Suburban Moms Forge Bonds Over Bunco

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007

During the week, they lead sales and marketing teams, teach middle school math, tend elderly parents or hospital patients and care for foster children. They go to soccer games and swim meets, drive the carpool and run the PTA and the Daisy troop.

But one Friday night a month, these mothers pack a bottle of wine and a $5 bill, drive past the neighborhood pool and cul-de-sacs of an Alexandria subdivision, and let themselves into a friend's house for bunco night.

Their mothers had bridge. Today's moms have a dice game called bunco.

Sometimes referred to as the "housewife's drinking game," it's a ritual in this neighborhood that begins with a dozen women weathering the storm of child-rearing who have gathered around a kitchen island over seven-layer dip. On a good night, it ends with a cash prize.

The game's early players were hucksters in gold rush towns or gamblers chased out of speak-easies during Prohibition-era raids. These days, bunco is popular among mothers in suburban living rooms, in Washington and beyond.

About 21 million women play regularly, according to a study by Procter & Gamble, which sponsored the first World Bunco Championship tournament in Las Vegas last year. The event was nationally televised and offered a $50,000 grand prize. The second world championship is scheduled for the end of March, again in Vegas.

But most moms don't play bunco for the competition. They play for the few hours of escape from the wall-to-wall work of parenting. It's a chance to exist without a cellphone or a toddler tugging on their sleeves, and a rare opportunity to unwind with other mothers who understand their struggles and successes.

"For me, it's mom's night out but never leaving the neighborhood," said Kathy Lehner, a charter member of a bunco group in the Mount Vernon part of Alexandria. Lehner was formerly chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and was accustomed to the social beehive of Capitol Hill, with its happy hours and political receptions.

Now, she stays home with her daughters, 9 and 12, and spends her nights and weekends running PTA or scout meetings or shuttling her daughters to dance classes and church choir and swimming practices. It's hard to find time for friends, she said, but bunco is easy.

There are 12 regular players (along with a long roster of substitutes) in her group, mostly friends from the neighborhood pool or their children's schools. Each is required to host a game once a year, but the rest of the time, they just need to show up. There's no dress code, though Jeanne O'Hara always wears her dangly dice earrings, and little thinking is required.

"It's better than a book group, if you don't have time to read a book," Lehner said.

Parents' opportunities for informal socializing have declined over the past generation, particularly in suburbs where commutes are long and lives revolve around children's stacked schedules. But some loosely organized home-based activities for mothers, such as mah-jongg, quilting, Bible studies and bunco, are thriving.

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