Keno might not have the best odds in the casino, but you aren’t likely to find a cheaper game. Give it a try it late some night while your significant other is at the final table of a poker tournament, and you might be surprised. Or you can sip a drink and watch the ping-pong balls float up the bunny ears. Either way, you probably won’t get over-stimulated unless you find yourself with a near-winner and a half-dozen numbers to come.

Keno’s been around for at least a couple centuries. It is said to have originated in China where a war-ravaged province paid for reconstruction with a lottery game that might have even used carrier pigeons to spread the news about winning symbols to far-off lands. I don’t know if any of that is true, but there is some mention of it in the US during the late 1800s where the game had taken on the name “keno.” It migrated to the new west over the years, and Reno casino owner Warren Nelson attributes the rise in popularity in Nevada to none other than himself.

That’s probably at least half true. The game did pop up in Northern Nevada in the late ‘30s, and Nelson did spread the game at the Palace Club in Reno. And it did become a very popular game over the years. Nelson sped the game up from a twice-a-day snoozer to a showy and animated, twice-an-hour affair. His callers used horse names for each ball picked, and in its heyday, keno games in many casinos ran every 8 to 10 minutes.

At the time, the biggest attraction was that you could play a ticket for 10 cents and win $500. That was a lot of money back then when the biggest slot machine jackpots were less than half that amount. My favorite story is about a guy who hit some keno tickets at South Lake Tahoe and opened a restaurant called Keno Bob’s. That’s pretty cool. As slot machines moved into the computer age and jackpots got huge, keno ramped up its payoffs, too. The Club Cal-Neva in Reno had the first $250,000 keno jackpot more than 30 years ago, and that’s still a top jackpot at many casinos.

Today, some keno games are run electronically, while others use the old-style works that look like a hot-air popcorn popper filled with numbered ping pong balls and a set of plastic tubes affectionately known as rabbit ears. If you haven’t ever played keno, the game is designed around a keno board that looks much like a bingo game. 80 numbers light up when corresponding balls, numbered 1 through 80, are drawn. Each game, 20 balls fill the rabbit ears, and they constitute the draw.

Players can bet on any number of balls to be drawn, from a single one up to 20. The more balls you choose, the tougher it is to be right. Still, the more you choose, the higher the payoff if you are right. I’m not right very often when I play keno, but I like the fact that I can play in the casino restaurant while my daughters are arguing over who got the bigger plate of French fries. All in all, it’s a cheap distraction.

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How to Play Keno

One of the benefits of keno is that it’s cheap entertainment. Although the house edge is close to 28% on most games, you can play for as little as a buck. Try finding a table game where you can bet a buck a hand. No way! And you can win some serious money if you get lucky. It’s like having your own private lottery.

To start, take one of the keno tickets out of the display rack and grab a keno marker. In reality, the markers are just black crayons my girls use to draw pictures on the back of the tickets, but you’ll use the marker to choose the numbers you like. Maybe a birthday, anniversary, the day you bought your first car, whatever makes you happy.

You’ll probably find a keno guide on the same display rack telling you the minimum wager, but suppose it’s $1 a game. You choose as many spots as you want by circling them on the ticket, write the total number you choose in the corner, and write $1 next to it. If there is a box that says “Number of Games,” fill that in, too. If that sounds too sketchy, don’t worry. You can mark your numbers off and hand the ticket to the runner or the clerk at the keno counter. They will ask you how much you want to play per game, how many games, and they will verify your number choices.

Now, if you were to choose just a single number and it hits, you’ll get paid $3. With 80 balls in the tank and 20 drawn, the odds of hitting a single number are 1 in 4. You’ll get paid $3, and the house has a 25% edge.  Not a great deal, but again, its cheap entertainment. A solid 2-spot usually pays $13, and a solid 3-spot usually returns $43. The cool thing about the game is that even if you don’t hit all your picks, any ticket with at least three spots marked can get a payout for a small hit.

For instance, if you played that 3-spot mentioned above for a buck but only hit two numbers, you would still win $2. A 4-spot gets you the same $2 for two hits, $5 for three hits, and $75 for a solid four. Playing as few as 8 spots can get you some nice payoffs. Seven out of eight pays $1,250, and you’ll collect $10,000 for a solid 8-spot.

You can also increase your price per ticket and multiply your payoff. That means a solid 8-spot played for $5 returns $50,000. Not bad for a game you can play while enjoying a meal in the casino restaurant. Keno can be played at the keno counter and even in other areas of the club. Just ask your dealer for a keno runner!

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Way Tickets

If you fill out a ticket and choose six spots, that’s what it’s called: a six-spot. It’s a straight ticket. A “way” ticket is one that includes more than one set of numbers to win. So, you can get fancy and play more than one way on a single ticket. For instance, you could circle three of the spots and play both the six-way and a three-way. Or you could circle three two-spots and play a six-spot and three two-spots. Or even three two-spots.

You can mark six spots and circle them and mark another seven spots (or any combination) and circle them to make a six-spot, a seven-spot, and even a 13-spot if you want. Think it up, and you can probably play it on a way ticket. Many clubs require a minimum wager of $1 or $2 per ticket, but that’s fine. The cool thing about way tickets is that you can wager less per way. If the casino allows $1.00 tickets, you can probably play 50 cents per way. That means you can play the six-spot/seven-spot/13-spot ticket for just $1.50.

One way of playing the maximum number of 8-spots is the 190-way eight ticket. When you do that, you cover all 190 ways to make an eight-spot horizontally. The cost is often discounted to just 10 cents per way for a total of $19. Usually, a solid 8-spot for a dime pays at least $500, sometimes $1,000. A 120-way ten-spot is another possibility. With this ticket, you win $1,000 for a solid ten but can also pocket $400 for 9 out of 10.

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Top and Bottom

Another interesting wager is a top-bottom bet. With this wager, you choose either the top 40 numbers or the bottom 40. Then, you hope to either see lots of numbers in your section or very few. A $1 ticket returns up to $12,500 if you draw no numbers or 20. You’ll win $5,000 for just 1 number or 19 on your chosen top or bottom, and $500 for 2 or 18. Some smaller payoffs are also made for other numbers.

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Keno Tickets Expire Quickly

Old-style games where you take your ticket to the keno counter and the keno writer marks a beautiful copy with an ink brush are few and far between. However, those games required that you submit any winning tickets to the counter or your runner before the start of the next game. If you were late, and the next game started, your ticket expired.

Nearly all games now use electronic controls, and your ticket is good for a much longer period, but you should ask to be sure. 30 days is standard, but there’s no sense in losing a nice payoff because you were late.

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Playing Multiple Games

Computers and multi-race games have helped keep keno alive by convincing players to make a bet on several games before going to eat, to bed, or even heading home. This nice option also comes with reduced costs, kind of. You get to play for less per game but play more games.

I’ve seen players play 100 games at a time, which lets them drop by even weeks later to see how they did. Countless casino workers bet the 100-gamers before going home on the weekends. Usually, they come back to a payoff of a couple of bucks, but with a 100-game 8-spot, you can play for $10 and find out later that you won a cool thousand bucks!  Some casinos pay even more for a solid 8-spot but drop the smaller payoffs.

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Keno Machines

Keno machines are very popular and have better payoffs than live keno. A popular video keno game is Caveman Keno. If you’ve ever heard an annoying screeching and cracking sound coming from a slot bank, that’s the Caveman game.

In this game, you pick your standard ticket and get standard payoffs, playing for as little as 5 cents. However, every once in a while the machine shows three spotted eggs that show up, crack open, and baby dinosaurs screech in unison. When that happens, you get paid extra depending on how many of the eggs match not your picks but the 20 balls drawn. In this game, you get your standard payoff for no hatched eggs or one, 4x your payoff for two eggs hatched, and 8x your payoff for three eggs hatched.

They only hatch when they match the 20 balls drawn, and you only get paid if you have a winning ticket. It can be maddening to listen to the noise produced on tickets that are losers, but the sounds are sweeter when you’ve got a winner and get paid eight times more than usual. Other video keno games have similar gimmicks. Overall, the payoff rises dramatically from live keno’s paltry 72% to about 88%. That puts your play in the same range as penny slots that typically pay close to 89%. It ain’t great, but it’s fun.

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Final Thoughts on Keno

The best thing you can do when playing keno is to keep from over-betting a series of different way tickets. Like the roulette player who covers most of the layout, you’ll find that if you make many wagers, you’ll hit something nice from time to time, get a little back most of the time, and lose everything the rest of the time. That’s not much fun.

From a financial standpoint, it’s better to choose either a single group of numbers or two groups of numbers. It’s also a lot easier to hit a two-spot or a three spot than it is a six-spot. If you want a larger payoff, that’s fine; play however many numbers as makes your heart go thump-thump, but be prepared to wait a long time between wins.

You should also know that each casino sets their own payouts, so you might find there is a better keno game at one property than another. If keno is important to you, shop around and find the best game. If it’s a diversion, a way to take your mind off your other gaming or to kill time, then just relax and enjoy yourself. Who knows? You just might hit something good!

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