Glen Campbell with Rolls RoyceModern Keno was first hatched in ancient China over 1,000 years ago. The origins surrounding the centuries-old game are unknown but there are plenty of good stories thrown around about it. One says that proceeds from the game funded the Han Dynasty War, while another has Keno money paying for the Great Wall of China. We’ll never know for sure if these are true but it sure is fun to think that they are.

Surely there was no “one great inventive mind” behind what is essentially pulling numbers out of a hat. There were always plenty of lottery games around but Keno is the one that became beloved in casinos around the world. When the lottery was licensed in China in the 1800s it was played with 120 characters but as the game was carried to the American West Coast by Chinese immigrant workers the number of characters was cut down to 80. The elaborate Chinese characters were replaced by numbers so Americans could more quickly evaluate results.

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While gambling was legalized in Nevada in the 1930s, lotteries were not. Operators who wanted to offer the familiar “Chinese Lottery” game to its California customers opted to call it Racehorse Keno“, arguing to regulators that the numbers were akin to the numbers on racing saddlecloths. The casinos were just staging “fictional horse races”…that’s it, that’s all. Wink, wink. That ridiculous story couldn’t have fooled anyone but the law ended up looking the other way just the same. Eventually lotteries were legalized and the original sham name was shortened to Keno, but the tradition of calling Keno games “races” has endured.

Nevada officials were still not completely comfortable with the idea of lotteries, so in 1963 a cap of $25,000 was placed on Keno jackpots. However, in 1979 the limit was bumped up to $50,000, and finally in 1989, with big money government-run lotteries sweeping across the United States, the limits were removed entirely. The game was now allowed to flourish to new heights.


A standard Keno card consists of numbers running from 1 to 80 in eight rows of ten and players can select anywhere between 1 to 20 numbers. If played live in a casino this is done with the most low-tech method remaining in society: a crayon and a slip of paper. A video screen may also be used and this option can randomly choose numbers for the player, if they desire.

The drawings are then held, usually on a pre-determined schedule, like a post time at the horse track. A live draw will bring results from a container of balls which fall one at a time, while a video Keno game will use randomly generated numbers to decide the winning combination. Twenty numbers are selected and each number that matches a player number is referred to as a “catch”, with the final number of catches determining the payout amounts.

If you have dreams of nailing 20 out of 20 numbers and winning a life-changing sum of money, you might not want to know the actual math behind that happening. The true odds of matching all 20 drawn numbers are said to be 1 in 3.5 quintillion, which in ordinal form looks like 1 in 3,535,316,142,212,173,800. Good luck!


Keno always plays the same but a few different variations can be found depending on where you are in the world. For example, some places require at least two numbers to be drawn, while others limit the maximum number of player choices. Typically, most Keno races are run with 1 to 15 numbers selected to try to protect the house from paying out the huge jackpots that 18 or more out of 20 would necessitate.

Every casino has its own unique pay table for Keno, with the one common denominator being that they are always extremely house-friendly. The operator’s edge is generally around 25%, so the simplest game on the floor is also one of the worst bets you can find.

How To Play

There is absolutely no strategy to playing Keno because every ball has a true 1 in 80 chance of being drawn. The only gambling advantage that players can enjoy is to find the best pay table, which will of course still be heavily tilted towards the house. The terrible odds of Keno are why many players simply use it as a way to get a little action in while taking a break from the more mentally-demanding games on the floor.

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