The origins of keno are steeped in legend, but most historians believe that this precursor to the modern lottery was first played in ancient China around 200 years B.C.
As the story goes, during the Han dynasty a warlord named Cheung Leung found himself in desperate need of funds to continue the defense of his city. A stroke of inspiration compelled Leung to create a lottery game that played similarly to modern keno, with the game eventually generating enough money to leave Leung’s military campaign standing as a success.
Whether or not this tale is exactly accurate in a historical sense is still being debated, but soon afterward a game called baige piao or pai-ko p’iao was developed throughout ancient China. The name translates to white pigeon ticket, which is a reference to the homing pigeons traditionally used to inform players of the numbers drawn during a game. These baige piao games become a fixture of Chinese communities during this time, with gambling houses operating under the authority of provincial governors who also shared in the profits.
The tickets traditionally used in baige piao featured 80 squares – just like modern keno – but rather than numbers the game used the first 80 characters from the Qianziwen, or the Book of a Thousand Characters. These Qianziwen based betting tickets are still in use today throughout modern China, in addition to the typical 1-80 numerical tickets used in the Western world.
Eventually, the game of baige piao made its way to American shores along with the wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived in California’s ports during the mid-1800s. Westerners called the game pak-a-pu, and it was played within Chinese immigrant communities for a few generations before adoption by Americans began in full. By switching out Chinese characters for the numbers 1-80, American players began taking to the new Chinese Lottery in great numbers during the early 20th century.
The modern word keno is derived from the French name quine (group of five), which was attached to the game as it spread throughout the American South. Historical records show that a game called keno was being enjoyed by American gamblers as early as 1866, where ranch hands in Houston, Texas used the game to pass the time.
In 1933 casino operators in Reno, Nevada began spreading a game known as Race Horse Keno, which took its name from the fact that gambling houses used race horse names on the betting ticket rather than numbers. Purely an act of subterfuge, no horses were involved in the game whatsoever, and it played exactly as keno does today – only with names replacing numbers. This was an effort to evade state laws prohibiting lottery style games, but when legislation was passed in 1951 to allow lotteries within Nevada, the game of keno reverted to a number based pursuit. To this day though, individual draws during a keno game are often referred to as races.
Today, keno is a staple of casinos and gambling halls throughout America and across the globe. The game’s mechanics are also used as the foundation for several state lottery games, allowing players to enjoy the keno experience without ever setting foot inside of a casino. These lottery style keno games are offered in convenience stores and non-casino locations.
Modern keno has become a truly automated affair, with players simply submitting their wager tickets to a keno runner, before waiting for the numbers to be selected by mechanical means. These numbers are then televised on overhead screens and players review their cards to determine what payouts, if any, they’ve earned during the previous draw or race.