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.
"This is one thing women can do and just let it all hang out," said Leslie Crouch, founder and president of the World Bunco Association, formed in 1996. The association created the first bunco game box set and an online network.
Many subdivisions and elementary schools have at least one group of moms shaking dice on any given weekend, and each has its own flavor. A 16-year-old team of Jewish women in Silver Spring has always indulged in chocolate over bunco, but they are now trying to help each other lose weight, member Lynn Roshwalb said. A Fredericksburg group calls itself Bunco Babes of Virginia and throws a red, fuzzy die to the person who scores a bunco.
This month, the Mount Vernon group will host its annual couples bunco game. In March, the friends are planning to take their game on the road for a weekend in Ocean City or another beach destination.
By 8:30 on a Friday night in January, five bottles of wine had been uncorked at Cindy Langan's house, and the ladies divided into tables of four to begin the game.
Players take turns rolling three dice in a series of rounds. In the first round, they get points if they roll ones. In the second round, they get points if they roll twos, and so on. If they roll three-of-a-kind in the same numbered round -- for example, three fours in round four -- that's bunco, and they get extra points. There is no strategy, no skill, no thinking required. The person with the most points at the end of the night usually takes home a prize.
Sometimes bunco is quiet. A clink of bracelets as the dice are shaken, the thunk of the roll. Eyes are fixed on the core components at each table: four diamond rings, three dice, two candy dishes, one score pad.
Most of the time in Mount Vernon, bunco is LOUD, with foot-stomping, swearing, growling digs slung at under-performing partners and soprano-pitched cheers extolled to high rollers. When the minutes lag between rounds, one player inevitably hollers "RING THE BELL!" to restart the game.
Between games that night, the friends took an extended break to refill their glasses and gab about the art of apologizing to their teens and the pitfalls of taking away car or cellphone privileges.
"You can't find them," said Jennifer Hemingway, a project manager for a defense company. "It only punishes me!"
By the third and final game, midnight was approaching, and some players had switched to coffee or Diet Coke. Mary Heckmann, an executive for an office supplies company by day, was in the dining room keeping score for her table.
"Why is everything spinning?" she asked.
When the buncos were counted and the cash prizes distributed, Lehner took the box with the dice, pencils and dinner bell for the next month's game.
"Okay, I've got my energy," she said of the game's restorative powers. "I can keep going, because I can see them in another month."