The magnetic bunco-steerer and his confederate, by Bernhard Gillam. Library of Congress.
Here's how the bunco dice game led to Bunco Squads and a social revolution
Bunco game symbolized a generation of hucksters and scams but the game endures
Bunco is a fun dice game played by families and friends, but it didn't start out that way. Bunco came to the United States from England prior to the California Gold Rush. Much like the Gold Rush, most people who set out to get rich with Bunco were left swindled or penniless.
By the 1920s Prohibition, Bunco became a favorite game in speakeasies and underground bars. This led to the rise of Bunco Squads to root out swindlers, fraud, and alcohol peddlers. Here’s how.
When the head table rings, check your wallets
In 1855, the same year Border Ruffians from Missouri invaded Kansas and set the United States on a path to Civil War, an unknown traveler heading west to California devised a scheme to cash in on the gold rush fever sweeping the territory. He called the game Banco.
Banco is Spanish for "bank", and involved a combination of a dice match and playing cards, borrowing from the popular Mexican game Three Card Monte.
The scheme was easy: get the largest number of players you can find into a room, use dishonest tactics, dice, or card tricks to ensure as each player rolls your preferred team at the head table rings in your favor, and cash in on the money from the losing team. A game of luck and chance designed for lots of people at once, Bunco was an easy game for easy targets.
Despite the ease at which dishonest players could swindle players, the game was addictive, simple, and still fun. Within a few years the Spanish "Banco" evolved into a more American "Bunco". The lack of extensive, formal education in many parts of America shows a frequent spelling of "Bunko" in many parts of the country until "Bunco" became the standard by the end of the 19th century.
Bunco parlors bring new ways to play Bunco and hide booze
Bunco rules evolved, eventually dropping the playing cards for nothing more than three dice. As the game evolved, so did the county. Soldiers fighting in the Civil War took dice with them and spread the game from city to city, establishing a trend across the warring country.
By the 1920s, alcohol prohibition in the United States drove men and women of all social classes into secret but often well-known speakeasies, bars, and clubs. To keep up an ere of respectability while serving contraband alcohol, these speakeasies needed an alternative reason why so many people might show up at the same time.
Bunco, so the reasoning went, was an obvious choice. It had gained in popularity among the population, involved at least three tables of four players per game, was easy to score points and tallies, took at least half an hour to play all the way through, and gave numerous people a good cover reason to all show up at one point at the same time.
Unlike poker or other gambling games, Bunco was easy to learn and play. Just take turns to roll the dice and count up the points. The first to 21 wins, and there are only a few special considerations with a mini Bunco or a full Bunco to learn. Because a number of players switch tables each round, it was also a fun and easy game to keep people moving in a space or room.
There was no need for Bunco players to score points with strategy or bluffing. There was virtually no skill required. The next round was always easy to start, and the winning team and losing team were always easily identifiable. As a result, Bunco became such a popular game these bars, taverns, and speakeasies became better known as "Bunco Parlors".
Respectable business owners could look a police officer in the eye and say with a straight face, "This is not a place for drinking! This is a place for playing Bunco." To further keep up appearances, many Bunco Parlors were designed, furnished, and staffed to look like accounting offices, law firms, doctor's offices, barber shops, and retail stores.
Rise of the Bunco Squads combatting cons, swindles, frauds, and Buncos
Police departments didn't take long to catch on to Bunco Parlors. In some U.S. cities, like Chicago and New York, alcohol prohibition was so widely known even the police paid a social visit on and off-duty.
Mayors and police chiefs looking to appear strong against crime, corruption, and alcohol amid strong support from Prohibitionists formed Bunco Squads to investigate and crack down on the popular gambling game. These Bunco Squads were dedicated investigators and detectives set to work on busting up Bunco parties, and, most likely, catch the illegal alcohol distribution occurring alongside the operation.
As it was in 1855, Bunco proved popular despite the ease at which swindlers, conmen, and dishonest players could separate people from their money. "Bunco" became inextricably intertwined with the idea of scams. The term and the idea of a "Bunco Squad" to root out scams and swindles persists to this day, despite most people not knowing the origin and relationship to Bunco groups.
A new generation begins to play Bunco — fairly and for social fun this time
Once Prohibition ended in the United States, the need to play Bunco for appearances declined. The depression and a generation torn asunder by World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and later Vietnam further disrupted the social dice game further. The country was changing again.
But as soldiers returned, the economy rebounded, and suburban development sprawled across the nation Bunco re-emerged as a fun way to bring people together. In the 80s and 90s, Bunco developed a reputation as a game for women to play during a Bunco night or party. The social game encouraged people to move around in large groups, create teams to play as a table, and the winning team earned Bunco prizes — often small contributions of cash or items.
Perhaps reflecting the conservative nature of the country in the 80s, Bunco shed its reputation as a game for swindlers and con artists, even as the term persisted in popular language as a synonym for fraud. A "Bunco artist" remains a popular phrase for a fraud or "con artist" in some parts of the world, including Britain.
"Bunco Squads" remain a popular turn of phrase in popular language today, too. Many law enforcement agencies still refer to their units investigating fraud online as informal "Bunco Squads". It's not uncommon for someone to refer to "The need for a Bunco Squad to root out corruption" in large online operations, too.
When you play Bunco today, you're playing by a set of Bunco rules that have evolved over 150 years of social and political change, upheaval, and revolution. Bunco has been involved in some of the most interesting political history in virtually every major U.S. city.
You can play Bunco online for free, with no risk of investigation from the Bunco Squad
Today you can play Bunco online for free — with no risk of being investigated or defrauded of your money — at PlayBunco.com
The number of players is reduced online from 12 to 4, counting you. And each computer player uses artificial intelligence to roll three dice, just as the game evolved to be. Each player rolls to strike a Bunco — three of a kind of the round number — to score 21 points in each round across six rounds. Each round ends after someone scores 21 points and the game ends after six rounds. Whoever wins the most rounds and scores the most points wins.
And if you host a Bunco party or Bunco group sometime soon, you can ensure the losing team (and the winning team) that despite whoever rolls a Bunco, the highest score is an honest win.