The Serious Money Stays Away from Keno

December 20, 1992|By MIKE BOWLER

Lottery fanatics, compulsive gamblers and people who actually return Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes entries will love keno.

Serious gamblers will stay away from it. They already do in the handful of states where keno is now legal. And in Las Vegas, they consider keno beneath contempt.

It's much more profitable, knowledgeable gamblers say, to play blackjack, roulette, baccarat -- anything but keno. Much better to gamble at electronic poker or to while away an afternoon with a one-armed bandit. The computers in slots and poker machines are programmed to return more of a bettor's money than are those of state-operated and casino keno.

Put another way, keno is the ultimate ''house game.''

If the political kinks are worked out in Maryland, it will work this way:

For each keno game, players pick from one to 10 numbers (called ''spots'') out of 80. Every five minutes from 6 a.m. to midnight, the Lottery Agency's computer conducts a new game, picking 20 spots from the field of 80. Winning numbers are flashed on screens in bars, restaurants, convenience stores and other public places. Winners are paid according to how many of the winning 20 spots they have matched.

Keno has been called a version of bingo because of the bingo-like board, 10 numbers wide and eight numbers deep, on which winning spots are displayed. But it is really an elaborate version of lotto -- played 216 times a day. It's a '90s game, providing almost instant gratification, and, like lotto, it allows players to win a great deal of money for a paltry bet -- as little as $1.

But consider the odds: The chance of picking all six numbers in the Maryland lotto is one in almost 14 million, according to Peter ++ Matthews, associate professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. That top prize is at least $1 million, and it's progressive; if no one wins one week, the pot is sweetened the next.

The chance of picking the maximum 10 winning numbers in keno is one in 8.9 million, says Dr. Matthews. The payoff is $100,000 no matter how much is bet. Keno isn't progressive. It may be a fun and sociable game to play, but it's not profitable.

Keno players, of course, have better chances of winning smaller amounts. But the odds are still high for any significant winnings.

''Don't forget,'' says a Baltimore lawyer who shuns the keno parlors when he travels to Las Vegas to play poker and blackjack, ''that three-quarters of the potential winning numbers don't participate in the draw.''

The fact is that you can sit in a casino parlor in Los Angeles or Las Vegas every night for weeks and never see a player win more than a few hundred dollars.

Lottery officials in Maryland, California and Oregon, the latter two of which have launched keno games this fall, emphasize that about 55 percent of the keno revenue is returned to bettors. (That's even better than the 49.37 percent returned in the Maryland lottery's 19-year history.)

The keno ''house advantage,'' then, is about 45 percent in state-run games. Serious gamblers don't consider this gambling. They head straight for the blackjack or poker table, where at least they have some control over their own destiny. ''To rush to the heart of the matter,'' gambling adviser Tom Ainslie writes in ''How to Gamble in a Casino,'' ''keno [in Las Vegas] gives the house an exorbitant edge of between 20 and 30 percent, depending on individual variations in the odds. In other words, it is a miserably unfair game and nothing to risk serious money on.'' By contrast, the Vegas house advantage is about 5 percent for blackjack and roulette.

Keno will be Maryland's first leisurely (legal) gambling game. Unlike its sister lotto and cousins pick-3 and pick-4 (but like its distant cousin poker), keno can be played out over a few hours and a few beers. Restaurant patrons can play a dozen games or more between appetizer and dessert.

At the larger establishments, a new job will be added to the Maryland economy -- that of the ''runner,'' the person who earns tips by shuttling bets to the computer operator and returning to the gambler's table with official keno tickets. (In Las Vegas, runners are scantily clad young women.)

So far, too, keno has been a boon to restaurants and taverns in its early weeks on the West Coast, and the same thing has happened in Montana, where keno has been legal for years and can be played for as little as 5 cents a game. (Poker and keno are regulated but not operated by the state, which turns two-thirds of the tax and licensing revenue from gambling back to the subdivisions. Gambling revenue now accounts for 18 percent of the budget of Billings, Montana's largest city.)

Gambling also has been a boon to diners in Nevada and Montana. Many casinos offer deep discounts on meals and free drinks as inducements to gamblers. It is one advantage they have. There is none in their mathematical odds of winning.

F: Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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