Keno

History

If you think you might get rich playing keno, you're right ... and you're wrong. To understand how you can be at both ends of the correctness spectrum, you¹ll get some help if you know the origins of the game.

Keno's ancestry traces back more than 2,000 years to China, when the Chou Dynasty was beginning to crumble. An inventive individual named Cheung Leung came up with a lottery game designed to raise money for a provincial army. Leung's concept was so successful that he was able to mobilize the army successfully and to unify China under the new Han Dynasty (talk about a big-money house game!) In the years that followed, all sorts of similar lotteries appeared in China -- some legal and some not.

 
Keno Ticket

Played throughout the centuries in every province, a variation of Leung's game eventually found its way to the Chinese communities in America in the 1800s. There it became known, appropriately, as the Chinese lottery.

In 1931, the game was introduced into the legal casinos of Nevada under the name racehorse keno. Gamers thinly disguised it as a bingo-type game since bingo was legal and lotteries were not. Over the years, undergoing several changes, it became known as keno.

Now, just knowing that the game uses a lottery as its basis should be a big clue as to why you probably won't get rich playing it. After all, Cheung Leung managed scrape off an edge big enough to support the largest country in the world. However, knowing that the game uses a lottery as its basis should also be a big clue as to why you could get rich playing it. Haven't we all read about those instant multimillionaires, thanks to Powerball? (Fortunately, today's keno game uses fewer numbers than the original version, so the house edge isn't as large as it was in Leung's day.)

The Game

Keno as we know it today consists of a paper ticket imprinted with the numbers 1 through 80, similar to the illustration at right (see Keno Ticket).

 
Ticket 1

You, the player, select favorite or lucky numbers, mark these numbers with an X using a crayon provided by the casino, determine how much money you want to invest in the game, then submit the ticket to a keno writer or runner. How much you can win is determined by the number of "hits" (matching numbers) you get -- and how much money you invested. Obviously, the more numbers that come in and the more money you've wagered have a lot to do with the payoff ... and the more numbers you pick, the harder it is to win.

Let's take a look at a typical ticket from a typical casino -- before you've made your final decision. You're sitting in the restaurant, enjoying a cup of coffee and a piece of cheesecake when a keno runner sashshays by calling, "Keno?" You grab a ticket and crayon, mark six numbers and hold it up in the air so the runner can see it. She takes one look and hands it back to you. "How much? How many games?"

If she's as friendly as she's supposed to be, she'll mark the ticket according to your wishes and even explain how you should mark it. Trouble is, many keno runners today don't really know the game. They're break-in employees working for low wages who haven't been around much live gambling -- which is why you should know how to mark the ticket yourself!

 
Ticket 2

In our example (see Ticket 1), we've marked a six spot. We checked the rules -- they're located in the keno lounge and on the dining tables -- and have seen that if we hit six out of six in this casino, we'll win $1,600. If we hit five of the six numbers, we'll get back $80. Four out of six will yield us $4 while three out of six will get us our $1 back.

So, following the keno runners instructions (or having read this article beforehand), we indicate on the ticket that we're playing one game for one dollar and we're playing a six spot. Notice that on the right side of the ticket we've written 1/6. Some casino tickets don't have a separate box for you to record how many numbers you're playing so you're required to write it in the space as we have. The way we've written it (1/6) indicates we're playing a one-way six spot (see Ticket 2)

In days gone by, you could play just one game at a time. Today, you can play two, three, even 100 games, just by indicating that preference on your ticket and putting up the appropriate amount of cash. At some casinos, you can play 1,000 games and have up to a year to present your ticket for validation and, if necessary, collection of winnings.

 
Ticket 3

Take a look at Ticket 3.

Here we've decided to play the same numbers for 10 games in a row. At the cost of $1 a game, we'll be putting up $10. Now we can sit back and enjoy our meal, watch the keno board to see how many numbers hit or don't hit, and, if we're lucky, collect after the last game. (Note: The keno writer or runner will bring you a ticket to show which games you are in. Just be sure to check the ticket for accuracy.)

And that, dear friends, is just about all you have to know to play your first game of keno. You can play a one-spot, a two-spot, all the way up (in some casinos) to a 15-spot ticket, and your results, should you hit, vary according to the casino.

In another part of the series, we'll give you some odds on hitting the various numbers, as hitting 15 out of 15. While it would return a rather healthy jackpot, it pits you against some astronomical probabilities. But then, so does the lottery, and as we said earlier ... Haven't we all read about those instant multimillionaires, thanks to Powerball?