What You Need to Know About Keno

Keno Marquee with Numbers on It, Keno Block Logo
Keno is a lottery style game. There are many variations of it. Keno is so popular you can play it on scratch cards, scan cards, and video machines.

The basic game is the same the world over. There are variations and it’s always a good idea to read the rules for any keno game you play before you start making wagers.

The mathematicians and statisticians who calculate gambling odds and probabilities almost universally agree that keno has the highest house edge of any gambling game. Lottery game experts also point out that keno payouts tend to be much lower than comparable prizes from state-run lottery games.

So why do people like playing keno games?

Perhaps it is because of all casino games the payouts from keno can be much higher than payouts from other games. But keno is one of the most flexible gambling games available. That variability may be part of its appeal.

The basic game uses the number 1 through 80. A drawing is held and 20 numbers are pulled. The drawing may be electronically computed or conducted via lottery balls and machines.

Players choose up to 20 numbers per card and may play multiple cards at once. Minimum wagers usually start at $1 per card.

The payout odds on keno are complicated and you really need to study the payout table for the specific keno game you play. On video keno machines those tables are displayed in the help screens.

In general experts agree that the best payout odds fall in the 4-, 5-, 6-, and 7-pick games. A pick is the number of numbers you’re betting on.

If you play a 5-pick game you choose 5 numbers. If those 5 numbers appear in the 20 numbers that are drawn for the game then you win the maximum 5-Pick prize. You could still win a lesser prize if only 2, 3, or 4 of your 5 numbers are drawn.

1 – Are Keno Winnings Taxable?

Yes, keno winnings are taxable if you pay income taxes. In the United States you are required to report gambling winnings over a certain amount of money.

In reality if you won $500 every week all year long the government would expect you to report that as income. That would come to $26,000. While many players don’t report these kinds of winnings, that’s usually because they lose so much money.

1040 Tax Form, Calculator, Money and Documents on Table, Keno Numbers

How do you keep track?

Bookkeeping is the player’s obligation but the casino will require you to fill out paperwork if you win more than $1200. This may vary by jurisdiction.

2 – Are Keno Numbers Random?

Assuming the game is honest, yes, keno numbers are random.

I can’t vouch for every keno game in the world. There are – I have read – villages in Asia and Africa where local keno games are run by independent operators.

If you’re playing keno in a licensed casino, or on a state-registered keno machine, or in a keno scratch ticket game then the numbers are as random as can be humanly contrived.

If you’ve played keno and feel like you were cheated, remember what I wrote above. Gambling experts consider this to be one of the worst choices out of all the games offered at casinos.

People do win prizes in keno but most of the prizes are a few thousand dollars or less. That’s because as players study the game and gather experience they stop playing 10-Pick games.

You have a 1-in-4 chance of picking any of the drawn numbers. To calculate the probability of all your numbers being drawn, multiply 0.25 by itself as many times as you pick numbers. In a 5-Pick game your chance of picking any 5 numbers that are drawn = 0.25 * 0.25 * 0.25 * 0.25 * 0,25 = 0.0009765625.

That works out to about 1-in-1024. You have a better chance of winning a comparable prize on a slot machine.

So while the numbers are random, if you pick a lot of numbers you make it less likely that you’ll win the top prize.

3 – Are Keno Machines Rigged?

Legally installed and operated video keno machines are regulated. Like popular slot games and video card games, all video keno games are supposed to use random number generators.

If you opened up one of the game consoles and looked at the inside all you would see are some electronic components with chips on them. You have no way of confirming the chips are legal random number generators and processors.

But casinos and other businesses that have video keno games are only interested in happy paying customers. They have no need to cheat you. The games are already designed to favor the house.

Keno Machine Screen, Stack of Money

If you’re playing in an underground casino then there’s no way to be sure of whether the keno machines have been tampered with. There is no way to be sure they are not fake.

The state-run keno games are handled by equipment provided by the same companies that manufacture and certify other lottery game equipment. And the same is true for keno scratch cards.

4 – Why Is Keno So Hard to Win?

I’ve already explained the basic rules of the game above. And I also provided an illustrative example of how to calculate the probabilities of winning.

But winning in keno is not that hard. People who feel it’s hard to win in keno may be playing too aggressively. If you’re betting on 10 numbers (or more in some variants) you’re really stacking the odds against yourself.

You’re more likely to collect on partial wins than complete wins and those partial wins can pay some pretty substantial prizes.

So if you’re getting partial wins and frustrated that you’ve never hit a top prize for your pick games, that’s normal.

But you’re also playing a game that has substantially longer odds than standard popular lottery games like EuroMillions, MegaMillions, and Powerball.

A typical lottery game requires you to pick 5 numbers from a smaller pool than in keno (plus an extra number from a second set).

In American Powerball players pick 5 numbers from a pool of 69 plus an extra number from a pool of 26. These are much smaller pools than keno’s 80 number pool.

That means your chances of winning a 5+1 Powerball game are much, much better than winning the top prize in a keno 6-Pick game, And to add insult to injury, if you do win that top prize in keno it’s going to be MUCH smaller than in a government lottery game like Powerball.

5 – Who Invented Keno?

A lot of people are interested in the history of keno. The usual answer is that historians guess it was invented by the ancient Chinese thousands of years ago to fund a government project, like a war or wall.

Keno Machine Screen, Flag of China, Keno Numbered Balls

Many articles about the history of keno say it was brought to America in the 1840s by Chinese immigrants. That seems unlikely since keno tables are mentioned in various American court cases and statutes in Alabama, Georgia, and New York going back at least to the 1820s. Chinese immigration is first record about 10-15 years before then but there is no mention of their gambling practices.

The truth is that no one knows when keno was invented. If the ancient Chinese of 4-5,000 years ago really played lottery games it’s doubtful they called any of them keno.

Keno in its modern form is first attested in the 1800s in Asia. It’s possible that everyone just assumed that if it came from Asia and the ancient Chinese played lottery games then keno must be very ancient.

Lotteries are attested throughout history and all over the world. So there is no way to confirm that keno really did come from ancient China.


Keno is in its own way a fascinating game. It’s not for everyone but has been called the Common Man’s Lottery. The name may be a little out of date.

Keno has well-deserved reputation for being hard to win but it’s not hard to play. And some players swear by the game.

If you enjoy keno and would like to learn more be wary of the numerous history articles you’ll find on the Web. If anyone has done significant research into the game’s history and variations their work is deeply buried in an archive yet to see the light of day.

Posted in: Specialty Games

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