Keno got its start in Ancient China

Unlike a lot of games that are played in a casino, keno did not get its start as part of an elaborate marketing campaign; there was no “beta testing” or market research, and it was not a hybrid between games or a derivation of other games. But when you come to think of it, keno may have indeed sprouted up as the focal point of one of the most ingenious promotional schemes ever formulated.

The game of keno finds its origins in China sometime around 187 B.C., and with the efforts of Cheung Leung, one of the country’s foremost military leaders and part of the Han Dynasty. faced with a problem, Cheung Leung came up with a solution. The citizenry was rather indifferent toward the war effort, especially about the idea of supporting such a war effort financially. With his city at that point in jeopardy, Leung decided he could raise funds by having something that would be an elective activity for the citizens, at the same time whetting the natural appetite for a game of chance.

Cheung Leung’s plan worked. He got the money he was looking for, and then some. How did he do that? Well, what he devised was a game in which a grid was laid out with 120 characters (as opposed to numbers). Sub-divisions were created with eight characters each (this was later changed to ten). A central location was also established, at which there would be a drawing; those who played the game would win if the numbers they selected were able to match those which were picked out in the central drawing. Players could win with five matches, all the way up to ten. the appeal of the game was tremendous, because it was something structured so that, feasibly, anyone could play, since the entry fee was low.

Because of the unqualified success of the game, the army of Cheung Leung was able to be fortified, and as a direct result of that, the city was safer from the danger of invasion. Word of the game spread to adjacent regions, and eventually wider. What Cheung Leung had formulated was perhaps the ultimate win-win proposition – a voluntary method of funding an army that was fun to boot. As such, he was quite the politician, and though he probably didn’t suspect it, served as a model for elective fund-raising that has been used by many nations and states (at least in the U.S.) ever since.

It would seem obvious that what is presented and promoted to us these days as “lottery games” had their origin in the ancient Chinese game of keno. And there is evidence to suggest that Cheung Leung may have been the first public “official’ of sorts who connected the idea of conducting what was, in effect, a gambling game with the concept of accomplishing a certain civic objective. Many of the founding fathers in the U.S. advocated the idea of raising money through lotteries to fund armies, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. And this has always been seen by forward-thinking people as a viable alternative to taxation (or at least higher taxation). In these ways, Cheung Leung was way ahead of his time.

As was keno.