There’s a thrill in the voice of Venus Whitman as she recalls the first time she played bunco.
“That ... that had to have been 25 years ago,” she says, pausing for some quick mental math to ensure she’s certain it’s been that long. Attention to detail and accuracy are imperative for Whitman, a Yakima County corrections officer for more than 34 years.
Once she’s checked and double-checked her memory, she confirms it was 25 years ago.
“A gal who was a checker at my bank — she asked me to go play,” Whitman says.
The woman at her bank wasn’t a stranger and the request didn’t seem odd, she explains. They’d known each other long enough that something of a friendship had developed. So when the woman said they were short one player, Whitman already knew enough about bunco to give it a shot.
“That’s how most people get into it,” she says — filling in as a sub. Pronounced enthusiasm remains in Whitman’s voice as she briefly runs through a few essentials every bunco player should know.
There are usually 12 players — almost always women — at the monthly games, each held in the home of a different player who’s agreed to host the game for the night.
And because their individual commitments to the game have built true friendships, they don’t get angry or stressed if life happens and someone can’t make it. They just find a substitute.
“We play twice a month now, but we used to have a team three times a month,” Whitman says. The reasons for player departures are varied, but Whitman cites mainly relocation outside the area.
There also are those who enjoy bunco but cannot fully commit. Whitman said they usually function as subs, offering to fill in when needed.
Then there are times when only 11 players show up to play.
“If we have somebody who can’t make it and we can’t get anybody to fill in, then we just play with a ghost,” Whitman says flatly, not a hint of irony or jest in her voice.
Though some nonprofit and civic organizations use bunco as a fundraising tool, most private clubs give the money they collect each month to the next month’s hostess. For Whitman’s group, that’s $5 per player.
“That money is used to buy the gifts for next time,” she says, before explaining that first-, second- and third-place finishers receive the prizes that their grand total of $60 can buy.
“It’s usually something like Mercy Movie Money,” she said. But there’s also the gift cards picked up in line at Safeway, or times when the hostess just uses the cash.
Whitman already has ideas for the prizes she’ll give out when she hosts in June, but she doesn’t want to give out the details — it’s a surprise.
But the money and the prizes aren’t really all that important. Neither is winning or losing.
“It’s not about that,” Whitman says. “It’s about getting together and having fun.”
It’s also about forming, building and sustaining friendships.
Whitman’s best friend, Marta Keagle — also a corrections officer — joined the group not long after Whitman.
New players are usually invited because someone in the group can vouch for them.
There’s something of a theme in Whitman’s group — it shows up with people like Becky Johnston, who, like Whitman and Keagle, also works for the Department of Corrections.
She’s been there for 26 years and played bunco with Whitman’s group shortly after starting the job. Naturally, she was only meant to fill in for someone who couldn’t make it.
“They needed somebody as a sub and she said, ‘You should come play,’” Johnston explains.
The years that followed are filled with memories.
“As time has passed, people have unfortunately moved or passed away,” she says.
There’s a crackle in her voice, but it changes to warmth — fluctuating between the two as she recounts some moments with the bunco group.
“We now have second and third generations — their granddaughters are playing with us now. It really is one of the unique aspects of the game,” Johnston says.
Then there are the sad times that all too often stand out. Like when one woman’s arthritis grew too painful to allow her to play.
Another had a massive heart attack and was suddenly simply gone.
But there are good memories as well, Johnston said.
Like the husband and wife with a story so incredible that Johnston will never forget it. After many years of marriage, the husband was deployed to Iraq. Just before he departed, his wife discovered she was pregnant, and the bunco group rallied around her as the husband went off to serve his country, Johnston recalls.
It’s a poignant moment for Johnston. She notes the profoundly deep friendships that developed over the course of many months getting to know one another — especially following the baby’s birth.
“He was so cute and he grew up the first couple of years coming to bunco,” she says. “She needed us as much as we needed her.”
From a separate group, Lisa Rogers says she’s played for more than 20 years.
Originally from Seattle, she got a degree from Central Washington University in 1980 and moved to the Valley in 1985.
She taught health, physical education and choir at Franklin Middle School.
“There’s not really a learning curve here — you just roll three dice,” explained the retired Yakima teacher, who still plays it one Thursday and one Wednesday each month. “It’s a no-brainer. You get together and you have a good time.”
“You play with different people every round — never with the same partner twice in a row.”
When it comes to players just starting the game, she has a few words of wisdom.
“Find somebody who plays,” she says. “Get together with some people who already play.”