Keno is a lotto game in which several numbers
(typically 20) are drawn from a large field of numbers (typically
80). Players select a set of numbers from the main field (usually
a minimum of 3 numbers up to a maximum of 10 numbers) and
are awarded prizes based on how many of their numbers match
those in the drawn set.
According to an ancient scroll, keno history
started in China. Apparently ancient Chinese scrolls indicate
that Cheung Leung of the Han Dynasty introduced a game similar
to keno around 200 BC. Cheung's city was at war for several
years and was beginning to run out of supplies. Rumor has
it that the citizens of his city refused to contribute any
more to the war fund, so Cheung created a game of chance to
produce revenue for his army. This game, a numbers game not
unlike keno, was an instant success and played a great part
in saving the city.
Quickly spreading throughout China, keno
was also used to help fund the building of the Great Wall.
The game also became known as the White Pigeon Game because
carrier pigeons were used to send the winning numbers from
the keno games in the larger cities to small villages and
The heritage produced by this keno history is
a Chinese poem of a thousand numbers. The 'thousand character
classic' as it is known is a set of independent characters
placed in a rhymed form. Originally a new way for children
to learn, the poem is so well known the characters are often
used as a romantic numbering system. So instead of having
a board of just numbers on the original keno boards, they
used these characters. Originally as many as 120 characters
were used in the game, only after it left china would the
number drop to a more familiar 80.
From there, the story gets a little dull. Basically
the most common theory is that Chinese immigrants imported
the game as they helped construct the railroad in the old
west. Regardless of its illegality, keno was played continuously
by Chinese immigrants, so much so that in and around cities
like San Francisco it became known as the Chinese lottery.
The game didn't have much success making its way into mainstream
North American culture while it continued to use the Chinese
characters as numbers. Keno history didn't evolve further
until near the end of the 19th century when the characters
were replaced with more familiar numbers.
In classic American style, when gambling
was legalized in the state of Nevada in 1931 the fact that
lotteries were not covered under the legislature discouraged
no one. All they had to do was change the name of the 'Chinese
lottery' to something else, so that it wasn't a lottery anymore.
Thus, it was changed to 'horse race keno', playing off of
the idea that the numbers are horses and you want your horses
to come in. As the government passed a law that taxed off-track
betting, so the name was changed once again to offer a better
profit. And that's how the game got its name – Keno.