Keno History

Keno History

Keno is a lottery type game originally from China. Like many of the Chinese-origin games, it arrived in the United States with the Chinese railroad workers. This simple and exciting game has helped keep the Nevadan gambling scene alive since the beginning of the 20th century.

Since the beginning of the 21 st century, keno, like many other land-based games, have taken the leap to the online world and is now enjoyed by millions.

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Chinese Roots

The roots of keno can be traced back to ancient China and it is believed to first have been based on a rhyming children’s poem. The poem, known as “Thousand Character Classic” was a poem used to teach children to read because there were one thousand characters that were not repeated.

Around 200 BCE, the famous Chinese general, Cheung Leung was finding it hard to fund his continuous battles. The citizens were not interested in paying more taxes and were becoming increasingly hostile. Cheung Leung knew that if he did not find additional means to pay for the war, the barbarians would overrun his kingdom. An idea developed to build a huge wall separating Cheung Leung’s kingdom from the approaching barbarians from the north. However, again, he was faced with the question of how to fund this operation.

The theory goes that Cheung Leung invented a game, based on the first 120 characters of the “Thousand Character Classic”, in which players had to pick a set of characters. Cheung Leung then drew random characters and formulated a winning combination. The game was an instant success and was played all across the kingdom. Carrier pigeons were used to send the winning number combinations to the far-flung corners of the land and the game thus became known as the White Pigeon Game.

The general’s coffers overflowed as a result of the game’s popularity. The money was in turn used to build the Great Wall of China and to fund the army’s battles. It is therefore believed that the original keno played an essential role in saving the Han Dynasty.

Keno Follows the Rail Workers

The keno game was played by the Chinese over the centuries and remained a common pastime for people of all classes and ages. As with other games of Chinese origin, keno arrived with Chinese immigrant railway workers in the 1850s. As the workers moved across the country constructing the railroad tracks towards the west, keno spread with them.

Despite the fact that it was illegal, keno was very popular, especially in areas such as San Francisco. It become known as the Chinese Lottery and became even more popular with the locals when it was decided to change the Chinese characters to simple numbers. This move enabled more and more people to enjoy the game and by the end of the 19 th century the 120 numbers had been dropped to 80 and keno was being widely played, despite the need to keep it underground.

Keno Hits Nevada

After gambling became legal in Nevada, keno undoubtedly made its way to the gambling capital of the world. Warren Nelson, who had experienced keno in the illegal form in Montana, decided to introduce it in his casino in Reno. In 1936 he opened the first keno game in the Palace Club; while Joe Lydon opened the first keno game at the Fremont in Las Vegas.

In Nevada, however, keno had to undergo an identity change. Because keno, AKA the Chinese Lottery, was a lottery type game, it was considered illegal under Nevadan law – lotteries were not yet part of the legal gambling package of the state. Casino operators began calling the game “Horse Race Keno” and it was thus allowed to be part of the game package in the state’s casinos.

Horse race keno was based on the pretext that each number represented a horse and players had to predict which horses would win the fictitious horse races. Keno became known colloquially as ‘the races’ and this name has stuck today. The government finally got wind of the success of keno and decided to begin taxing off-track betting. The casino operators were once again a few steps ahead of the officials and simply changed the direction – they shortened the name to keno.

In 1963, Nevada officials decided to limit the maximum payout for keno games to $25,000. In 1979, this amount was raised to $50,000 but did still not satisfy the casino operators who were desperate to make headlines and payout jackpot level prizes. Finally, in 1989, the limits on maximum payouts were abolished and casinos were able to begin paying out their dreamt-off jackpot prizes. Keno players have never looked back since.


Keno has naturally evolved to be included in the line up of games that are offered on most online casinos. Due to the simplicity of the game, it is not hard for online casinos to offer the same excitement and thrills that land casinos offer. While there are no keno runners and keno lounges in the online world, a player sitting comfortably in their own home, playing keno on their laptop from the sofa with their wireless internet connection will not be missing out on too much.

Posted by CCJ Team

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