A Brief History of Keno

Keno: When it all Started

One of the oldest casino games in the U.S. and indeed the whole world today is Keno. As is the case with most gambling games, Keno too has a very long and checkered history. Also, as is the case with history, there are discrepancies about the beginnings of Keno.

However, the official version has it that Keno has been around for over 3,000 years now. Apparently, the game originated in China, and was invented by a ruler of the great Han Dynasty of China, Cheung Leung. There is an interesting story about how Cheung Leung came out with the game of Keno, which we will look at briefly here.

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Cheung Leung's Invention of Keno

As the story goes, Cheung Leung was involved in a war that had been dragging on for long, and had ensured most of his city's coffers and funds were empty. He also could not collect any more money from the citizens as tax, and was trying to think of a way to collect money without adding an extra tax burden on his people.

That was when he came up with a game, somewhat like the Keno we play today, which had its basis in a poem from that time, The Thousand Character Classic. That was a poem that was a popular way of learning about counting, using a thousand Chinese symbols, each of them unique. The poem, by the way, continues to be popular for counting even today.

Zhou Xingsi wrote the poem using 250 phrases, each with four characters. The game used 120 of these, with each subdivision having eight characters. The game was to be able to guess an entire eight-character subdivision accurately, and anyone who could do this would win 10 taels, a form of currency in China. The game is popular even today in China, though the number of characters has been cut to 80 now.

With this game, as the story goes, Cheung Leung was able to raise enough funds and resources to carry on the war. People continued to play the game, giving it the name Game of the White Pigeon, as people employed the services of doves to convey messages related to wins and losses in the game. The popularity of the game was such that it was used to raise money for the biggest construction project in China in those times, The Great Wall of China.

Keno Leaves Chinese Shores

Keno left Chinese shores in the 1800s, and came to the United States along with Chinese sailors who left China and came here in search of work. They landed in San Francisco, the haven for gambling in those days, and Keno became a success once they introduced it to the people around. However, the game continued to remain underground, as there was a ban in place on gambling in general during that time. People continued to play Keno, replacing the unknown Chinese symbols with numbers.

In 1931, Nevada legalized gambling, although the ban on lotteries remained. Keno, which the federal government recognized as a lottery, continued to be underground. The workaround came when enterprising operators switched the name of the game, calling it racehorse keno. They had a horse represent each number, and it was in that form the game first took off officially in the United States.

The game switched back to its original name once the government introduced taxes for off-track betting and legalized keno. Even today, many casinos prefer calling individual games 'races'.