The Basics of Keno

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Keno Cards and Board

Keno is one of the most popular forms of wagering, a game that’s played in casinos across the globe.

The name keno appears to be of Latin origins, literally meaning five winning numbers, but it’s difficult to trace how the game arrived in North America. Although the name’s origin is distinctly European, the game itself appears to have come from China.

The original game was known as baige piao, Cantonese for white pigeon ticket, which refers to the carrier pigeons that delivered results of the games to outlying villages. Rather than using numbers, baige piao used the first 80 characters from a classic Chinese poem used to teach Chinese language characters to children.

Baige piao is still prevalent in China today and is considered to be the predecessor of keno, bingo, and the modern lottery.

During the 19th century, Chinese immigrants brought baige piao to the West when they traveled across the Pacific Ocean to help build the First Transcontinental Railroad.

In the beginning of the 1900s, the game adopted the name Chinese lottery, and its popularity increased across the United States. During this time, it also acquired the name keno. In 1933, keno was brought to Reno, Nevada, and featured in casinos as racehorse keno. This version of the game used the names of horses instead of numbers due to the state’s laws concerning lotteries at the time.

In 1951, Nevada outlawed track betting, and the game switched to using simple numbers and adopted the modern keno name.

Let’s discuss the basics of keno and some specific strategies that could increase your chances of winning (and a few that won’t).

Keno – The Basic Concept

Keno, as a game is quite basic, much like playing the modern lottery. Its simplicity has made it a popular system that has spun off into raffles, pull tab games, and other variations.

To play keno, you pick numbers and hope that they hit. Although simple, the challenge and strategy is found in how you wager. Some specific rules exist that you’ll need to know in order to be successful.

Keno Board

First, you have to decide how much you’ll wager on a particular round and how many numbers you’ll choose. You can choose up to 20 numbers between 1 and 80, just like you would when playing the lottery. The payouts vary depending on how many numbers you pick and how many of them get drawn.

As the game begins, 20 of the 80 numbers are chosen at random using a ball machine or an other random number generator.

While keno isn’t the most thrilling game in the world of gaming, it’s an entertaining lottery-style game that’s easy to learn, is readily available in a number of different formats, and can make a lot of money for those who master its underlying intricacies.

Keno – A Basic Lesson in Terminology

In order to get the most out of your keno gaming experience, here are some terms you should familiarize yourself with:

  • Ticket – the Keno betting cards that players use to pick numbers
  • Race – a Keno game
  • Spots – the numbers that a player picks
  • Catches – when a number randomly drawn matches a player’s pick
  • Pay table – a casino’s set calculation for payouts, which normally depends on how many numbers are drawn total, the number of spots a player chose, and the amount of the wager

Using Probability to Choose Your Spots

Any number of ideas exist regarding how to choose your spots (numbers) for your keno card.

Let me remind you that the numbers are selected randomly, meaning no pattern or magic trick should be possible. However, keno fanatics have methods and strategies for picking numbers that they swear by and may stick to religiously.

The first common method for selecting spots that people utilize is the hot number concept. They attempt to use statistics to determine which numbers are picked more often than others.

For example:

One source I looked at claims that 23, 34, 72, 1, and 4 are the 5 numbers that most often lead to a catch. Another source says that state lotteries have a similar pattern, with the 5 most-often-selected numbers being 3, 16, 44, 58 and 78.

The second method is the cold number concept, which is the inverse of picking hot numbers. The idea here is that a number could be due. In other words, a particular number that hasn’t been chosen in a long time has to be chosen sooner or later. With each round that goes by without that number being selected, the probability of it being selected in a future round increases (that’s not true, but that’s what people believe).

Again, you’ll have to decide whether you can put faith in this questionable slant on probabilities. It seems to contradict the idea that keno is entirely random, though many keno enthusiasts will swear by it.

Lucky Numbers

This method, which is famous among lottery players, is based on a belief in the power of significance or superstition. Plenty of keno regulars have specific numbers they favor, usually for some sort of sentimental reason, a belief in cosmic pull, or just plain fortune.
Reasons for choosing numbers include:

  • Birthdays
  • Birth years
  • Anniversaries
  • Children’s ages
  • Adding significant numbers together

In addition, many people avoid the number 13 while favoring the number 7 for superstitious reasons.

Citing the Chinese origins of keno, many people believe that the number 8, the Chinese number of fortune, carries a sort of advantageous power.

Each person must decide for themselves whether the significance of a number carries inherent fortune that could overcome the laws of random selection that keno is based on.

In my opinion, the game is truly random, so pick your spots in whatever way makes the game the most fun for you. Remember that it’s random, sit back, and enjoy the game.

Keno Odds

Keno is known for having a pretty slanted house advantage, hovering around 20% according to some estimates.

Studying the odds of keno in advance can help you make decisions on how to place your wager. When playing a 20 spot game, so you choose 20 of the 80 numbers available, the odds are as follows:

  • 0 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 843
  • 1 correct number out of 20 is about 1 in 86
  • 2 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 20
  • 3 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 8
  • 4 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 4.8
  • 5 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 4.2
  • 6 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 5.2
  • 7 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 8.8
  • 8 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 20
  • 9 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 61
  • 10 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 253
  • 11 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 1,423
  • 12 correct numbers out of 20 is about 1 in 10,968

Successful wagering in keno requires the player to know how likely it is to catch a certain number of spots in certain situations.

The odds are best between 3 catches in 20 and 7 catches in 20. Achieving more than 7 catches means you have to beat ever-worsening odds, and achieving more than 10 catches means you face extremely poor odds.

Finding a Good Race

Finding a game that has an advantageous pay table is the most important strategy to succeed at keno. Make sure you understand the rules of the race (game) before you wager in order to find maximum advantages.

For example:

One keno game may offer a 10:1 payout on a $10 wager for choosing two spots and catching both of them, while another game may offer a 7:1 payout for the same situation. Some casinos or online gambling sites may also offer a smaller payout for catching one of the two spots, while other casinos or sites could offer nothing.

The challenge is determining your highest likelihood of a payout while comparing it to the size of the payout you want to receive. The higher payout involves more risk, but by shopping around for the right game and making comparisons, you can find:

  • Higher payouts for lower risk
  • Significantly higher payouts for equal risk

Types of Keno Wagers

A Straight Ticket means betting the numbers marked as a single wager. It’s the simplest way to play.

A Way Ticket is a combination wager that many players favor. A player might mark 6 numbers, circle 2 groups of 3, and mark on the side of the ticket, “2/3, 1/6.” This indicates that the player has bet $3 to have $1 wagers on each of 2 three-spot combinations and on the six-spot. There are endless creative combination wagers like this that players can try.

A King Ticket is a number circled by itself, which represents the king. The king is used in all combinations marked. If we expand upon the example above, a player betting a king ticket would mark “2/4, 1/7” to bet 2 four-number combinations—the king added to each of the three-number groupings, and the overall 7 numbers.


To sum it up, keno is a fascinating lottery-like game of chance.

Overall, keno payouts should be considered too inconsistent to play the game seriously or with any expectations to win. An offhand game or two over a drink in the casino bar or while relaxing in the keno lounge is standard for most gaming enthusiasts.

In my opinion, no sound strategy exists for selecting numbers, as the random determination renders any number as likely to come up as any of the others.

The best strategy is simple: Compare pay tables and play at the house that pays the most for the number of spots you select.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for since early 2016. ...

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