Keno - How to Play

Today, Keno is a very popular casino game, both at land-based casinos and online. It resembles modern lotteries in that the player chooses numbers from a number pool. After the players have chosen their numbers, the house draws numbers and the lucky players whose numbers were called win.

It sounds simple and the play is as simple as playing a lottery. But because it's a casino game it has developed a culture of its own. Keno players have a lounge, not a fancy lounge like we sometimes still find for Baccarat. The Keno lounge is the average Joe's place to relax and bet. S/he sits at a desk equipped with a cup holder, marks Keno cards with a crayon, checks out the action on the Keno board, and takes it easy for a while.

One aspect of Keno that bears mentioning now is that winners usually must claim their winnings immediately. It is often the case that a casino will not honor a winning card if the next game has already started. This is never a problem online.



The best guess we have is that Keno originated about 3000 years ago in China. The story behind its origin may be apocryphal but it's a good story so we'll tell it to you.

A General named Cheung Leung was fighting a protracted war and found himself almost out of money. He devised a scheme to raise money whereby people could play a game based on the Chinese characters for numbers. It seems that there are about 1000 different characters for numbers in Chinese. Of those thousand Cheung Leung chose 120. He raised enough money to continue fighting his war. And the game he created became popular throughout China.

For a time it was called "Game of the White Pigeon" (Chinese is certainly a colorful language!) because the numbers drawn were communicated within China by doves. The game crossed the ocean with Chinese workers in the early nineteenth century; but it gained wide popularity only in Las Vegas after gambling was legalized in 1931. At that time lotteries were not yet legal so Las Vegas casinos called the game racehorse keno and the numbers, reduced to 80 from General Keung's 120, each had a horse's name. After WWII a law was passed making off-track betting illegal so the horse's names came off and the game was renamed Keno. But some casinos still call a Keno game a race!

How to Play

The standard Keno card has 80 numbers. Most casinos allow players to choose up to ten numbers. In Keno-speak a number chosen is a spot. A player who chooses six spots is said to be playing a six-spot game. (There are still some casinos where players can choose up to 20 numbers. The house calls 20 numbers so an extraordinarily lucky player may hit all 20 numbers. It is believed that no one has ever hit all 20 numbers.)

Players normally choose between one and ten numbers. Here the rules may vary from casino to casino. Generally, the players wager a given amount per game. One dollar is a common minimum wager per game.

The house pays out based on a formula that takes into account the amount of numbers wagered and the amount of numbers on the player's card that were drawn for that game. The payout formula also varies from casino to casino and, truth be told, the payouts are among the lowest of any casino game. Payouts as low as 70% are common and the highest payouts are only about 80%. Obviously, people don't play Keno for the odds.

Keno Cards - Part One

Keno cards are sometimes called tickets. Usually they are called cards when we refer to them generally and as tickets when we speak about a specific type of card.

Players can get cards at the Keno Booth or from a Keno runner. These are usually young women who move around the casino calling "keno". If you want to play you get a card from the runner and you choose your numbers. You give the card back to the runner and now s/he really goes to work. The card you filled out and gave to the runner is not official yet. In Keno talk it is called an "inside ticket". The runner must get it to the Keno Booth quickly so it can be registered. Then the runner brings you back the official card, called the "outside ticket". Keno may be a quiet, relaxed game but it does have its strict rules. One is that when you get your "outside ticket" it is your responsibility to check that there are no mistakes on it. If you wanted to bet your mother-in-law's birthday and accidentally the wrong number was registered it is up to you to tell the booth before the draw. After the draw it will be too late.

Keno Cards - Part Two

There are several types of Keno cards. New players sometimes get confused by the cards. The best advice is to play straight cards while learning the different ways to fill out a card and the game variations. In practice, every card is just a variation of the straight card. Some of the other cards provide convenience, so that a player can play variations without having to fill out a lot of straight cards. Some simply offer a game-variation and offer different odds than with a straight ticket. Here is a quick rundown of the various cards:

Straight ticket - This is the most basic ticket. The player selects numbers from the card by marking them with a "crayon" (Crayons are provided by the casino). Then the player marks on the side of the card the number of spots chosen and the amount of the bet. If a runner is taking the ticket to the Keno booth, s/he takes it now. The dealer records the numbers and the amount of the bet. The casino keeps the original for security purposes and issues a copy. The runner brings the copy to the player. The player is responsible for verifying that the copy is correct.

Split ticket - This ticket allows the player to play more than one game at a time. S/he draws a vertical line on the card and selects numbers from the two sides. The number of spots from one side doesn't have to be the same as on the other side. The player records the number of spots chosen and the bet amount. Players cannot use the same number in both games and payouts are generally less than with straight tickets.

Combination ticket - This ticket allows several different bets. The purpose of the combination is to make it possible to bet in several ways by filling out only one ticket. For instance, you can choose three sets of three numbers and combine them in as many ways as possible.

King ticket - By circling one number it is selected to be the "King". The King number is used in all the variations the player chooses to play.

High-end ticket - These are tickets in which a player must catch many numbers to win. The payouts are high but the chances of winning are very low.

20-spot ticket - Many casinos no longer offer this ticket. The player chooses 20 numbers. The highest payout is paid for 18 or more catches. Payouts are paid for all other number of catches except 4 through 6. Since these are the most likely number of catches, this rule explains the high house percentage for this game.

Top/bottom ticket - Players select the 40 numbers from the top or the bottom of the card. S/he must catch at least 13 to win.

Left/right ticket - The same as top/bottom but players choose from the left half or the right half of the card.

Edge ticket - Players select all 32 the numbers on the edges of the card.

Way ticket - This is similar to the combination ticket but it allows players to divide their wager among the many options they choose to bet on. For example, if a player wants to make four different bets and also wants to bet only one dollar, then the dollar can be divided to cover the different bets.

Why is Keno as popular as it is?

People who don't play Keno, and even some who do, often ask this question. But the answer is really quite simple. Keno offers players a chance to play a simple game for little money. Keno is no different than the local lottery. In a casino you can play Keno while you play another game. You can buy a multi-game card and play Keno for hours without ever going to a Keno Booth or going into the Keno Lounge which is where the booths are. The cost of tickets is low but the amounts that can be won are high.

Keno Culture

Runners work on a commission basis. When you use a runner it is expected that you will tip her or him. A small tip for a losing game is acceptable. When you win a substantial amount, a tip of 10% is not extraordinary. The runners talk to each other so you develop a reputation, for good or bad, based on how you treat the runners, especially regarding how well you tip them.

Online Keno

Online Keno is easy and fun to play. The use of a Random Number Generator makes the online game completely reliable. It takes no more than a minute or two to understand how to play online.

After a player selects the minimum number of spots, the screen shows the odds and payouts. If the player selects more spots the odds and payouts change and it is all shown on the screen.


Keno is popular because it is simple, has a low buy-in cost, and pays out relatively large sums. The payout percentage is low and the odds are not good but that never stops a Keno fan.

Online Keno is completely reliable because the numbers are picked by a random number generator. Also, online you are always paid when you win so you don't have the pressure of getting to the booth to claim winnings.

Posted by Nick David

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