Don’t let Joan Garibaldi fool you. Sure, you might hear about her charity work, her mothering and grandmothering skills, her hospitality and her proficiency in keeping a bunco game together for 58 years since 1959.

Joan Garibaldi is a stone-cold bunco killer. She’ll kill your bunco hopes, your bunco dreams and your bunco chances of winning one of the cash prizes at her monthly game.

I’m not sure any of that is true, but given the avalanche of accolades Garibaldi has accumulated, it may smart to introduce dramatic tension in order to keep it real.

Garibaldi’s daughter, Angie Kobliska, emailed recently:

“My mom has been playing bunco with her group for 58 years,” Angie wrote.

“She also has put on almost every fundraiser at Garces and St. Francis School and currently runs the Bingo at Garces. For the last 15 years, she has organized the 'Golden Agers' at St. Francis, a monthly luncheon for seniors. She has taught me and my siblings to give, be loyal and be humble.”

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Garibaldi’s house in the northwest for her Christmas bunco game in order to meet the players and possibly pick up some bunco technique from sharpshooters like the hostess herself.

I sized up Garibaldi, a lively 79-year-old, right away. She was a hospitable, generous, loving, charitable bunco-playing machine.

Despite her attributes, I asked her how do you keep a game going all of those years?

“One of our secrets was never changing dates,” Garibaldi said. “It’s always the second Tuesday of every month. Even when I had my three babies, we never changed.”

I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. Did she mean that she arranged her births around the game, either slow playing them or accelerating them, depending on how closely the dates came to Tuesday?

The original players were oil wives from ARCO and gradually expanded to a more diverse group. Early members included Glenda Norton, Annie Schierlitz, Collette Coughlin, Naudine Fargo, Helen Antongiovanni, Barbara Chapin, Arlynne Jondro, Stevie Haskell, Mary Bleizeffer, Barbara Womack, Hazel Brown, Muriel Roberts, Eileen Ghilarducci, Ruby Moore, Lucille Holder, Etta Fields, Ruby Danielson, Joan Shain and Chris Kildare.

“Bunco was considered our night out,” Garibaldi said. “We’d put on heels and our best dresses.”

The group was young and mostly married. They had a waiting list. The waiting list had a waiting list.

Now, most of the women are widows. Ages span from 22 to 91. Gone are the dresses and heels. Players come in casual attire, more appropriate for the 10 a.m. start time that changed after most retired.

The group includes one man, Jason Carrillo, a brave soul since most men are on record as saying “bunco is stupid,” and a celebrity, Phylis Hansen, aka “The Dancing Granny," who dances at every Condors home game.

I knew nothing about bunco except that it was popular. I asked why people, except men-people, liked it.

“It doesn’t take any brains,” said the Dancing Granny. “If you can roll three dice, you can play.”

That should be good for men who are rarely as smart as they think they are.

Roll three dice, count and talk. In good bunco, conversation flows no matter who's winning.

Conversation used to be about husbands, then children, now grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

There used to be smoking breaks, but nobody smokes now. They might pick at some candy from the ubiquitous bunco candy bowl.

Technique varies. Players like the late Naudine Fargo preferred the overhand rolling technique. Garibaldi barely picks up the dice, feigning disinterest, as if the outcome doesn’t concern her, and then opens her hand inches above the table.

No matter how you throw, throw. Don’t sit on the dice. Stalling can stall conversation.

Bunco has become a way of staying in touch, supporting one another through difficult times and helping when help is needed.

A few years ago, fellow bunco player Annie Schierlitz was in the hospital being treated for cancer.

Garibaldi and the group broke into her house in order to clean it and put food in the refrigerator.

“I’ll have to remember to give the group a key if I get sick,” said Barbara Mullins.

I stayed an hour. The three tables of four people were just getting going. Christmas music played in the background, there was the sound of dice and players talked as if they had been talking their whole lives.

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.

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