Keno: From The Game of the White Pigeon To Chinese Lotto

Keno has a very interesting history that is worth the time to tell it. The most important statement that can sum up its creation is that the game was born out of sheer necessity. Far from its modern image today as a popular betting game, keno actually started out as fund raising gimmick to fund an army.

Back in the Han dynasty, a Chinese ruler named Cheung Leung was facing a problem. His army was defending the city from invaders, but the war was dragging, his soldiers were getting tired, and supplies were getting dangerously low. To top it all off, the city's inhabitants were equally tired and disillusioned of the war, and were not planning on paying more taxes so that Cheung Leung could continue the fight.

Cheung Leung definitely had a dilemma on his hands. But being the smart guy that he was, he immediately thought of an answer.

The Thousand Character Classic is a popular Chinese poem written by popular Chinese poet Zhou Xingsi. This poem was already being used by parents in Cheung Leung's day to teach their kids how to read and count. The poem is composed of a thousand characters, divided into two hundred and fifty phrases. Cheung Leung drew out one hundred and twenty characters from the poem and subdivided these into divisions of eight, and he used these in the game that he planned to help him raise funds for his army without taking more taxes out on the people.

The game was simple. Players had to correctly guess the contents of one subdivision and if they succeeded, they won a prize, which was usually ten taels, the currency of their city at that time.

To Cheung Leung's great relief, the game was a big hit and soon people all over China were playing it. The other popular name for the game was the game of the white pigeon, because white doves were used to bring messages of winning combinations and names of winning players all over the Chinese countryside, there being no faster way of communication at that time.

The game was able to provide him enough money to continue his war, and more to help fund the construction of the Great Wall of China.

The game came to America brought by Chinese immigrant, sailors, and railroad workers. Keno became a popular underground game in San Francisco, one of the US cities with the largest Chinese population.

Initially however, few American knew how to play the game since it used Chinese characters. By the early 20th century,the Chinese decided to use numbers instead of Chinese characters since very few Americans knew how to play the game.

In the 1930s when Nevada state legislature decided to legalize gambling but left keno out, operators decided to rename the game horse race keno, since horse racing was a legal form of gambling by then. When off track betting was finally legalized, effectively legalizing the game, operators gave the game back its old name, and the game's name has been keno ever since then.

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