The roots of the table game of Keno are hard to trace, but legend places its origin in China during the ancient world. Under siege from outside powers, lotteries in the mould of modern-day Keno were held to raise much-needed money for war efforts in China of the first--or second-century--B.C.
Legend even has it that funds raised by Keno lotteries were used to build the Great Wall of China to repel the Mongols and other warring tribes—a landmark synonymous with the world’s most populous country, and one that can be seen from space.
Actual historical records of lotteries taking place in China don’t appear until 1847, when lotteries were authorised by the Portuguese colonial government of Macau (still a gambling hub to this day). Lotteries were played on sheets of paper with eighty square printed grids, marked with the first eighty characters of the Chinese alphabet. Winning tickets were often transmitted between villages by carrier pigeon, giving rise to the name 白鸽票 (báigē piào).
Chinese immigrants who were conscripted to build the U.S. transcontinental railway shared the game with their American overlords, who mispronounced it as “Pakapoo.” By 1866, it had caught on in popularity in Houston, TX. There it acquired the name “Keno,” a bastardisation of the Latin number “Five” to refer to the five winning numbers.
Today, Keno enjoys a second life as a lottery game played in land-based casinos and has effortlessly made the jump to online casinos where it can be played either on web browsers or mobile devices.
The Basics of Keno: How to Play
Keno resembles the kind of classic lottery Western powers are used to, in many ways—you bet on certain numbers, and the winning numbers are determined by the luck of the draw. The odds can be long, but massive cash winnings can be at stake, even when you bet a relatively small amount.
Land-based casinos operate Keno lounges where players can post up and play the game, sort of like a bingo room. A casino might also employ “Keno Runners” who wander the rest of the floor offering the chance to bet on the next Keno game. They collect the cards, then return with your winnings if your luck is in on that Keno round. Alongside the popularity in video versions of games, players can also now play video Keno, either on the casino floor in gaming boxes that resemble video slots, or at online casinos.
How Keno operates is that a Keno card is divided into a grid with eighty squares numbered from 1 to 80. The grid is ten squares wide, eight squares high. When you bet on a game of Keno, you’re betting on a certain number of squares, known as “spots.” Usually, the number of spots you can bet on ranges between four and ten. If you can bet on four numbers, it’s a “Four-Spot Game.” Bet on ten numbers, and it’s a “Ten-Spot Game.”
In a land-based casino, Keno tickets can usually be picked up at the Keno lounge or at various tables throughout the casino floor. A special marker called a “Keno Crayon” is provided by the casino for you to mark the card.
Once you have your Keno card, you use the Keno crayon to mark the numbers you wish to bet on, up to the “Spot” number of the game. Then hand in the card to the Keno desk or Keno Runner along with your bet. The clerk will hand you a receipt version of the ticket with your numbers marked so you can keep track of your status as numbers are drawn.
Winning numbers are selected from a barrel containing eighty numbered balls. If any of your numbers are selected, you win. The more your numbers are selected, the more you win. The really big jackpots only kick in when you select multiple numbers correctly, the odds of which are much lower.
As many as twenty numbers are drawn, so it seems like it should be very possible to win something. However, the house edge on Keno games tends to hover at around 30%, one of the highest you will find on any game.
Minimum bets to be about £1, with the possibility of winning up to £50,000 on a very lucky draw. Some casinos allow Keno bets for as low as 5p.
Each round of Keno is called a Keno “race.” Unsurprisingly, then, many casinos offer “multi-race Keno” where you play back-to-back races.
This is the classic form of Keno. Online, you can find video Keno games with grids of sixty or fewer.
What are the Best Strategies for Keno?
It is important to understand that at its heart, Keno is a game of chance, like most casino games. Whether or not you win depends largely on luck, not on skill. Casinos offer games such as blackjack where they can build in a house edge, and with Keno, that house edge happens to be particularly high. Keno is actually one of the lowest-return wagers you can make in a casino.
That’s why casinos make it very easy and cheap to bet on a Keno race. It’s money that players typically feel they can afford to lose on a lark. They have many chances to win, and in some cases, runners are walking right up to them, offering to take their Keno wagers. More money in the pocket of the casino!
That said, people who don’t think strategically about their Keno race are all but guaranteed to lose. There are a few basic errors to avoid and steps to take to maximise your chances of emerging from a Keno race a winner.
Here are some strategies you can work into your Keno game:
Play Cards with Fewer Than 80 Numbers
One of the reasons Keno has such a high house edge is because of how few chances there are to win. A one-in-eighty chance represents only 0.0125% likelihood that this number will be picked. There is only half of one percent that one of four selected numbers will be picked.
While there is still a high house edge, the math works dramatically better in your favor the fewer spots the card has. If you can find a sixty-spot or better Keno game to play, focus your efforts on that one.
Play All the Numbers You Can
You don’t have to bet on all the numbers you are allowed to, but it absolutely makes sense to do so. The more numbers you bet on, the more chances you have to win, so max out the spots allowed by the Keno game you’ve chosen. Don’t go and reduce your chances of winning for no reason. Pick randomly if you must to fill out your spots. That’s how the winning numbers are picked anyway!
Calibrate Your Winning Expectations to Four Winning Numbers
Keno games come with brochures or instructions that tell you how much you win for each winning number you pick. Pay the closest attention to what you win if you pick four correct numbers. There may be tempting prizes at five correct selections, but in Keno, 4 and 5 are not created equally. Your odds of picking five or more correct numbers drop off dramatically due to the mathematics of the game.
Therefore, you should never expect to correctly select more than four spots. If attractive winnings only kick in at five spots or greater, choose a different game.
Tips and Tricks for Playing Keno
Again, there is very little you can do to rig a Keno game in your favor. Winning is almost purely the luck of the draw. However, there are some tips and tricks worth considering to boost the odds of winning your Keno game. Here are some options to consider ...
Playing Online? Exploit “Free Mode”
One of the least sensible gambling strategies is to bet money on a game you don’t fully understand and haven’t mastered yet. Whatever the casino game, you have better odds of winning if you know the rules and understand the gameplay.
One of the benefits of playing at an online casino is that many of the games have “free modes.” This allows you to play the game without risking any money on wagering. You can place simulated wagers and see what strategies work for you, see how much money you get back, etc.
Of course, not betting any money means you have no chance of winning any money either. Some players avoid free modes because they don’t want to have a one-in-a-million lucky draw and not reap the big winnings from it.
However, that kind of luck rarely comes if you don’t even know how to position yourself for the win. Take advantage of free-play mode! Learn the game before there is real money at stake.
Select Keno Cards Between 4-Spot and 8-Spot
You might think that the more spots you are allowed to play in a Keno race, the better chance you have of winning. That is true to an extent. Some Keno cards let you play up to twenty spots. When you play twenty spots, with a draw of twenty, you have a reasonable chance of getting up to four winning numbers.
The problem is with the payouts. The more numbers you have to play, the worse the payouts get. 20-Spot Keno cards tend to only have worthwhile winnings above four winning numbers. As we mentioned before, the odds of winning more than four numbers drop off dramatically, based on the math of the Keno card. That means that even though you have more chances of winning, your winnings are likely to be unsatisfactory.
The sweet spot seems to be between 4-Spot and 8-Spot Keno. These games usually have the most favorable balance of attractive winnings at a reasonable likelihood of winning—though it’s never a great likelihood, given how much Keno favors the house.
Consider Consecutive Numbers
We’re getting into the realm of superstition here, but some Keno players swear by the selection of consecutive numbers—perhaps not all consecutive numbers, but perhaps two groupings of consecutive numbers. For example, on an 8-spot card, consider betting on 7, 8, 9, and 10, as well as 51, 52, 53, and 54.
There is no real mathematical advantage to choosing consecutive numbers. A Keno draw is just as likely to be all over the map. But Keno enthusiasts keep pumping it up, so it’s something to consider. These people can’t all be wrong, right? Or can they...
Consider Cold Numbers
This strategy also strays into superstition more than some players prefer, but give it a try anyway if the spirit moves you. Some players keep track of which numbers have been called recently, reasoning that the numbers which haven’t been called in a while (cold numbers) are likely to come up soon. It’s only a matter of time.
On a basic level, this is true. Given enough time, every number in the Keno barrel is likely to be drawn. However, it is no more likely to be drawn this race than it is the next race, or 100 races hence, after your bankroll is depleted.
Still, with few options to skew the draw into your favor, give cold numbers a try. There’s nothing to lose except what you were set to lose anyway!
Choose a Reliable Casino
A more practical tip for playing Keno online is to make sure you choose a reputable casino. If you find a Keno game that pays out like gangbusters, it will all be for nothing if, at the end of the day, the casino turns out to be a scam and won’t release your money to you.
Online casinos are typically headquartered with their servers in “offshore” jurisdictions like Curacao, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar, Cyprus, Malta, or the Kahnawake Indian Nation (an enclave within Canada). What do these jurisdictions usually have in common? Lax gambling laws, easy and cheap casino licensure, and minimal scrutiny. As such, online casinos are a decidedly mixed bag.
Moreover, some online casinos might not be available in your home country. Some might be accessible, but against the law. How strictly or effectively your government enforces that law varies on a case-by-case basis. Just because it is available online doesn’t mean it is legal to play.
In general, when evaluating a casino for reliability, you want to look at a few things:
- Licensure: Does the casino have a current licence in good standing, even if it is from a lax offshore authority?
- Reputation: Often a bigger deal than licensure, some online casinos have a reputable parent company with a long history in the online gambling business. These casinos are usually in it for the long haul to build a profitable business through customer loyalty. They usually aren’t in it for the scam and the quick buck.
- Player Reviews: Players often post on forums about whether the casino has a history of withholding withdrawals of winnings; or if the platform is unstable and given to crashing at just ‘that’ inopportune moment. Remember, if you win a jackpot but the app crashes before your winnings can be recorded, you often lose the jackpot.
- Industry Watchdogs: Various watchdog organisations watch the activity of online casinos and record shady dealings on their “blacklists.”
Read the Terms & Conditions
Another practical tip is to read the casino’s Terms & Conditions (T&C), especially if you are playing Keno to fulfill the wagering requirement of a cash bonus. Some things to look for include:
- Playthrough contribution. Some casinos may count Keno wagers as only partial contributions to a playthrough requirement on a bonus. For example, each £1 bet on Keno may only contribute to the wagering requirement by £0.50 or less.
- Time Limit. Some online casino bonuses have a time limit for you to play with the bonus cash--or it disappears. Make sure you don’t miss your window!
- Withdrawal Limits. These are particularly devious, because it amounts to the casino withholding your money to maintain its own liquidity. This may never be an issue for you if you are not a high-roller. Keno is a low-betting game, but also a game with high potential winnings. Make sure you understand what chunk of those winnings you are allowed to withdraw per day, per week, and per month to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Does Anything Change by Playing Keno Online?
Most of the rules for the playing of Keno apply to online video Keno. However, there are some differences you should be prepared for. For example:
- Video Keno is a much faster-paced game. Rather than waiting for a draw, you get your results almost immediately (unless you find a casino that offers “live dealer” Keno. In that way, it resembles video slots much more so than the leisurely game played at the Keno lounge. This fast pace is well-suited to players who want to grab a quick game between train stops or in line at the grocer. However, you can easily lose a bankroll quickly playing video Keno, due to the high house edge.
- Video Keno may include bonus games to break up the gameplay like video slots do.
- Video Keno races do not depend on a barrel of numbered balls. Some feature the barrel as an animation, but there is no virtual barrel of balls in the game. Instead, results are determined by random-number-generating software. In the face of this fact, strategies like picking consecutive numbers or cold numbers may feel particularly moot (although they are always suspect)!
- Video Keno has more variations. The game usually has a lower house edge in general compared to live Keno, and you might find versions with smaller grids and/or more spots to play.
From the Great Wall to the casino floors of Macau and Vegas, few games can boast the rich tradition of Keno. It’s exciting to see Keno so widely available in video form on today’s online casinos. For sure, this is a great game but just be aware that the house edge really favours the house--well, of course, it does. There’s a reason why the online gambling market is so massive.
So go slow, take it easy, and play for fun at a level where you can afford to lose.