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Keno: The History of the Ancient Chinese Game

Keno may sound very Japanese, but its not. The game is somewhat similar to bingo in that the player chooses a set of numbers within the range of 1-80 and matches it with the numbers drawn randomly by the house. It is a familiar fixture in casinos, and it is also one of the oldest games there is.

Keno started in China in the Han Dynasty, about 3000 years ago. The man credited for starting the game was Cheung Leung, one of the leaders in the dynasty, who at that time, was leading his city through war. The war was taking its toll on the city's coffers and Leung wanted to find ways to fund the war without placing the heavy burden on the people. He therefore devised a game that is similar to the modern version of keno that we know today.

He based the game on a popular Chinese poem at that time, The Thousand Character Classic written by Zhou Xingsi. This poem was a way for the Chinese to learn how to count using Chinese symbols, and is still popular even until today.

The poem contained 250 phrases with 4 characters each phrase. Out of the 250 Xingsi used 120 phrases and subdivided them into 8 characters each. The person who won was the one who correctly guessed a correct whole subdivision. The price was ten taels, the form of currency at that time. This game can still be seen played even until now, although some modifications have been made, the biggest among them the reduction of the phrases from 150 to 80.

Through this game Leung was able to fund the war and it gained such popularity that soon became known as 'The Game of the White Pegions", since it used white doves to relay the messages of winnings and loses throughout the Chinese countryside. The game grew in popularity that the Great Wall of China was funded using money generated from keno draws. After this time not much was heard about the game.

Keno was thought to arrive in America with Chinese sailors or raildroad workers who were there are part of the working crew to build the trans-continental railroad. The Chinese characters were converted into numbers to make the game understandable to American players. Keno experienced a short stint being called racehorse keno as an effort by players to hide the game from the Federal Goverment who considered the game a form of lottery which was considered illegal at that time. It got its name back when the moment decided to tax off-track betting, effectively legalizing keno.