Every gambling guide and tutorial in history tells you to stay away from keno. But interest in the game seems to be higher than ever.
Why won’t the game of keno die? Who is playing this game? Do these people know something the seasoned baccarat, blackjack, and poker players of the world have missed?
I don’t think the answer is obvious. This is one of those “it depends” questions. Keno is a game with many faces and a lot of history.
People will probably be playing some version of keno 100 years from now. Maybe, someday, someone will come up with a keno game that has really good odds.
A Short History of the Game of Keno
Keno is a lottery game. Its notoriety among lottery games is well deserved, because there are so many different versions of keno that it’s hard to know what you’re playing.
There are two big differences between traditional keno and the popular government-run lotteries around the world.
- Keno drawings use more numbers
- Keno prizes are fixed amounts
If there’s no PowerBall jackpot winner over 20 drawings, the jackpots roll over.
In traditional keno, each drawing has one fixed jackpot, and it never increases in value. I say “traditional keno” but, as I said, there are many variations on game rules. Some keno games do roll over the jackpots.
The origin of keno is not certain. According to Etymology Online, the word was first used in American English in 1814. Etymologists believe the word was derived from the French word quine, meaning “five winning numbers in a lottery.”
This suggests a lottery game like traditional keno was introduced to America by French colonists, probably from New Orleans.
No one knows where keno was invented, but legend says it began in China about 4,000 years ago. Historical records only show that the Portuguese first granted a license for a modern lottery game in Macau in 1847.
The casting or drawing of lots is an ancient practice found around the world. Chinese historians disagree on who invented lottery games but they say the practice ended during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). Although historians aren’t sure of how modern keno developed Europeans most likely developed the basic rules used today.
Why Is Keno so Popular?
One explanation for the popularity of lottery games is that they are supposedly “more democratic” in nature. Unlike a table game (such as roulette) or a card game (like poker), everyone has an equal chance in a lottery.
Casinos only run the best casino games that make them profits. The idea that a lottery is democratic is misleading. Who keeps the un-won prize money?
Lotteries don’t have to be played for money. They have been used for thousands of years to choose people for special purposes. The Acts of the Apostles explains how Judas Iscariot was replaced by drawing lots.
The Chinese Examination system was so popular as a path to social and political influence that applicants were eventually chosen by a lottery system known as Weising. But historians say these lotteries were corrupted and flawed by bribery scandals.
One of the most famous sweepstakes scandals in modern history is the “McDonald’s Sweepstakes Scandal”, where an insider distributed winning tickets to friends and acquaintances for years. Millions of people played the game thinking it was fair and democratic, but it was rigged by one rogue insider.
Keno and other lottery games appeal to people who don’t want to spend a lot of time learning how to play a complicated game. Although there are millions of poker players around the world, only a small percentage are professionals.
Far more people play lotteries than play poker. But another modern twist to keno helps sustain the game’s popularity, its drawings happen more frequently than other lottery games.
If keno has a clear advantage over PowerBall, EuroMillions, and other sanctioned lotteries, it is that players usually only need to wait a few minutes for the next drawing.
Keno Isn’t Just Keno
Once state-run lottery authorities began offering their own versions of keno, millions of players took an interest in the game. Government-run games must be completely fair, and scandals are few and far between.
But unlike MegaMillions or PowerBall, it’s impractical for keno drawings to rely on air-blown ping pong ball drawings. The numbers are generated by closely-guarded computers, and drawings are broadcast live throughout the day.
Players have enjoyed these kinds of keno games in casinos for years. But it makes a difference who manages the drawings and sets the prizes. Every operator sets their own prizes and rollover rules.
The odds of winning and payout percentages vary from game operator to game operator. Although you’ll find variations in table game rules for blackjack, poker, and roulette, they’re minor compared to what you find in the universe of keno games.
And scratch card players now have multiple keno games to choose from. Unlike true lottery drawings, these games are keno in name only. The scratch games must produce guaranteed winners for some combination of prize amounts.
Knowledge Is the Greatest Threat to Keno’s Future
The odds of winning and payouts in keno are much worse than in standard lottery games. Players may not care so much if they can keep playing, but competition is changing the landscape.
As more variations become available to players, they can choose which version of the game to play. Going from the worst odds to really bad odds is a better choice than sticking with the version you know.
Sooner or later, each operator will have to adjust game rules to remain competitive. Although the best keno advice may be to not play the game, people love to gamble. They love beating the odds no matter what the game.
As new variations on keno enter the market, the basic game will become less popular. Keno should evolve over time.
Keno operators will weigh their decisions against their costs and profits. The frequent drawings offset the competitive nature to some degree. But players can buy a long roll of keno scratch offs and play the game at their leisure.
As more players become aware of the choices available to them, things will gradually change.
Keno Is Vulnerable to a More Efficient Game, Too
Instead of trying to make keno better, game designers may simply create an alternative to keno. There have been experiments along the way, from wheel-based games to other types of drawings; they come and go.
Video keno has grown in popularity alongside casino video poker, video blackjack, and similar games. As long as the casinos have the best odds, they can experiment with different video keno platforms.
But do they need to? To upset keno’s popularity, a breakout game needs to satisfy players’ demands.
- A game that feels fair and democratic
- Frequent play (easily done via video platform)
- Big prizes
It’s fair to say that gamblers already have slots and scratch offs to meet these requirements. But it’s also fair to say that people get bored with the same old games. Gaming companies know this, and that’s why they are constantly experimenting with new ideas.
Maybe augmented reality games will introduce a new kind of lottery game.
The future of keno looks golden. Because there are so many different types of keno, it’s unlikely any one version of the game will dominate others. It’s too easy to put the name “keno” on a gambling game.
Only 30 years ago, keno was different and much simpler from the games played today. Players have good reason to expect more changes in the keno landscape.
The original keno game has already been laid to rest by its descendants. And players are most likely better off for the change. As bad as keno is today, the early versions of the game were surely less fair and democratic.