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The Yin and Yang of Keno

Despite its ups and downs, most view keno as an essential part of a full-service casino.

The Yin and Yang of Keno

It’s been staple for as long as there has been gaming, and one of the most recognizable sights in a casino.

Ping pong-like balls each numbered from one to 80 whirl around in a glass bubble or mesh cage. Then, every few minutes or so, 20 of the balls are randomly chosen as that game’s winning selections. For players, it’s as easy as picking the right numbers.

Yet ask casino executives about keno today and the answers are anything but simple. For those on the operations side, keno has been good and bad. It’s a game that’s been up and down.

Perhaps the most suitable analogy for those involved with running keno is the ancient Chinese “yin-yang” cycle of how things work. After all, keno is a game that can trace its true roots back to the dynasty eras of China. To make it even more apt, take a close look at an actual keno ticket or display board. There are two divided sections, and whether fact or legend, these two areas are alleged to represent the yin-yang dualities.  

Keno as Yin

Looking from a yin aspect, considered the downward side, there is support for and proponents of the view that keno has lost its popularity, including the most recent report from the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Over the past year, keno win at the more than 60 locations in the state dropped 13 percent to $32.8 million with a win percentage of 26 percent.

North America’s largest casino complex, Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino, also shows a downward trend in keno play. Dawn Merriman, director of keno/race book, recognizes the impact of lowered keno revenue, yet sees it more as the result of the economic climate over the past year or so. Overall, Foxwoods also reported a decrease in slot win and handle in December compared to the previous reporting period. Likewise, the same Nevada gaming report documented numerous gaming sectors, both slot and table, down in the 20 percent or higher range.

The recent reports and other naysaying executives haven’t deterred Merriman from her support for keno and keno players. Merriman has been with Foxwoods since the casino opened in 1992 and helped set up the initial keno operations a few months later. Over the years, she worked her way up to director, and now has both keno and race operations reporting to her.

“Last year, the casino printed 1.6 million keno tickets,” says Merriman. “Our average bet is between $7 and $8.”

Merriman has also seen wagers all the way up to $1,000. According to Merriman, “without keno, you’re not a full-service casino.” 

Keno as Yang

Not only an advocate of keno, but also with better numbers in support, is Bong Woo, director of multi-games at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino, the first casino to open in New York in 1994. “Keno revenue is up at our casino, despite the economy,” he says.

A mainstay at Turning Stone since a few months after the casino opened, keno is offered in its lounge, coffee shop, buffet, bingo and poker rooms. It is played seven days a week with live games called approximately every five minutes.

Woo did see the economic downturn affect the overall number of travelers to his casino. Despite that, “keno was up 3 percent in 2009 and 4 percent in 2010,” reports Woo. 

Donald Brown, keno manager at Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, saw similar positive results for his operations. According to Brown, keno continues to be an important part of the casino.

“Keno operations provide a persistently good bottom line,” he says. Brown says his keno operations succeed by offering competitive jackpots and a diversity of ticket choices.

Why People Play

According to Brown, the attraction of keno is the ability to win a large jackpot with only a small bet. “A player can come to the keno game with a small bet and lucky numbers and can win up to $50,000 or more,” he says.

Merriman of Foxwoods and Woo of Turning Stone not only support this value proposition on why people play keno, but also add to it.

“Keno also has remained popular since it provides players with the ability to play for longer periods of time for less money,” says Merriman. “It’s less intimidating than most games, and you can spend less and play longer.”

Woo also highlights another aspect that may separate keno players from other casino visitors: Keno players are both frequent, regular players and very social.

Over the years, not only has Woo gotten to know a majority of his casino’s keno players; these regulars come to the casino frequently to socialize with other customers. At Foxwoods, Merriman describes a group of four men who are among the casino’s Saturday regulars. “They come every Saturday to bet keno along with their morning coffees.”

“Keno is unlike any of the other games in the casino,” says Brown.

Keno 2.0

Although based on an ancient numbers game, keno as played in casinos has seen its share of new developments and innovations to captivate players and add interest to the game.

Progressive jackpots for keno players are offered at several casinos. Foxwoods has its Pequot Progressive 20-number ticket for $3. Its largest progressive payout was $228,611.

Station Casinos was one of the first to offer a unique variety of progressives and even larger jackpots for keno players. Weldon Russell, corporate director of ancillary games for all Station properties, was directly involved with the launch of this concept.

According to Russell, Station has long focused on using technology to enhance customer experiences with products such as its “Jumbo Jackpot,” which was introduced in April 2003. “We offered ‘Jumbo Pennies’ and ‘Jumbo Bingo’ and we then extended our ‘Jumbo’ brand of linked, progressive concepts to keno.” 

Keno has long been a part of the games available at Station Casinos, starting back to when the company’s initial Palace Casino opened in 1977. As subsequent Station casinos opened, keno was offered wherever feasible, and it is now available for players at eight of the company’s larger Las Vegas operations.

For help in developing the final versions of the progressive keno jackpots, Russell turned to longtime keno expert Eric Thomassian, president and founder of XpertX, Inc., which since its beginnings in 1987 has grown to become the industry leader in supplying live-action keno to the gaming industry. 

Working together, Russell and Thomassian saw the launch of the Station Casino Jumbo Keno Progressives. Currently it links four progressive keno jackpots—Six, Seven, Eight and Nine Spot Keno—and is available for a $1 wager. Russell estimates that about 25 percent of his keno tickets are written on the progressives. 

Thomassian continued to work on the overall concept, and in 2008 launched statewide progressive games for any keno operation in Nevada. The company’s proprietary MegaKeno and Mega10 progressive keno games offer keno players the added opportunity to play special 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10-spot tickets to win larger jackpots.

The Mega10 meter currently pays more than $1 million for hitting 10 out of 10 on a special $1.50 bet. They are currently available in more than two dozen casinos across Nevada. XpertX provides live updates on its progressives online at www.MegaKeno.com. On a recent check, the top jackpots were the 10-spot jackpot at $1,063,979, the 9-spot at more than $75,000 and the 8-spot at more than $70,000.

The ability to play multiple games has been seen as another of the best changes to enhance the keno experience. Previous keno regulations required a player to redeem his ticket before the next game was launched or lose the winnings. “Players now take their multi-race ticket to their favorite slot machine, table game or hotel room and continue to play keno at the same time,” says Riverside’s Brown.

At Foxwoods, players regularly wager on what they call “multi-betting.” According to Merriman, a key casino benefit of these wagers is that winners schedule a return visit to collect on their tickets. “They cash in their tickets and then usually replay and watch the games for a few more hours,” he says.

“These players can even take that large multi-race ticket home and view the game results online at the Keno Information Network available 24 hours a day,” adds Brown. Keno draws are accessible through an internet link on the Riverside website. Similarly at Foxwoods, players can watch the keno draws both from their hotel rooms and online.

In addition to the development of progressive jackpots, these live displays both online and in hotel rooms have been the brainchild of XpertX and Thomassian.

“We were first to bring keno results to televisions in casino hotel rooms and first to use the internet to display live keno results online at KenoUSA.com,” he says. “Almost every one of our installations that has a hotel displays keno in the rooms today.”

The company also currently displays online results for about 40 casinos at the www.KenoUSA.com site. 

Each subscribing casino can link from its website to its own specific KIN page. Every casino and game has its own web address and unique screen design with casino and game name. The display resembles a traditional keno board, complete with a scrolling center message display. Text ads and promotions also can be uploaded by casinos directly from their own keno systems for immediate display online.

“Watching results for players, especially those who have played multi-race games, has become a lot more popular than even we expected,” says Thomassian. “One of our keno users, a Northern Nevada casino which implemented both the MegaKeno progressives and KIN network last year, shared its results with us. Their total write for a five-month period last year went up by more than 10 percent with no other changes in advertising or promotions.

“All our new changes and technologies use the inherent advantages of the keno game to boost revenue. This is not your father’s keno.”

A marketing veteran also based in Las Vegas, Carolan Pepin has been working with companies from beyond the U.S. since her introduction to international business in Chicago with the Japanese conglomerate Panasonic. After being recruited to the gaming industry in 1996, Pepin worked for Aristocrat, Sigma Game and Cyberview Technology. Most recently, she has focused on helping an East European gaming manufacturer with its expansion into the American markets. Pepin can be reached via [email protected].