The History of Keno

Keno is one of the oldest games in the casinos, and as you would expect in a game that has existed for more than three thousand years, there are not a few discrepancies in what we know about the history of keno. However, by all accounts, Keno was invented some 3000 years ago by Cheung Leung, a ruler of the great Han Dynasty. At the time, Leung’s city was involved in a long, drawn-out war, one that had all but exhausted the city’s funds and resources. Unable to draw more tax money from the residents, Cheung Leung conceived of an idea that would both fill his city’s coffers and would not place extra taxation on his citizens.

The game he invented was somewhat similar to the modern keno we play today. The game was based on a popular poem at the time, “The Thousand Character Classic.” This poem was, and is today, a popular way for people to learn how to count, using one thousand Chinese symbols, none of them repeating itself. Comprising two hundred and fifty phrases with four characters each, the poem was written by Zhou Xingsi. Out of them 120 were used, subdivided into eight characters for each subdivision. To regulate the winning or losing, it was decided that whoever would guess right a whole subdivision would be rewarded ten taels, a Chinese form of currency. Incidentally, this same game is still played today in China, only the number of characters used from the “thousand character classic” has been reduced to eighty.

The game enabled Cheung Leung to earn enough money to finance the war. As the game’s popularity spread, it was known as the “Game of the White Pigeon.” This was because it was played in the main towns and cities, and communication is difficult in mountainous China, the news of successes and losses was often relayed to the surrounding countryside by a dove. Soon, keno spread throughout the country and people were playing avidly. When the largest national project in Chinese history was first conceived, The Great Wall of China, it was funded and paid for by keno draws. In the history of keno, there is a lull at this point, and the game did not develop until much later.

While keno in its purest form did not leave China until the beginning of the twentieth century, this is not to say that other forms of lotteries or raffles were not played in Europe. We have evidence of this in one of the first recorded lotteries when the widow of the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck raffled off his remaining paintings. It was in 1515 that the word “lottery” is thought to have come into being, derived from the Italian “Lotto” meaning destiny, or fate. Even in the United States, long before Keno came to the shores of this country, raffles and lotteries were often used to finance civic improvements such as courthouses, jails, hospitals, orphanages, and libraries during the years 1790-1860.

However, the history of keno picks up the pace at the beginning of the twentieth century. San Francisco has always been a magnet for deviants, gamblers, and other people who were not welcomed in the more proper mainland. It is no surprise; therefore, that it was here that keno was first accepted and played. Brought to the shores of the United States by Chinese sailors, keno was an instant success, albeit an underground one. At the time, gambling in all forms, including lotteries and raffles was prohibited by law; the authorities saw that corruption was rampant in the raffle industry. However, keno was played avidly, with the Chinese characters changed to numbers to facilitate the needs of American players.

Although gambling was authorized in Nevada in 1931, lotteries were not legalized. And keno was seen as a lottery by the Federal Government. However, to get around this, keno operators simply changed the name to racehorse keno, effectively masking the real aim of the game. Each number was designated as a horse, even though the game had nothing to do with racing. However, to this day, in many casinos, each separate draw is called a “race.” When the government passed a law that taxed off-track betting, thus legalizing keno, the name was changed once again, to keno. 

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