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COVER STORY : Games People Play : Escape and simple pleasure combine to help card, dice contests grow in popularity.

June 11, 1993|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to The Times.

'I am sorry I have not learned to play at cards. It is very useful in life; it generates kindness and consolidates society.'

Dr. Johnson, in "Tour to the Hebrides," 1773


Twice a month, Donna Bushore, a Woodland Hills-based travel agent and a mother of four school-age children, leaves her house right after dinner to join 11 other women to play dice games. On the second Wednesday of the month, it's bonkers, and on the fourth Tuesday, it's bunco.

Bushore and her friends have been playing bonkers and bunco for the last year, and in that time, they have seen the number of other women looking for a night of mindless dice throwing, chatty conversation and company-quality hors d'oeuvres and drinks grow rapidly. Seats at a card table are hard to come by in many suburbs; interested players typically serve as a substitute, and if they like the game, they're advised to start a group of their own.

Many of the people who play bunco have no idea where it came from, but suddenly, everyone seems to be playing it. The game is a combination of escape and simple pleasure. "It gives me a chance to get away from all the craziness of the kids," says Bushore. "It's not playing the game; it's the really great people I look forward to seeing every month."

Whether it's dice games or cards, bridge, mah-jongg, poker or pinochle, people are finding card, dice and tile games a way to create the sense of community they crave.

Card and dice games can offer players freedom from responsibility. Many card and dice games are won or lost by chance. That offers the players a break from accountability for their performance, says James Rule, president and chief executive of the United States Playing Card Co., a Cincinnati firm that has been selling playing cards since 1894.

Like the '50s, the '90s are a time of home-based play, says Rule, who thinks the increased interest in home entertaining goes hand in hand with card games. Cards are also increasingly being played in higher-income homes, with the fastest rise seen in families with incomes of $50,000 or more, he says.

"Games are fun," says Lawrence Sneeden, a professor of sociology at Cal State Northridge and an avid bridge player. People become "euphoric" when they escape the drudgery of daily life, he says.

The act of coming together with others who have a similar life situation--whether it's seniors playing bridge or suburban moms throwing bunco dice--is an attempt at connecting with others and enjoying simple socialization, Sneeden says. Games provide a certain sense of social security that is hard to find in today's neighborhoods. "There's a breakdown in community structure; I can walk a block away and I don't know any of the people I see," he says.

They also allow the players to suspend reality and live, even for a few hours, in a very different world. "Games use rules of irrelevance that make the rules of ordinary society irrelevant," Sneeden says.

A night of bunco does just that. On a recent evening in Agoura, 12 women, most with children ranging from age 2 to 10, gathered at 7, bringing potluck munchies and chatting about their children, their local school's upcoming activities and what they've been doing for the last month.

By 7:30, the chatting turns to less-than-serious game playing, with the 12 split among three tables. The social aspect of the game is built-in because the women change partners with every round.

It's the kind of game that allows players to talk incessantly throughout the dice-throwing, interrupted only by the squeal of "bunco" from an adjacent table--a cry that stops the games at every other table, too. The hostess gives out gifts at the end of the evening--sometimes money, sometimes stationery or kitchen items--typically to the women with the most and the least number of buncos.

A third of the women in this group work outside the home. Even for them, the game is seen as an escape. "It's a chance to get out of the house," says Lori Essrig, a special-education teacher with a toddler and a preschooler.

Dianne Pfister, a mother of three who started this group as a way to get to know people in the community, modeled it after the bunco she learned to play in Texas. She sees the game as a way to reserve time specifically for herself. "I do so much stuff for my kids; I do just two things just for me--I play tennis, and I do bunco."

Lew Herndon, president of Tailicor Inc., a Brea firm that bought the rights to bunco in 1988, says that sales of the $13 game are expected to be double last year's. "In our stressful age, people are looking for inexpensive and fun excuses to get together and enjoy one another," he says.

The interest in joining an organized game to meet others and socialize does not come just from young mothers in the suburbs. Cards and games bring empty-nesters and seniors together, too.

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