Keno is a popular casino game similar in some ways to the lottery or bingo. It’s a casino mainstay, as germane to the gambling industry as garish carpet and comp’d drinks. Keno is one of those casino games that you either love or hate – either you see it as a fun distraction with potentially huge payouts or a sucker’s game designed to drain money from tourist’s pockets.
Playing Keno at the casino requires just a little bit of knowledge about the game’s rules and traditions, payouts, odds, and strategy. It’s an entry-level game of chance that moves at a relaxed pace and lends itself well to relaxing in a comfortable chair with the beverage of your choice.
A Very Brief History of Keno
Let’s start with the name.
The word “Keno” doesn’t have a concrete history like roulette or blackjack. It’s harder for researchers to determine where the word comes from and what it refers to.
Theories about the name abound – the most popular compares the word to French for “five numbers.” In French, you’d say “cinq nombre” or something like that. If you pronounce cinq nombre in a funny American way that emphasizes the hard “k” sound, you can kind of hear the word “Keno.”
Others say that the word derived from the game’s original name – Chinese lottery. From Chinese came Chino, and it’s just a hop a skip and a jump from Chino to Keno. I put a little less faith in this explanation, as I think it just requires too many logical leaps.
Whatever you call it, Keno started as the world’s first lottery game. Chinese rulers during the Han Dynasty used lotteries to raise funds for defense. These lotteries were seen as a gentler form of taxation, preventing civil unrest while still raising the necessary money for war materiel.
The game used 120 Chinese characters rather than numbers and had a few other differences that modern Keno players would find unfamiliar.
How did this game make it to American casinos? Immigration, that great driver of gambling technology throughout history.
Chinese immigrants brought their lottery-style games to the Western United States during the 18th century. Side note – this is the same way that Chinese American food was invented and is also how Buddhism and other Asian spiritual traditions spread across the US.
Keno, with familiar Western-style numerals instead of Chinese characters, gradually formalized from what were essentially illegal numbers running operations in early Las Vegas.
How to Play Keno
If you’ve ever played a lottery game, you already know how to play Keno.
Players choose numbers between 1 and 80, hoping that the numbers they choose will come up on the next draw. A variety of Keno bets are possible, from choosing one number to win or choosing more complicated blends of winning numbers. This is covered in more detail below.
Keno players can bet between 1 and 15 numbers for each draw, though some games allow larger numbers of bets. I’ve seen Keno tickets in Vegas in which bettors can choose up to 20 numbers, with a total betting pool of 120 numbered balls instead of 80. A round of Keno is complete after 20 winning numbers are drawn, in a style similar to bingo.
On average, American casinos draw a round of Keno numbers about every 10 minutes. The larger casinos, like those in Vegas or Atlantic City, draw Keno numbers around the clock, for a total of 144 draws per day.
Typically, casino Keno allows bets on between 1 and 20 numbers, though most players play between 3 and 9 numbers. You don’t have to match every number you play to win, unless you’re playing a single-number ticket.
Here’s a look at a pay table for a 5-number bet at a typical Vegas casino Keno game:
Match 0-2 numbers – 0 payout
Match 3 numbers – 1:1 payout
Match 4 numbers – 10:1 payout
Match 5 numbers – 800:1 payout
If a player purchased a $1 5-numbers ticket, and he hit all 5 numbers, his payout would be $800. A $10 5-numbers ticket in the same situation would be worth $8,000.
Take note – some casinos will offer you a small payout for matching 0 numbers, especially for bets on 10-numbers and higher. Usually, the payout is something like 2:1.
Please take note that no casino Keno pay table is likely to be the exact same. I cover this in more detail further down in the post – shopping for the best pay table is a big part of Keno strategy.
Let’s start with a shocking number. The odds of hitting all 20 numbers in a 20-number Keno draw are 1 in 3,535,316,142,212,174,336 – that’s a 1 in 3.5 quintillion chance. That number is so big it defies our ability to understand it.
Keno players aren’t necessarily chasing those huge payouts at the top of the pay table. As I said earlier, most Keno players you talk to will say they bet somewhere between 3 and 9 numbers. The kinds of payouts available for matching 4 or 5 numbers in this betting range are like 10:1 – bankroll sustaining wins that aren’t necessarily worth writing home about but will certainly keep you interested.
It would take a million words to talk about all of the variables that go into Keno odds, so let’s focus on some odds figures for bets commonly placed by casino Keno players.
Here’s an example pay table for a Pick 8 Keno ticket:
Match 0-2 numbers – 0 payout
Match 3 numbers – 1:1 payout
Match 4 numbers – 2:1 payout
Match 5 numbers – 10:1 payout
Match 6 numbers – 40:1 payout
Match 7 numbers – 500:1 payout
Match 8 numbers – 5,000:1 payout
A bettor playing an 8-number Keno ticket needs to hit 5 or more of those numbers to get a meaningful payout.
How likely are you to match 5 numbers on a Pick 8 ticket? It should happen about once every 55 plays. The odds get longer from there as you move up the payout scale. The odds of matching 6 numbers on a Keno Pick 8 are 1 in 422. The odds of matching 7 numbers are 1 in 6,232.
Want to claim that 5,000:1 payout for matching all 8 numbers on a Keno Pick 8? You’ve got a 1 in 230,115 chance. That’s about the same odds as being badly injured by a pogo stick.
When examining Keno pay tables, be sure to look into the overall volatility – remember that it’s those smaller sustaining wins that matter, not necessarily your chances of hitting a huge payday.
Keno Bet Types
Below is a quick look at the five most common types of bets in casino Keno.
Straight tickets are the game’s simplest bets, a wager on a specific set of numbers to win straight-up.
Way tickets allow bettors to choose different groups and number amounts on the same ticket. In most casinos, ways tickets allow a huge range of bets, up to several hundred ways at once. This is for advanced level Keno players with lots of experience.
King number tickets are a special kind of combo bet, in which your “king number” is added to all other groups of numbers you bet, as well as acting as a straight-up bet on its own.
Split tickets are just combinations of more than one straight ticket bet. They pay and play as if you were making two separate straight ticket wagers. You’re not allowed to play the same numbers on your split bets.
Combo tickets are just combinations of the above wagering types, such as way bets, king number bets, and straight bets all on one ticket.
Some people sneer at the idea of Keno strategy, since the game requires no real skill to play beyond the ability to fill out a bet slip and turn it in. I think that’s wrong – every casino game can be approached from a value or entertainment perspective.
Below are three tips designed to help people enjoy their time playing Keno in the casino more.
Keno Strategy Tip 1: Look for Keno promotions and take advantage of them.
Casinos try to attract bettors to the Keno parlor by offering promotional tickets at certain times. These bets usually have much better odds than you’d get with a standard Keno game. For example, you may be allowed to bet the entire bottom or top half of the number field on a single ticket, in exchange for a smaller payout. If you’re looking to win more often at Keno, these promotions are the best time to make sure that happens, since the house literally changes the game odds to attract bettors.
Keno Strategy Tip 2: Hunt for the best possible payouts.
Casinos have wildly different pay tables, and they change them frequently enough that it’s hard to say “the best Keno game in Vegas is at” such and such casino. With time, you’ll learn to recognize better pay tables without too much head-scratching or homework, but in the beginning it may take you some time to work out which table is better for your style of play. Obviously, you should always play the ticket that gives you the best chance of winning the most money.
Keno Strategy Tip 3: Try a bonus version of Keno.
Bonus Keno games offer random prizes that have nothing to do with skill or luck – they’re just random distributions of free tickets, reduced-cost tickets, or cash prizes. Most of the time, you pay for these bonus chances with longer odds, but they’re worth a look for people who just want to win more frequent prizes while playing.
If you’ve never played Keno, and you like what you read today, you should give it a shot. It’s available everywhere you find a casino floor, including online.
After reading this post, you know literally everything you need to know to enjoy the game. It’s more like a social gathering than other casino games, and you can get by pretty well if you strategize your play and control your bankroll.