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What Is Keno?

Keno is certainly nowhere near as popular as other casino games, but it certainly has its fans and, just in terms of pure longevity it has been around for far longer than just about any other casino game you can think of. But if you don’t know what Keno is, let alone how to play it, here’s a quick guide to the basic facts behind this ancient gambling game.

How It Works

Very simply, keno is an awful lot like playing the lottery. Players get cards with numbered boxes from 1 to 80, select anywhere from 1 to 20 of those numbers and then place their wagers. 20 random numbers are then drawn (digitally through a random number generator; in real casinos, with a ball machine like those used in a lottery or a game of bingo) and those with matching numbers win. It’s very straightforward.

The payouts vary from casino to casino, who lay out their own rules, but they are determined by how many numbers the player bets on vs how many numbers match those drawn. It is this particular aspect of the game that separates it from traditional lotto games – but not enough that many actual lotteries also offer keno games.

Where It Came From

The name “keno” can be traced back to either French (quine) or Latin (quini) and means either “five winning numbers” or “five each”, respectively, but the actual game almost definitely started in Ancient China where it was known as pai-ko p’iao or baige piao, both meaning “white pigeon ticket” because of the use of white carrier pigeons that were used to announce the winning numbers.

white pigeon standing

The game stretches back at least 2000 years, with some evidence suggesting that the game was fairly widespread throughout China as far back as the third century BCE. It was originally played with paper tickets that would contain the first eighty characters in the Chinese classic work of literature, Qianziwen (“Book of a Thousand Characters”) – a practice that remains true to today in Chinese establishments – but aside for the use of carrier pigeons to carry the results nationwide, the game hasn’t really changed much at all from those days.

Is It Worth Playing?  

Keno may boast a much higher likelihood of winning something than a traditional lottery (though the chance of matching 20 out of 20 numbers is approximately 1 in a quintillion), but it also has the worst house advantages of any casino casino outside of slot machines, which remains the casino game with the worst house advantage and the smallest possibility of leaving with more money than you put in. Online versions range between 4 and 30 percent in terms of house advantage, while real-world casino versions have a whopping 20 to 40 percent house advantage. Slots aside, most other casino games have only a 5% (give or take a percent) house advantage.     

Is it worth playing, then?

Probably not. But like the lottery, it’s worth playing for the chance to get rich just by selecting a few numbers, as long as you realize that that chance is infinitesimally small. Keno is also something different to play at a casino if you’re tired of the same old games. 

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