Keno – From the Great Wall of China to a $600,000 Scandal at the Casino de Montreal
Keno is a gambling game similar to the lottery that is played all over the world at casinos. It’s become so popular that it’s even made its way to online and mobile casinos!
The game sees players wager by choosing numbers ranging from one to 80. After the wagers are made, around 20 numbers are drawn at random and the players are paid based on how many numbers they correctly chose. However, the rules may differ depending on each casino.
While the word ‘Keno’ has French or Latin roots, there is evidence that the game actually originated in Ancient China where card games were also invented.
A Mysterious Origin
According to reports, Keno originated around 200 BCE. Legends suggest that the Han Dynasty’s Cheung Leung was the inventor of the game and created Keno to finance several wars and the Great Wall of China.
Reports explain how Leung’s armies had been at war for several years and Leung had depleted the city’s funds. He couldn’t tax the city residents anymore and his armies were slowly running low on supplies, so he invented the game. The invention allowed Leung to continue with his wars, and Keno became a hit among the Chinese.
Sadly, we’ve noticed a few errors in the origin story. For example, the Han Dynasty ruled from 206 BCE to 220 CE and a large part of the Great Wall, arguably it’s most famous part, was built between 221 and 206 BCE, when the Qin Dynasty ruled China. Meanwhile, it’s unknown whether the Cheung Leung named in the legends refer to Emperor Qin Shi Huang or a man actually named Cheung Leung, though there are no known records of him.
Regardless, legends state that Leung, or whoever it was, created the game based on an ancient poem titled The Thousand Character Classic which consisted of 1,000 rhyming Chinese characters and, at the time, was reportedly used to teach children the language. Leung pulled 120 characters from the text and laid them out on a board, creating Keno.
Back then, players were required to select the 10 correct characters of the 120 in order to win. Meanwhile, carrier pigeons or doves were used to send results of Keno games to outlying villages, potentially giving it the name ‘White Pigeon Game’, though it’s actually still unknown what the Ancient Chinese called Keno back then.
As mentioned above, the game’s current name derives from French, in which Keno means “five winning numbers”, or Latin, where Keno means “five each”.
The Journey to Europe and The Americas
Over the next few centuries, it’s thought that Keno made its way into Europe via trade routes and was taught to Europeans. However, by this time, the number of characters used in the game was dropped to just 80.
The game arrived in the US with a large group of Chinese immigrants in the 1840s. According to reports, the Chinese, out of consideration to the non-Chinese speaking Americans, changed the characters on Keno cards to numbers.
During this time, the game grew in popularity as a way for Chinese railroad workers to relax after a long hard-working day. As the railroad workers moved west across the country, so did the game where it became hugely popular in San Francisco.
Some reports suggest that the game became known as the ‘Chinese Lottery’ and was outlawed shortly after it became popular in the US, leading people to play it secretly in mines or on railroads where they worked.
Keno hit a roadblock in 1931 when Nevada legalised most forms of gambling except lottery.
The game was brought to Las Vegas when Warren Nelson, who played the game secretly in Montana, decided to introduce it to his casino in Reno, Nevada. Nelson opened the first Keno game at the Palace Club in 1936. Soon after, Joe Lydon opened a Keno game at the Fremont casino in Las Vegas.
However, because Keno was a form of lottery, the game was forbidden to play and casinos found themselves in trouble for breaking state law. So, in order to allow people to play, casino operators changed the name to ‘Racehorse Keno’.
Under the new name, the numbers used in the game were changed to horse names and Keno was modified to appear more like horse race wagering, which was legal. When Nevada changed a law to tax off-track betting in 1951, casino operators changed the name again to just Keno, which it’s still referred to as today.
Around 12 years later, in 1963, Nevada ruled that the maximum legal Keno payout was $25,000, it was then raised to $50,000 in 1979. Then, in 1989, the Nevada Gaming Commission scrapped the limit, allowing casinos to impose limits as they wish.
The Keno Scandal of 1994
Keno made the news in April 1994 when a Keno player managed to win a scandalous $600,000 CAD (Canadian dollars) at the Casino de Montreal located on the Notre Dame Island in the borough of Ville-Marie in Montreal, Quebec.
The win was so big that college student Daniel Corriveau was accused of cheating after matching 19 of the 20 required numbers. Corriveau claimed he had used a computer program based on chaos theory to find a pattern in the numbers.
An investigation was launched, but Corriveau was awarded the winnings after it was discovered that the casino was responsible for the large win. This was because the casino was using an antiquated pseudorandom number generator that was reset every day with the same seeding of numbers, generating the same sequence of numbers and making it easy to predict.
According to reports, part of the problem was that the Montreal Casino didn’t purchase a clock chip for selecting different seed numbers. Many other Nevada casinos used the same number generator without a chip, and the Montreal Casino presumed the chip wasn’t needed.
However, the Nevada casinos operated 24 hours a day so the Keno games would continue generating new numbers, while the Montreal Casino closed every night. Without the clock chip to select new seeds of numbers, the Keno game repeatedly used the same numbers, allowing Daniel Corriveau to walk home with his winnings.