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Keno history

For many years and for many gamblers, keno in American and European casinos has been little more than an afterthought. The Asian gambling industry, however, has long prized this traditional lottery-style game (for over two thousand years, according to the most popular legend), which easily makes keno one of the oldest casino games still in existence. It’s taken the rest of the world a long time to warm up to keno itself, but its more modern successors — like lottery slots and bingo — earned almost instant popularity in the western hemisphere. In the last decade, as online keno sites have become increasingly common, the international gambling population has rediscovered keno’s ancient appeal, and new fans are giving this old game a second look.

Few other games have a history as long or as rich as keno’s. The versions we play today are not so different from the original format. Rumor has it that General Cheung Leung created the game in 200 BC to fund his growing army, and that later a similar game was used to raise funds for the Great Wall. Since keno was first created as a government fund raiser, the lotteries it has since inspired are pretty true to tradition too.

Some game historians refute keno’s long history by pointing out that lotteries were not legalized in China until the 19th Century. It’s a theory that most keno fans are quick to brush aside, but there may be some truth to the argument. The same theories that ascribe keno’s invention to Cheung Leung also say that he pulled the game’s original 80 characters from the Thousand Character Classic, an epic poem originally written to help Chinese children learn to read. But the Thousand Character Classic was not completed until 549 AD, a full 700 years after the same characters were supposedly used in the first game of keno.

Though modern keno now exclusively uses numbers, the objective is much the same — to correctly choose the characters that will ultimately be drawn each round. Modern keno puts a spin on winning by also rewarding players whose numbers are not drawn. While today’s players can choose as few as one or as many as 10 numbers, the original keno game was based on a five-character pick, similar to the five number line wins still offered in bingo. It is this tie to the number five that inspired a change in names.

When keno first came to America, its popularity among Chinese immigrants earned it the name “Chinese Lottery.” Many players assume that keno is a Chinese word associated with lottery, when in truth it is a variation on the Latin word quinque (pronounced keen-kay) for five. Though the name Chinese Lottery remained popular in America for over a hundred years, the exclusion of lotteries in Nevada’s legalization of gambling in 1931 posed a problem for establishments that wanted to offer the game. To skirt the law, casino operators renamed the game “horse race keno,” thereby removing all obvious ties to a lottery though the rules remained the same.

Keno first came online in the early 1990s when several of the early game sites offered a fun only version of the game. Only a few years later, cash keno could be played at any number of online casinos and even on several casino-specific international sites. Today, keno players number in the millions, and keno is one of the biggest live and online gambling draws.


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