Keno was brought to the United States by Chinese immigrants in the 1850s. In China the game had been played since 200 B.C. but in a slightly different way. Instead of betting on numbers the Chinese bet on characters with names like “Cloud” or “Dew”. These characters were taken from a poem called “The Thousand Character Classic” which was used to teach children speak Chinese. The game was invented to raise funds for the military and the building of the Great Wall. Keno was also known as “The White Pigeon Game” since winners in small towns sometimes was notified with the help of doves.
When Keno came to America the characters were replaced with numbers to make it easier to understand for the people that didn’t speak Chinese. In the beginning, when lotteries were illegal in Nevada, the game went under the name “Race Horse Keno”. It was claimed that people were betting on horses but that was merely a trick to keep the game going.When lotteries became legal in the state the name was changed to just Keno, but a round of the game is still sometimes referredto as “a race”.
The maximum (legal) Keno payout has changed throughout the years. In 1963 it was $25 000, in 1979 it was $50 000 and in 1989 the Nevada Gaming commission raised it to infinity.This possibility to win big is one of the reasons for the game’s popularity today.