How to Play Keno?


According to Ancient Chinese history, Cheung Leung of the Han Dynasty created a game very similar to Keno around 200BC to fund the war that had been going on for several years. Funds to support the war were getting low and the people of Leung’s city were refusing to contribute more of their wages. Leung decided a game of chance, similar to keno would be the best way to generate revenue for his army. And indeed it produced enough to supply his army with all that they needed, and so the city was saved. In the years that followed, the game spread vastly throughout China, and raised enough money to fund the building of the Great Wall, which has become a world-renowned wonder. The game became known as the White Pigeon Game because pigeons were used to communicate the winning results of the game from the greater cities to the small villages in the country.

Leung’s version of the game differed slightly from the one we know and enjoy nowadays. Instead of using numbers on the tickets, each field was represented with a character, all of which were taken from the famous poem ‘The Thousand Character Classic’. Many years ago, the poem was used as a means of teaching children reading and writing skills. The fact that not one of the thousand characters was mentioned more than once was recognized as a great achievement. The characters were organized in a way that rhymed and made the poem easier to remember but being able to recite it on your own was a skill in itself. The poem was so popular throughout China that some people used it as a way of counting from one to a thousand. Keno started out using 120 Chinese characters, but before the game left China, that number was reduced to 90.

The history of keno in North America started with the Chinese immigrants who worked on the railroads. As part of their customs and individuality, they brought the game over to keep themselves entertained and to carry on some of their Chinese traditions. About this time the game was reduced to 80 Chinese characters.

Although illegal, keno thrived among those immigrants, especially around big cities like San Francisco. It became known as the Chinese lottery. English speaking Americans became interested in the game, but had difficulty differentiating the Chinese characters used in the game. Around the beginning of the 20th century, keno operators replaced the Chinese characters with Arabic numbers to entice more players.

Although Nevada legalized most forms of gambling in 1931, the legislature did not legalize lottery. And the Chinese lottery was definitely a lottery. To get around this nuisance, operators simply changed the name to Race Horse Keno. Each number was deemed to be a horse. Today many keno operations still call their games “races”. When the U.S. Government passed a law taxing off track betting, the name was once again changed, this time to just Keno.

In 1963 the aggregate keno payout limit in Nevada was $25,000. In 1979 it was changed to $50,000. In 1989 the Nevada Gaming Commission eliminated the cap, thus allowing casinos to offer any aggregate keno payout they liked.


Keno is similar to Lotto. It is easy to learn and fun to play. Keno is played in much the same fashion as most national and state lotteries around the world. No casino game is more informal, relaxing and simple to play.

The concept is as follows. There is a large Keno board with numbers from 1 to 80. In a basket, wire cage or plastic bubble there are balls numbered from 1 to 80. 20 of the balls are drawn randomly and it is up to the player to predict which numbers will be drawn and to place a bet on as many as fifteen of those numbers. You may choose to bet on any number of ‘spots’ (up to 15) for the price of one ticket. The price of the ticket is not dependent on the number of spots chosen. The more spots that you correctly predict the higher the payout. You could win as much as $100,000 on a $1 wager in some Casinos. If there are too many winners they will each get a proportionate share of this sum. The maximum number of ‘spots’ that can be choosen from one player through 1 round varies in each casino, could be 15, 10 or less.

The round of a Keno game is called a Keno race. In many Casinos, ‘multi-race’ Keno is featured, where you can play a number of consecutive Keno races at one time.

The house advantage on Keno varies according to the number of spots. It is always around 25-30%. The chances of hitting one number in 80 is 0.25%, making Keno among the worst bets you can make.


The player’s objective is to win one or more attractive Keno payouts by selecting a group of numbers that match most of the numbers called, and to do so for every single round.


Each house has its own system of payouts, which you will find set out in the Keno brochures or payout schedules around the casino. Note that in Keno you do not get your stake back if you win. The player’s payout for a win depends on three significant factors, i.e., the amount he wagers, the total number of ‘spots’ he makes, and the number of matching numbers he catches. That is, the more he wagers, and the fewer numbers he selects, and the more hits, or catches he gets, the greater his potential payout is. Here I’m going to present an example payout table, but have in mind that in your favourite casino it could be slightly different.

Number Of Selected Spots
Number of
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
1 3 1 1 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0 0 0
2 9 2 2 1 1 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
3 16 6 3 2 1 1 1 1 1 0.5 0.5 0.5 0.5
4 12 15 3 6 3 2 2 1 1 0.5 0.5 0.5
5 50 30 12 6 4 3 2 2 3 2 1
6 75 36 19 8 5 6 4 4 3 2
7 100 90 20 10 15 24 5 5 5
8 720 80 30 25 72 20 12 15
9 1.2K 600 180 250 80 50 50
10 1.8K 1K 500 240 150 150
11 3K 2K 500 500 300
12 4K 3K 1K 600
13 6K 2K 1.2K
14 7.5K 2.5K
15 10K


  • Call – To draw the numbers for each game.
  • Catch – To catch a number means that a number you have marked on your keno ticket has been drawn.
  • Combination Way Ticket – A ticket in which groups of numbers are bet several different ways, allowing the player to spread money over several combinations.
  • Keno Board – A large electronic board that displays the winning keno numbers.
  • Keno Lounge – The main area within a casino where keno is played.
  • Keno Runner – A casino employee who shuttles your keno bet from wherever you are to the keno writer, and also delivers payment for winning tickets.
  • Number Pool – The range of numbers from which you select the ones you want to play. A typical keno pool ranges from 1 to 80.
  • Spot – Any number from 1 to 80 that a player selects on a keno ticket. It also refers to the number of numbers that are marked on a ticket.
  • Straight Keno – The basic keno game, played by marking individual numbers on a keno ticket.
  • Touch Wand – A pointing device used on some video keno machines to select numbers.
  • Way Ticket – A ticket that groups different numbers to create more than one way to win.

Keno is purely a game of chance and luck. Honestly, no strategy will bring you guaranteed winnings. This game is more geared towards its entertainment value and the ease of playing it. Like playing the lottery, you will find that many players choose the numbers of important birthdays, anniversaries, and the like when playing. When in a casino, you will even see players playing the same numbers as the person next to them. Before you sit down to play always consider the odds below.


Odds based on the standard 80 ball game, 20 balls drawn.

6 Numbers Picked Odds
6 1 in 7,752.84
5 1 in 323.03
4 1 in 35.04
3 1 in 7.70
2 1 in 3.24
1 1 in 2.75
0 1 in 6.00
10 Numbers Picked Odds
10 1 in 8,911,711.18
9 1 in 163,381.37
8 1 in 7,384.47
7 1 in 620.68
6 1 in 87.11
5 1 in 19.44
4 1 in 6.79
3 1 in 3.74
2 1 in 3.39
1 1 in 5.57
0 1 in 21.84
15 Numbers Picked Odds
15 1 in 428,010,179,098.40
14 1 in 2,853,401,193.99
13 1 in 48,362,732.10
12 1 in 1,539,397.31
11 1 in 81,020.91
10 1 in 6,576.37
9 1 in 789.16
8 1 in 136.40
7 1 in 33.46
6 1 in 11.58
5 1 in 5.68
4 1 in 4.00
3 1 in 4.16
2 1 in 6.76
1 1 in 19.13
0 1 in 124.75

The probability of catching exactly R spots when you bet on N of them (where N >= R) is given by

P(N,R) = c(N,R) * c(80-N, 20-R) / c(80,20)

where c(N,R) is the famous “binomial coefficient” and c(N,R) = f(N,R) / f(R,R)

f(N,0) = 1, otherwise f(N,R) = N * f(N-1,R-1)

Now you know that anyone that tries to offer a good strategy is nothing but a sales person.


Casino Keno

by Chauncey H. Shattuck, Publication Date: 06/20/2000, 78 pages

This book explains how to play Keno, mark straight tickets, combination tickets, way tickets and special tickets. There are calculations showings the number of combinations and odds against hitting your selected numbers, also a typical $1.00 dollar payoff schedule is included so you can check your winnings. The appendix contains a portion of the 1995 Nevada Gaming Abstract: you will find it interesting to know where the gaming dollar goes. There are over 65 actual keno tickets written from 5 cents to over $45,000.00. Everything you wanted to know about Keno. No math calculations required – This book is easy to read and understand.