The History of Keno
Keno was originally known as The Chinese Lottery. It acquired the name because this simple form of gambling finds its origins in ancient China. The original Chinese Lottery was actually a teaching aid that was based on a children’s rhyme. The purpose of this lengthy rhyme was to teach children the thousand characters that they needed to learn to read. This poem is known as "The Thousand Character Classic" and contained one thousand non-repeating rhymes.
The Chinese Lottery evolved from this simple nursery rhyme when in 200 B.C., Cheung Leung, the legendary Chinese general invented the gambler’s game. He employed the first 120 characters of the Thousand Character Classic to create a system of betting. People who marked the right characters with ink and brush would win prizes. The funds that were raised as the result of this game were to keep Cheung Leung’s precarious power safe from invading barbarians.
How Ancient Keno Was Played
Chueng Leung’s ancient Chinese lottery required the players to pick a set of characters from the selected 120 Chinese symbols. These 120 characters were also subdivided into eight more sub categories. Twice a day the emperor would then draw random combinations. If the gamblers lost one subcategory they would lose three more bets. If they won one subcategory then they would win ten more bets.
As there was no electricity or phones in ancient China, messenger doves were sent to deliver the lottery’s results over the imperator’s vast domain. Over time, the game became to known as the White Pigeon Game.
The game that was usually played once in the morning and once in the evening. It was so popular that Chueng Lueng’s government was able to reinstate its army after just ten lottery drawings. Some Chinese scholars called this form of lottery “idiot taxes”. The indirect tax gathered from this type of gaming over the long term managed to totally fund the construction of the Great Wall of China.
In modern day China, this form of keno is still called the Thousand Character classic and is still played twice a day. Eighty characters are chosen from a thousand characters and arranged in divisions on a card. Ten characters make up one division. Players can wager whatever amount of money that they like on each subcategory, depending on what kind of variation of the game they are playing to increase their winnings.
Keno Arrives in North America
Nobody in North America had heard of the Chinese lottery until the nineteenth century, when the game was brought by Chinese immigrants to California. These immigrants were lured to North America by the Gold Rush. Instead of mining gold, they found themselves working as low paid laborers building the North American railroads. It was not long before the Chinese lottery soon caught on in California and also in Nevada, which was already developing its lucrative gambling industry.
The term keno was actually the original name for bingo. The Chinese Lottery was nicknamed "Horse Race Keno" in America by gaming businesses in Nevada to evade criminal prosecution. Lotteries were considered illegal at the time but horse races weren’t. Casino operators operated fictional horse races and each number was representative of a fictional horse. The challenge for the players was to pick the winning “horses.” Even today keno is sometimes called “the races”. Casino players might say they are “off to the races” or to “the race game.”
To play original Horse Race Keno eighty numbers were written on pieces of paper and then deposited into cardboard tubes. Twenty numbers on these slips of paper were drawn for each game from the stacked rows of tubes. Eventually these stuffed paper tubes were replaced by wooden balls that were subsequently nicknamed “peas”. These balls would subsequently be replaced by bouncing plastic ping-pong balls with numbers on them.
In the American version of the Chinese Lottery, the quantity of numbers that you select on a keno ticket is nicknamed a spot. For example, a player who marks a keno ticket and picks 8 spots on a $4 ticket would be playing a $4 eight spot ticket. If you choose 30 numbers at $1 each you would be playing a $1 thirty spot ticket.
The term “spot” was first used in the original Chinese Lottery. Because in ancient China, the numbers chosen were marked with a brush and ink, they were called spots. The reason ink was used is that it made the bet indelible, so that it could not be changed at the last moment. There are still a couple of casinos in Las Vegas that mark “spots” on keno cards in the traditional fashion. Still other casinos punch a hole through the paper slip on which the numbers are written.
Keno in Modern America
By 1963, the United States government decided to tax the proceeds of horse track racing, including revenue earned from Keno Horse Racing. At this point the casinos in Nevada dropped the Horse Race part of the game’s name and just called it keno. Until 1989, nobody was allowed to win more than $50,000 playing keno in Nevada but since then the amount of the jackpots have zoomed sky high.
Since then keno has also become a popular game on the Internet. Lottery versions of keno are also very common around the world. These lottery style games are also used by governments to raise money for all kinds of civic, military and charitable purposes. These games are offered daily or weekly and the winning numbers are usually published in the newspaper or announced on the radio and television.
Keno Info has a great article about the history of keno too, so you should take a look at that if you're still interested in the subject.
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