The Origin of Keno Game: From Ancient China To Modern Times

Nothing is new under the sun - this is a true saying, and even the game of keno bears witness to this. While it's easy to think that lotteries are just a modern-day phenomenon, the truth of the matter is that they’ve been played since ancient times, and this tradition has been passed down to us through the generations.

The only difference is that the way lotteries were played back then has been tweaked to fit into modern times, but the soul of the game remains the same. With the intervention of modern technologies, Keno is one of the numerous casino games that can be played on laptops and mobile devices.

At the end of this article, you will understand how Keno came to be and how far it has come from ancient China to the present day. Let’s dive deeper into Keno history!

Origins of Keno

Origins of keno

The lottery-like game, Keno, was introduced during the Han Dynasty. Back then, it was also known as baige piao or white pigeon ticket, and it rewarded individuals with prizes when the numbers or characters they picked appeared in a random drawing.

Keno was first set up to raise money from the public for the completion of projects in ancient China, one of the most popular being the Great Wall of China. The Han Dynasty is credited for many of the developments in ancient China. Many projects took off during this period and they all were capital intensive.

Since the governing body couldn't shoulder all the monetary responsibilities, one of the workers in the Han Dynasty came up with a solution that involved using gambling to collect money from the populace. People were reluctant to pay taxes, so instead of resorting to violence, the introduction of keno was a brilliant way to get the citizens to release their money to the empire's coffers.

Keno was designed to have a lotto board format, 120 characters of the 1000 Chinese characters, and for players to stake as many as ten bets. The character spot was marked with a pen, giving birth to the popular term "keno spot." In no time, the game quickly spread across Chinese villages like an inferno, and the money generated from the participation of citizens was used to support government projects.

Spread of Keno

Spread of keno

The California gold rush that began in 1848 to 1855 not only attracted U.S citizens but also Chinese workers from far away Southeast Asia. These Chinese immigrants, who later built the Transcontinental Railroad, brought keno along with them and renamed it the Chinese Lottery. Due to the high concentration of Chinese people in San Francisco, the game was more widespread there compared to other parts of the USA.

Soon enough, the game’s characters were changed to Arabic numerals so that English-speaking players could take part in it. This boosted the fame of the game even more in America. However, since the game was played as a lottery, which was an illegal activity at that time in the US, keno was banned in public places. This led to another change of name to Race Horse Keno.

This allowed players to engage in keno betting without breaking the law since it could be argued that they were placing bets on horse races. That's how the term "races" came to be attached to keno games. The coming of the 20th century brought good tidings to keno. The game was legalised in this era which accelerated its adoption all over the world.

Keno today

Keno today

After gambling became legal in the 20th century, keno was included in casinos. At first, papers were used to play the game. 80 numbers were written on a piece of paper and rolled up into tubes. As time progressed, the papers gave way for wooden balls, also referred to as peas.

Today, the global spread of keno has been aided by technological advancement. Now, all it takes to play this game is a laptop or smartphone and an online casino. Finally, keno has joined the league of casino games, a feat worth celebrating, considering how far it has come. Keno has brought joy and excitement to millions of people in the world, making it one of the most sought-after games of all time.


Keno is no longer what it first started as over 3,000 years ago in China. It has gone through a lot of developments, from a game that was played with 120 Chinese characters to one with 80 numbers, in which players must only choose 15. This evergreen player favourite helped build the Great Wall of China, and today it has made players a lot of money, with some winning over $200,000. Try Keno today, and you might just be the next winner!

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