Poor odds don't spoil keno fun, state says Faulty brochure stays in circulation

February 02, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer Staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

At Dave's Pub in downtown Baltimore, keno players sense that the chances of winning real money aren't worth thinking about.

"What do you think the odds are if the state is willing to pay you $100,000?" asks Dave Leahy, the co-owner and a daily keno player.

The answer, if you want to know, is 8,911,711 to 1.

That information cannot be found in the state's brochure, "How To Play Keno," which is available at Dave's and 800 other outlets that have offered the keno lottery game since Jan. 4.

Instead, the state chooses to publish "overall odds" for each of the 10 keno games, and one of those descriptions is inaccurate because of a typographical error.

The brochure gives the odds of winning a prize in the 9-Spot game as 1 in 4.61, but the figure should be 9.61. The mistake could lead a bettor to think the chances of winning are twice as good as they really are.

New brochures with the correct figure are now on their way to bars and other keno-equipped establishments all over the state.

In the meantime, State Lottery Agency officials did not feel it was necessary to recall the brochures or to inform bettors of the error, said spokesman Carroll H. Hynson Jr.

"For most people, when they engage in entertainment gaming, odds are not a very important factor. They just play for the sport," he said.

For that same reason, he said, the agency chooses not to print any of the odds on individual keno games.

The "overall odds" it does publish for each of the keno games tend to be far more attractive than, say, the odds of winning $100,000.

This is so because a player usually has several chances to win in each of the 10 keno games.

If he or she doesn't match 10 of the 20 numbers drawn in the so-called 10 Spot game, the feat required to win $100,000, a smaller prize is given for matching nine, eight, seven, six, five or none of the numbers.

A probability, or chance to win, may be calculated for each prize. To calculate what the state calls "overall odds," the probabilities for each are added together.

Few complaints

So far, few complaints about the absence of more detailed information -- or the mistake -- have reached the lottery, Mr. Hynson said.

Bob Flickner, a 30-year-old electrical engineer who works for the Defense Department at Fort Meade, said he complained. He is troubled most by the low level of disclosure.

"The problem is they don't give you the odds of winning the big prizes," he said.

In the case of the 9-Spot game, for example, the player is not

informed that his chances of winning that game's top prize of $25,000 are 1 in 1,380,687.60.

Mr. Flickner said he is looking for a keno game to love.

"If I find one game that's worth $50 or more that appeals to me, I'll play a ticket, put it in my pocket and run it through [the automatic scanning device that checks for winning plays] and see if I win. It'll be a pleasant surprise if I do, or the loss of a buck if I don't. But I want to be informed."

The astute gambler wants to know the payout per dollar for each game. In the 1-Spot game, according to a statistician, the average payout is 25 cents on the dollar. In the 3-Spot, the payout is 62 cents. In deciding what game to play, a bettor might want to choose one with a higher payout. This information, too, is missing from the brochure.

Tougher than Lotto

In general, though, the state probably has figured right about the level of interest in probability theory among most keno players, said Mr. Leahy. He has watched players since the game opened at his bar on Jan. 4 -- and few seem to care.

He said he tries to tell them not to try the big money prize games because the odds are worse than they are in Lotto -- almost 9 million to 1 against. Besides, a player is likely to stay longer and bet more in a game where, occasionally at least, he wins a little something.

And if a player wants to listen, Mr. Leahy said he thinks he has the only sensible approach to the game:

He limits how much he bets on a game. He plays only once a day. And he never tries to win the really big money.

Last Wednesday, he walked down the steps from his keno teller station waving proof of his theory. The $250 in his fist made a slight flapping noise. "The sound of money," he said with a big grin.

Is he actually ahead?

"Are you kidding?" he replied, bravely. "Way ahead."

"Not even close," said his brother, shaking his head on a nearby bar stool.

A jovial man with a fringe of reddish hair, Mr. Leahy said he tries to balance the somewhat conflicting loyalties to the lottery and the customer. "My business is up 40 percent and nothing has happened but keno," he said of his bar and lunch receipts since keno opened.

"Keno's been the difference between making money and treading water. Tell Willie Don I love him," he said, referring to the governor of Maryland and the state's No. 1 keno advocate, William Donald Schaefer.

The state, too, has been doing well with keno. Sales for the first month of the game totaled $14.5 million, or 45 percent above original projections, according to figures the State Lottery Agency provided yesterday.

Keno sales have more than offset the declines of between 3 percent and 11 percent in the lottery's other five games -- Pick 3, Pick 4, Match 5, Lotto and Scratch -- since keno was introduced Jan. 4.

Total lottery sales since keno began have averaged $18.4 million a week -- an increase of 17.5 percent, or $2.8 million, from the weekly average for November and December.

The state Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing at 1 p.m. today on legislation that would prohibit keno or require legislative approval before an administration could launch gambling games such as keno.

Mr. Leahy thinks he knows why the state doesn't put the actual odds for winning the big money in its handy green and white brochure.

"That's how they bait the suckers," he said.

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