Wed. May 29th, 2024

Keno is a very ancient game. It is purportedly based on an ancient Chinese lottery system. Legend has it, that Gengis Khan used it to raise funds to pay for the Great Wall of China. If this is true, then Keno dates back to the 3nd Century BCE. This was hundreds of years before Jesus walked the Earth.

The name of the game, however, is not Chinese, but actually stems from Latin. Why this is remains a mystery. The meaning of the word Keno, or Qini is Five Each. This might be an indication that ancient Romans might have played a similar game, but this is no more than conjecture, and remains an historical mystery.

Whether the game came from China or ancient Rome is of no matter. Its popularity was such that it remained alive for over two thousand years and made its way across continents, even arriving on American shores in the 19th century. The game is so simple and appealing that it became a mainstay of American casinos since the early 1900s.

Modern Keno is actually a refinement on the game observed by the Portuguese when they ruled Macau in the 1800s. Macau is known today as one of the gambling Meccas of the world, with some of the best casinos on earth and home to many of the most interesting and exotic games in existence. Macau was no different back then, and the Portuguese government in Macau understood this and allowed the local flavor of lottery to flourish.


The modern game of Keno played in Western casinos today is virtually unchanged from the Chinese version with the exception of a few small details. The original game involved Chinese characters. These are the complicated symbols that each individually represent a single word. They are mysterious to Westerners thus had to be changed to numbers. There were originally 80 symbols in the game. This is reflected in the 80 numbers in the modern game of Keno played today.

Keno is not a game for those who don’t enjoy losing. It is unkind in the cruelest of ways, giving the house an enormous edge, as high as 35%. Consider that a game like Blackjack has a 1% house advantage and Keno doesn’t seem like a very appealing proposition. The payouts, however, are very large, the wagers are quite small, and thus the game continues to attract large numbers of players. It is the same mechanism that gets people to play state lotteries even though their odds of winning are functionally 0%.

Keno players choose a number to wager on and mark the number with an S (just as they would black out a box in a lotto card). Winning numbers are announced much in the same way that lotto winning numbers are selected on the television. There is often a machine that uses compressed air to release a series of plastic balls, which are printed with a number. Some casinos still use the old style rolling cage, which appears very familiar to anyone who has seen it.

20 numbers are selected this way. Then a computer system works out the odds on all the winning numbers and pays out to the winners. This is essentially the same as how a state lotto works, except the odds of winning at the casino are actually statistically significant. Keno is a lottery that can be won. State lotteries, on the other hand, cannot. It is all a matter of entropy. Keno needs only one winning number whereas a state lottery often needs in excess of five. With each additional required number the calculated combinations grow exponentially. This is called entropy, it is a breakdown of a system where chaos takes a progressively more prominent role. If you have ever heard of Chaos Theory, entropy is one of its main fields of study.

This is not to say that winning big in Keno is easy. Keno allows players to pick up to 20 numbers, which can be matched to the 20 randomly selected winning numbers. An exact match is subject to 19 levels of entropy. The number of combinations becomes exponentially larger. Since there are 80 numbers to pick from in the beginning, a random sequence of matched numbers is extremely unlikely. 1 out of 3.5 Quintillion, to be exact (exact, with such large numbers is a relative term at best).

To put it another way, the big jackpot in Keno can never be won. The odds are much worse than the lottery, and are so low, in fact, as to be 0%. Just like the state lottery, but much, much, much, more unlikely. Bear in mind that the state lottery has odds in the order of 1 out of 250 Million. That’s the difference between 1/250,000,000 and 1/3,500,000,000,000,000,000. In other words, not possible.

I mentioned before, however, that the odds of winning aren’t so bad after all. This is because there are a lot of other types of bets, and it is not necessary to hit the entire number sequence. Payouts are often in the range of $500 to $1000. This most often happens on a bet called a Catch, which is when none of the numbers the player selects appear as the winning numbers. This sounds idiotic, but it is actually rather unlikely, since the player is selecting 20 numbers out of a finite set. A bet such as this costs approximately $5. To win $1000 on a $5 bet, is quite nice and entirely possible in the game of Keno.

Herein lies the main draw of Keno. It is like a lotto, but there are a variety of ways to win. The wager amounts are small, but the potential payouts are big. It is usually well worth it to play at least one round of Keno when making an evening at the casino.


By Sean

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