Keno: The Origins of an Ancient Game
With origins reaching as far back as the Han Dynasty, which spanned 206 BC to 220 AD Keno is, debatably, the oldest casino game still being played. Originally nicknamed “The Game of the White Dove” and “White Pigeon Ticket” because of the use of doves to transport the lottery results to rural areas, Keno, or Pák Kòp piú, as it was called in Cantonese, was first created by the governor Chéung léung to support an ongoing war that was depleting the city of its funds. Through this new lottery-style game, residents were given the option of risking a little for the chance to win a lot. The lottery was a big success, and generated wealth for the city for many years.
Players originally selected their characters (which served the purpose of numbers) from a list of 120. And while there’s no way to know which characters were selected during the Han Dynasty, further down the line, Keno characters came from the Ts’ in-tsz’man – a poem comprised of 1,000 non-repeating characters used to teach school children Chinese characters. The game still uses Chinese characters in the East, but underwent some changes when it was brought to North America.
In the 1840s, Chinese workers migrating to North America brought Pák Kòp piú with them. By working on the railroad, Chinese laborers slowly moved across the country, introducing the game to new people along the way. Americans enjoyed the game and called it the Chinese Lottery. Over time, the Chinese characters were reduced to 80 and swapped for numbers.
When the game made its way to Nevada in the early 20th century, gambling was legal, but lottery games were not, and Keno was deemed a lottery game. To circumvent the restriction, the game was re-branded “Racehorse Keno” and marketed as a horse racing game. Each of the 80 numbers on the card corresponded to a “horse” and every time a number was drawn, it was considered a “race.” The name was changed back after the game was legally accepted in Nevada casinos, but some casinos kept the elusive title. The next time you’re wandering through a casino and spot Keno advertised as “Racehorse Keno,” you’ll know why.