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The origins of Keno

The origins of Keno

Keno is a lottery-type casino game that you might have seen your parent’s playing once or twice at the local sports club while you chowed on your chicken nuggets. If you’ve played a lot of the game yourself, then you’ll know what the score is, but perhaps not the true origins of it.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Keno is a gambling game where participating players take a card and make a wager by selecting 20 numbers from a list that usually ranges from 1 to 80. In some versions of the game less than 20 numbers are selected, but 20 is the usual number.

20 numbers are then drawn at random. The more numbers that a player guesses right, the more of a payout they will receive. Players can select the numbers themselves or allow a terminal computer to randomly pick the numbers on their behalf – either way it’s 100% chance and the luck of the draw.

Man with arms in the air celebrating his Keno win

So, now that you know how the game of Keno works, are you ready to learn about how it originated?

The true history of the game of Keno can be traced back thousands of years into the past. The earliest records of the game are from ancient China, where the name for it was Pakapoo. Pakapoo was introduced to Australians during the Victorian gold-rush by Chinese prospectors.

Pakapoo used Chinese characters instead of numbers, and the characters were most often taken from the first 80 that appeared in the Thousand Character Classic (or Chinese Character Text) which is a poem wherein no two words are repeated.

The origin of Pakapoo or Pukka-poo is traced back to a Chinese legend where a city in wartime was saved by citizens playing the game. It is also said that the game helped pay for the Great Wall of China.

War has always been very costly (both in terms of lives and money), so it’s believable that gambling could be used as a way to pay for it. In the case of the ancient Chinese, this gambling seemed necessary to fund their survival against the enemy that was attacking them.

The legend surrounding the ancient Chinese origin of Keno says that the game was created by Cheung Leung, who created the game as a way for citizens to pay for the upkeep of the army. Citizens did not want to pay directly for the army as they feared for their own fortunes, but the game encouraged citizens to gamble their money away instead.

Using the ‘Thousand Character Classic’ mentioned earlier, Leung created a form of lotto board where players placed bets on where the pucks would land when thrown on the board. Players needed to use a quill with ink to mark their wagers, and this is where the term ‘Keno spots’ comes from.

The game first appeared with Chinese miners in San Francisco and travelled with them to Australia. While authorities tried to break up these forms of gambling, they were too widespread and easy to conceal. It is said that the Chinese would give losers back enough money so they could go buy a drink, which would have prevented a lot of animosities.

The Chinese name for the game is loosely translated to mean “Great White Pigeon Game”, referencing the messenger pigeons used to deliver the results of the game to neighbouring cities in ancient China.

However, it was in the United States that the modern form of Keno was developed. It came to America with Chinese railroad workers in the 1800s and was popular amongst the immigrants but kept under wraps because gambling was illegal in the US.

Americans began to call it the “Chinese lottery” for obvious reasons and it grew out of the San Francisco area where most immigrants were found. The Chinese characters were altered to be Arabic numbers at this point, making it easier for English speakers to play. This is where Keno as we know it really began.

Lotteries were still classed as illegal when gambling was federally legalised in 1931. This caused the game to be briefly renamed as “Race Horse Keno” where it was implied that the players were betting on actual horses and not on random numbers. This is why rounds of Keno today are called ‘races’ because they were pretending to be real horse races for a long time.

Eventually, when lotteries were legalised, the game of Keno moved into casinos and grew widely in popularity due to the ease of play. The earliest casino versions of the game involved numbers being written on paper and rolled into tubes.

20 of the 80 numbers would then be drawn from the tubes to present the winning numbers, to the joy or dismay of players. Eventually, the game became a little more sophisticated with the numbers being carved into wooden balls, which were called Keno peas.

Eventually, a casino owner in Nevada developed a system where a rotating cage was used to randomise the fall of numbers. He opened his own casino in 1936, and this was the first place were Keno was legally played in the United States. Originally the payouts for the game were limited to $25,000 and then $50,000 but is now up to individuals establishments to set.

Keno balls in a cage which was the origin of Keno

Of course, Keno rode the wave of online casinos when the internet first became mainstream, and the game became more efficient (and paperless). There are plenty of computer-controlled cages in operation to this day. It is one of the most popular online forms of gambling.

The online Keno world is large, and there is a lot of money going around for players to win. It’s an exciting game that is easy for anyone to pick up and participate in from home, generating a lot of suspense each and every race that is played. The online game is basically identical to what you would find in real life, and millions of people around the world are playing the game and having fun doing it.

The game of Keno is truly a glorious one with a long and storied history. The game is as interesting to learn about as it is to play, and its simplicity explains why it has survived and remained popular for over 3000 years since its first recorded use.

If the stories are to be believed, then we can thank Keno for the Great Wall of China, one of the world’s most iconic landmarks. If you ever visit the Great Wall, you can thank the humble Chinese lottery for helping to make it happen.

All in all, Keno is a very fun game that attracts many different kinds of people to come and play it. Its origins are very interesting to learn about, and there are lots of areas where history is hazy enough to encourage further investigation.

As with any kind of gambling, players need to be responsible when they partake in Keno and not get carried away with it. For most people, the game is a fun distraction while they enjoy a meal or a drink with their friends and adds a little excitement to their night. More dedicated gamblers are probably going to gravitate to games that are a little faster like slot machines.

Written By

Coming from a background in logistics and company management, Renee is one of our most essential writers when it comes to an understanding of the less spectacular but highly necessary elements of a business. Renee can speak and write eloquently on a range of topics, including those that cover business management and motivation.



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