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       Pill makes game grow


      The Orange County Register

      February 10, 2007

    Winning isn't everything: Leslie Crouch's Bunco Web site recommends a $5 prize for the player with the most losses.

    What do Bunco players have in common?

    A: They're women.

    B: They can eat, joke, carry on multiple conversations, roll dice and tally points all at the same time.

    C: They think men have no business playing Bunco.

    D: They get heartburn.

    Answer: All of the above.

    But it's "D," the heartburn connection, that is taking the dice game Bunco to the national stage.

    The short version of the story: About a year ago, an assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble got a lead that Bunco players make up the very target demographic for the heartburn medication Prilosec: middle-aged women.

    She asked around and got herself invited to a Bunco party – not always an easy task, since Bunco clubs typically cap membership at 12 so that each woman hosts Bunco night once a year.

    Anyway, at the party, she was pleased to find that in between rolling dice and shouting "Bunco!" the women were – surprise, surprise – eating and – another big surprise – talking, often about purchases they made and bargains they found.

    She returned to her office and reported her findings.

    Procter & Gamble dispatched a team of employees for more research. Among the findings: More than 10 million women play Bunco, a fast-paced game of chance in which players accumulate points by trying to roll three of a kind. Six of 10 players said they made purchase decisions based on Bunco buddy recommendations. And twice as many frequent heartburn sufferers play Bunco regularly as does the general population.

    Meanwhile, the average Bunco game is a hotbed of the very foods said to trigger heartburn. Asked for typical Bunco fare, Marlys Swanson, a nurse from Waukesha, Wis., confessed that onion-pepper dip and pizza fondue were often involved. In one Missouri group, members routinely serve Snickers Salad, which has Cool Whip, marshmallows, cream cheese and chopped Snickers.

    This was a no-brainer. Prilosec was all about Bunco. But was Bunco all about Prilosec?

    Leslie Crouch says yes.

    A former toy marketer, the Newport Beach woman branched out on her own in '96 to found the World Bunco Association.

    The game dates to Victorian England. It gained popularity as a parlor game in America after the Civil War, particularly in the Midwest. During Prohibition, it moved to speakeasies, where "Bunco squads" often busted up the games, which sometimes involve gambling.

    It was during the '30s in Chicago that Crouch's nana Helen began playing, taking home nickel prizes like dish towels. Helen, who died two weeks ago at age 98, taught her granddaughter to play.

    Crouch was in her late 30s, raising her three girls, when she found some other Newport moms who played. The game had never gone away, but a post-World War II Bunco lull lasted through the '80s.

    One day in 1995 it dawned on Crouch that there were no Bunco box games on the market. A phone call revealed that no one had legally trademarked the name.

    Out of her garage on the Balboa Peninsula, Crouch went to work. "Bunco?" her daughters rolled their eyes. "What are you doing, Mom?"

    She was designing a game called "It's Bunco Time!!!" – that's what she was doing.

    For years Bunco players threw their game components – dice, a bell, score sheets, pencils, scratch pads – into a shoe box and passed it around from hostess to hostess.

    Now everything was in a nifty traveling box with a handle. Crouch took her prototype to a gift show in Los Angeles. "Look!" women shouted. "Bunco's in a box!"

    Crouch sold 20,000 games that first year. Sales have since hit a high of 100,000 games a year. And Crouch is proud to say her daughters – now 17, 19 and 21 – have decided, "Hey, mom's not so dumb after all."

    Soon after designing the game, Crouch started the World Bunco Association Web site, where players can find groups to join, read up on rules or e-mail with questions such as: "There's a woman in our group who cheats; what should we do?" There's a chat room and store that sells Bunco Babe T-shirts and a Bunco party cookbook. (Anyone for spicy cheesecake?)

    But it's Procter & Gamble that is taking Bunco to the big time.

    After tracking down Crouch last year, the company secured a licensing deal through 2008 to take Bunco on national tours that end with the Prilosec OTC Bunco World Championship in Las Vegas.

    The first regional championship was last month in Kansas City, Mo. Another followed in San Antonio. Today there is a tournament in Atlantic City, N.J. Next stop: Nashville, Tenn. The tour ends with a two-day championship March 31 and April 1 at Mandalay Bay. A documentary of some of the players on the tour, "The Road to Bunco," will air May 11 on the Lifetime Network.

    A trial World Championship was actually held in Vegas last summer to determine if a national tour would be popular. Registration for the 1,000 seats filled up within a few days. This year it took all of 10 hours. The winner will be handed roses, crowned like Miss America and presented a check for $50,000.

    "I mean, it gives me the chills," Crouch says.

    At each stop along the tour, a Procter & Gamble pharmacist answers heartburn questions, does screenings and passes out Prilosec samples. The company name is on everything.

    By April, Bunco die-hards will be able to play online at the World Bunco Association Web site. Although that venture seems a bit, shall we say, dicey.

    The reason women play Bunco is as much about female bonding as it is about throwing dice and winning the $60 kitty at the end of the night.

    "The game itself, it brings them together, but when they get together, it's really secondary," Crouch says.

    Bunco, it turns out, is where women can try and top one another's hot flashes, compare arm flab and worry about their children all while doing victory dances, shouting at the dice – and sharing a lot of laughs.

    "People make it into a party," says Judy Price, a Newport Beach senior citizen who plays at least once a month with a group that sometimes shows up in pajamas. "It's kind of a no-brainer of a game, much more relaxing than other games like bridge."

    Swanson says she first played Bunco as a child with her grandma back in the '40s in Chicago – the first prize she ever won was a turkey baster – but she didn't join a group until she became a young mother in Wisconsin. "It was a lot cheaper to come to Bunco and air our complaints than lying on a couch," she says.

    And then, of course, there was that pizza fondue calling her name.

    Contact the writer: 714-932-1705 or