One of the oldest games in the history of casinos is Keno; the name has its roots in Latin and loosely translates to the word for five. The origins of Keno actually date back more than two thousand years to the Han Dynasty in current day China. One of the rulers of the Han Dynasty, Cheung Leung is credited with being the first one to play keno.
While the true Keno history may never be known, most do believe that Leung did in fact start the game as a means of creating revenue for his dynasty. Back in 200 B.C. the Han Dynasty was in dire need of supplies for war and the citizens did not want to contribute to the war. So it was Cheung who came up the idea of a game of chance to fund the war.
The original games of chance Cheung created were instantly successful and made quite a bit of money for the dynasty’s war fund. It is rumored also that Keno playing was used to fund the building of the Great Wall of China.
At the time Keno was first played it was based on a Chinese poem that had more than one thousand characters. This poem, written by Zhou Xingsi, had 250 four character phrases and used 120 Chinese characters.
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Keno History in the United States
The game of Keno was originally brought to North America by Chinese immigrants, who worked on the railroads in the west around San Francisco in the mid to late 19th century. That was about the time that the Keno board was reduced once again to 80 numbers, which is the present day standard for live casinos. Once introduced in the area Keno became an instant success, even though at that time all forms of gambling were illegal. As its popularity grew, the Chinese characters originally used were changed to numbers so that American players would have an easier time understanding how to play.
It wasn’t until 1931 that gambling in any form became legal in Nevada, but the legislature at that time did not recognize lotteries as legal gambling and Keno was considered a lottery game because of it was incorrectly called the ‘Chinese Lottery.’ At that time the ‘Chinese Lottery’ became known as Horse Race Keno. The numbers represented horses in a race and players would pick how they thought the ‘race’ would turn out and which ‘horses’ would take the top spots.
When the government began to tax off-track horse race winnings, the name of the game was shortened to its current name: Keno. Still today most rounds of drawing numbers in Keno are still called ‘races.’
Even though Keno was not being taxed, the payout was limited. In 1963 the highest payout for a Keno game was limited to $25,000 in Nevada. That cap was raised in 1979 to $50,000 payout per game. For avid Keno players the big change came in 1989 when the Nevada State Gaming Commission completely eliminated the cap on Keno winnings and thereby removed the betting limits for players.