a substitute for a group in Calipatria for many years, Annette Fortier decided in April 1983 that it was time to start her own with her friends in Brawley. They use unique score sheets she prints with clip art for the night’s theme. They insist on spelling bunko with a “k.” It doesn’t matter, since the word is listed in a variety of ways: bunko (Annette’s favorite), bonko, bonco, or buncko.
“They can’t tell me how I have to spell it,” Annette says wryly, speaking of the World Bunco Association that prefers using a “c.”
Lisa Partida of Imperial has been playing with the Brawley group for 26 years now and along with Annette has been there the longest. She began before she was married and had children.
“It’s a guarantee of a great night out with great friends. No husbands, no kids,” Lisa says, “and the fun of the game just adds to it.”
In spite of the fact that they are there to play a game, the evenings rarely turn competitive.
Sometimes we don’t even play or don’t play all three rounds because we are having too much fun visiting,” says Kathy DuBose.
Through the years, the group has used themes to add excitement and variety to the night. Christmas is usually a semi-formal affair hosted by Annette, and then there is “pajama night” which Lisa has hosted “for a billion years,” she says.
“We’re always trying to entertain each other since we’ve been together so long,” Lisa adds.
Some of them have been playing together since before their children were born, Annette points out. And that sisterhood often extends into caring for and supporting each other through the rough times, too. Together, they have been through marriages, births, adoptions, divorces, bereavements, and widowhood.
“A lot of us were pregnant at the same time,” Lisa says. “We have a real bond.”
Prizes vary with each group, but Brawley’s gives out cash for the Most Bunkos, Highest Score, Lowest Score, and the last one with the spoon wins a Booby Prize, usually a stuffed animal or small gift.
“We used to do prizes,” Kathy notes, “but we’ve all got more stuff than we need.”
Carmen Picazo and Sandra Alvarado of El Centro created their bunko group in 2002. Close friends since they were 10 years old, the women had a ready-made set of women to invite. They include high school friends, in-laws, and even the occasional daughter substituting.
“It gives us a chance to get together,” Carmen says. “Otherwise, we just couldn’t make the time for each other.”
She is the veteran of the game and played with another group for years before deciding to start her own. One day, Sandra called Carmen to wish her a happy birthday and was shocked to find out she wasn’t home celebrating her special day but playing bunko instead.
“This bunko thing must be really good,” Sandra remembers telling herself. “I must be missing out on something.”
At Sandra’s urging, the two friends invited everyone to her house where Carmen taught them the game during an orientation night. The rest is history. Members rarely miss a night, and substitutions are rare.
“We even show up sick,” Sandra laughs. “If I’m not feeling well, I can stay at home by myself, or choose to come here and be with friends.” Later, she comments, “Some of us go back a long, long way, and that’s what makes it so special.”
They use a large cowbell with a red ribbon tied to it to signal the end of rounds, just to be sure everyone can hear it. Their theme nights include St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas, during which members forego buying each other gifts, but instead, take up donations to give to needy families.
On Carmen’s night to host, her husband Joe manned the barbecue, cooking tri-tip for dinner. Their spouses are very supportive of their wives’ hobby.
“A lot of husbands will cook, some bartend and serve us, and then they’ll jump in to play if necessary,” Sandra says.
While some of the groups have incorporated their husbands into the game by instituting a couples night, or asking them to substitute, the experience has not always been positive, they say. Usually, the men take the game too seriously and become fiercely competitive during the rounds, changing the tone of the night.
Like the Brawley group, Sandra says it’s unimportant who wins or loses. “We’re lucky the women in our group are not petty. We’re just so happy to play and have good times together.”
Carmen’s daughter, Lisa Mayo, will substitute for her mom’s group, but she usually plays with a younger set of women who work as teachers at McCabe Elementary School.
Scheduling their bunko nights on Friday or Saturday makes it easier for them to squeeze it into their already hectic week, she explains.
With most of the women in their group in their early to mid-thirties, they use bunko for a short break from their kids and husbands.
“It’s fun. We play the game and win money,” Lisa says.
Natalie Erickson of Imperial and Beatrice Hashem of El Centro are in a relatively new group that has been playing for about three years now. Several of their members were with other circles in the Valley when they opted to start their own on the third Thursday of each month.
Most of the women have children ages 10 and under, so they welcome the chance to go out with their friends and relax, Natalie adds.
“Our motivation is to have a nice night out,” she admits. “It’s the social aspect of it.”
Last year, Natalie’s group adopted a new twist to their games by setting up a basket to collect donations throughout the year. Proceeds exceeded $600, and they decided to give half to a needy family and the other half was donated to a local charity.
“We’re all privileged to have all that we have,” she says. “This is a way to give back.”
And they have great fun together while they do it.
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press