The history of keno is shrouded in legend. It has been said by many that the game was first invented thousands of years ago by a Chinese ruler as a way to raise money for a long war, or perhaps even to help fund the Great Wall of China. Realizing that his subjects probably wouldn’t accept yet another tax, he came up with the idea for keno, a game that could simultaneously be extremely profitable for the city’s coffers while also giving players the chance to win huge prizes. It’s a great story, if for nothing else than because it mirrors how state and national lotteries are utilized today.
The true story of keno is probably a bit more mundane. While lotteries have existed for hundreds of years and were developed independently by different groups around the world, keno is first mentioned in China around 1847. Players chose easily recognizable characters from the Chinese poem “The Thousand Character Classic,” and if their picks matched the characters selected, they could win prizes. It’s interesting to note that these games were known as “white pigeon” lotteries, as pigeons were used to transmit the results from the cities where the drawings were held to outlying regions.
With the popularity of keno in China, it was only a matter of time before Chinese immigrants brought the game with them to new lands. This included waves of Chinese immigrants to Australia in the 19th century; the game also notably spread to the United States through San Francisco a little later. Chinatowns were often locations for illegal keno games, helping the game gain popularity throughout the world.
In Australia, the game of keno spread quickly through clubs and pubs, and now is a fixture throughout the nation. While the game has fallen out of popularity for serious gamblers, it is extremely popular among those who want to make a quick wager over a drink or a meal, as players can enjoy social conversation while awaiting the results.
Part of the reason the game of keno isn’t as popular in live casinos as it once was is the relatively large house edge the game carries in its traditional form. That’s why online keno has become the much more popular version of the game. In most cases, online casinos offer much better odds on their keno games than live venues can. This is just another example of the evolving nature of keno – a game with a rich past and a long future ahead of it.