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Is it “Bunco” or “Bunko,” and what’s the meaning and history between the spellings of the popular dice game?
Both are interchangeable and likely derive from the Spanish word “banca”
Play Bunco long enough and you’ll run into spellings like “Bunko” and occasionally “Buncco.” While “buncco” with two “c”s is a misspelling, “bunko” with a “k” is an acceptable alternative spelling for the word “bunco.” Merriam-Webster’s
dictionary even spells the two interchangeably. “Bunco” is also a transitive verb (and not usually capitalized when not referring to the dice game), defined for being a swindling game or any kind of swindling scheme.
The etymological origins of “bunco” aren’t entirely known. Like many words, their regional, cultural, and native uses have changed over centuries. Both “bunco” and “bunko” spellings likely derive from the Spanish word “banca” (for “bench”) or “banco” (for “bank”). That notion tracks since scams are most frequently associated with money and early-banking financial losses.
The popular social dice game by the same name also tracks with the notion of playing around or on a bench. What’s unknown is which came first: the dice game or the idea of a scam and a loss. Common sense would assume the bank-related losses or swindles in popular culture came first, then people made a game around it.
“Banca” derives from the Italian variant of the same spelling and pronunciation, which means “bench” or “counter.” In the original Italian, “banca” described the counter or table used by money changers in medieval Italy.
And the Italian word is likely a derivative of the German word for “bank.” As the notion of banking spread across Europe, so did the word. In Spain, “banca” kept its original meaning of a money-exchange counter or table but later expanded to any place where money is exchanged (like a bank) and the new word, “Banco.”
Bunco is an American game, likely with a mish-mash of origins
Because none of the early Spanish, Italian, or Germanic words for “banca” or banking have hardly any relationship to the Bunco dice game. The English word “bank” is the closest Americans get.
The word is almost certainly the result of 19th-century swindling schemes and hucksters that emerged in the United States. These came as the Bunco dice game emerged around the same time as the popular slang terms around schemes, tricks, and later “Bunco Squads.”
Bunco is not a Spanish, Italian, or German game. It’s more closely associated with American social gatherings and peaked in popularity around the turn of the 20th century. While the term “bunco” is still sometimes used — usually about a Bunco Squad – it’s a separate activity. It should really be considered a distinct word, meaning, and derivative unto itself from the original Spanish “banca.”
Bunco has always been a game of confidence and unpredictability, like poker. But unlike poker where a straight face can work to your advantage, Bunco is pure chance with generally little strategy involved.
Bunco’s true origins as a game is unknown
No one knows how or where Bunco originated. We know it’s at least a hundred years old and most popular in the early 20th century, and likely started in America shortly after the Civil War. There are some possibilities no one has fully documented:
- It’s possible it was designed to be a rapid-fire game in saloons to trick people out of their land or money
- There’s no good evidence the Bunco game originated at all in Spain, as some commentators suggest.
- Like many fads and trends, it’s entirely possible someone had a good idea, and it just caught on for its ease of involving large numbers of people without a lot of equipment beyond three dice for every four players.
The Wikipedia entry for Bunco suggests the history comes from an old English game called “eight dice cloth.” The specious source is a book called “Professional Criminals of America” by Thomas Byrnes.
The pertinent and lengthy quote from the book published in 1918 reads:
With a few slight changes "banco" is the old English game of "eight dice cloth. It was introduced into this country some thirty years ago by a noted sharper who operated throughout the West. He re-christened the game lottery, notwithstanding the fact. that there is no vestige of lottery about it at all. The old game with the new name is so simple, and apparently honest, that even the shrewdest are readily induced to take a hand, and are thus fleeced. There are forty-three spaces upon a banco lay-out; forty-two are numbered, and thirteen contain stars also (no prizes); one is blank, and the remaining twenty-nine represent prizes ranging from two to five thousand dollars. The game can be played with dice or cards. The latter are numbered with a series of small numbers ranging from one to six, eight of which are drawn and counted, the total representing the number of the prize drawn. Should the victim draw a star number he is allowed the privilege of drawing again by putting up a small amount of money. He is generally allowed to win at first, and later on the game owes him from one to five thousand dollars. This is when he draws the conditional prize, No. 27. The conditions are that he must put up five hundred dollars, or as much as the dealer thinks he will stand. This is explained to him as necessary to save what he has already won, and entitle him to another drawing. He draws again, and by skillful counting on the part of the dealer he draws the "blank," and loses all. Sharp as was Oscar Wilde when he reaped a harvest of American dollars with hicurls, sun-flowers, and knee-breeches, he could not refrain from investing in a speculation against which he was "steered" by the notorious Hungry Joe. The latter boasted that his plunder amounted to thousands of dollars, and Oscar, when asked about it, maintained a painful silence.
The sourcing is speculative, though it does lend credence to the idea it was introduced to America in 1888, a time most believe to be true. But the game's description as being derived from an English “eight dice cloth” game is conjecture. It might be true — the author benefits from being closer to the origins in time than we are today. But this is the only source, and other sources conflict.
The World Bunco Association says the game we think of today as Bunco hails from prohibition-era America, which is believable if you consider the need to involve lots of people in a game at once without a lot of evidence. It’s easier to hide 3 dice if the Bunco Squad barges in than a deck of cards spread over a table.
We’re of the mind the truth is probably a mix of “all of the above”:
- The word “Bunco” for the dice game derives from “bunco,” the transitive verb, which itself derives from the Spanish “banca” and the Italian and German variations involving or meaning a “counter” or “money exchange.”
- Swindlers in the old American West after the Civil War probably did use a variation of a game called “eight dice cloth” to cheat people out of vast sums of money or property in saloons.
- Later, around 1900–1930, the children who grew up reading about the swindlers of the old west latched on to the word “bunco” when adopting a new game involving chance that we think of as “Bunco” today.
No matter the origins, you can play Bunco online now
The game we know and love today is available to play online for free anytime in your browser. There are no downloads or in-app purchases, and it works on almost any device. Visit PlayBunco.com
to start now without risk of a Bunco Squad storming into your parlor.