Keno has been ubiquitous in the casinos of Nevada since the 1930’s but it’s history dates much longer than that. The concept behind the game isn’t exactly ‘rocket science’ and has been replicated in lotteries, raffles, pull tabs and other mutations. For that reason, the linear history of the game isn’t clear nor is the origin of the name ‘keno’. In fact, much of what has become accepted as the history of keno–or more appropriately, the game that we now identify as keno–is a mish mash of history, speculation, superstition, tradition, etc.

Knowing the history might not be integral to playing the game of keno or any other game. That being said, it helps. Knowing the history helps you understand the strategy since you can get a comprehensive overview of what has worked in the past and what no longer works. In some cases, ideas that worked in the past but have been forgotten can be ‘retrofitted’ in such a way that they’re effective in modern times. At the very least, knowing the history of the game will allow you to put everything into context.


One of the more interesting things about the history of keno is that the history of the name doesn’t appear to have much to do with the development of the game itself. The word ‘keno’ appears to be of Latin or European (most likely French) origins. There are similar words and phrases in both languages that translated literally mean ‘five winning numbers’. That definition is in the ballpark compared to modern day keno but still not overly precise. While the origin of the word ‘keno’ is credible it’s hard to figure out where the game and name became synonymous and/or how it made it’s way to North America. There are anecdotal accounts of a similar game known as ‘keno’ being popular in several disjointed American cities by the mid 1800’s including Houston, San Francisco and Denver.

This is very likely true but the problem for our purposes is that it doesn’t really mesh with the history of the game itself. Before we get into the most widely accepted origin of the game itself we’ll give this caveat–the game itself is very simple conceptually which means that similar games could have developed independently and ‘unified’ at some point in history. That’s probably the easiest and most viable explanation of how a game that originated in China ended up with a French derived name.


The more things change the more they stay the same and the game we now know as ‘keno’ is thought to have originated in the form of a lottery intended to extract more money for ‘government’ from an already overtaxed populace. In this case, it goes all the way back to a couple of hundred years B.C. to the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty was ruled by Cheung Leung and–in another great similarity to modern times–was in serious financial disarray due to a seemingly never ending war. Cheung Leung figured that he’d already taxed the citizens as much as he could so he had to figure out a way to get them to willingly provide the revenue he needed. In a move that would be copied by governments for centuries to come he invented a lottery to raise the fund he needed. Promising the chance of a huge financial windfall for a minimal investment (never mentioning the astronomical odds against such an occurrence)the public bought in and provided the funds necessary to finish the war. The game he invented is considered to be the source of modern day keno though it involved 120 Chinese characters that players needed to match. The game was used in China throughout history, including as a means of underwriting the construction of the Great Wall of China. At some point, the game began being referred to as the ‘Chinese Lottery’ though it’s doubtful that this is what the game was called at the time.

The ‘Chinese Lottery’ wasn’t formally regulated and licensed until the 18th century. In the next article, we’ll examine how the game got from 18th century China to North America and eventually to the casinos of Nevada.