An Unlikely Bargain

El CortezZoneil Maharaj | Vegas Seven

El Cortez

Keno gets a bad rap. Although it’s a potent “house game,” it’s often labeled the worst gambling game in the casino, and it’s dying in Las Vegas.

Once a staple on every casino floor in the city, keno lounges have closed steadily over the years, a fact highlighted in a recent study on live keno conducted by Dr. Robert Stauffer Jr. and two of his students at Trinity International School in Las Vegas. Stauffer did a similar study in 1993, so he had data from nearly 25 years ago to compare against. In 1993, there were 46 casinos in the Las Vegas area with live keno games; today there are only 27.

Also interesting is that keno’s bad odds have gotten even worse. In 1993 the range of the house edge for the games studied ran from a low of 21.37 percent to a high of 33.14 percent. This year the range was 25.10 percent to 36.78 percent, indicating that casinos that continue to deal keno are charging more for the privilege of playing it.

So given the high casino edge, where does the deal come in? It’s buried in the way the game is played—slowly and for very low minimum bets. Even at a 30 percent disadvantage, which is about the average in live keno, your expected loss per hour is under $5 if you’re betting $1 a game. That’s a fraction of the cost to play other games that have lower house edges, but play many times faster.

Additionally, all keno games are not created equal, which means you can cut losses further by playing higher-returning games. In the Stauffer study, the casino with the lowest hold was Jerry’s Nugget at 25.10 percent, followed by Gold Coast and The Orleans at 25.23 percent, El Cortez at 28.05 percent and The D at 28.57 percent. Bringing up the rear were Fremont and California, both at 36.78 percent.

That’s a decent barometer, but it’s important to keep in mind that the study compared only 10-spot tickets. And while it’s reasonable to expect that each casino’s 10-spot will be representative of most of its games, it won’t apply to all of them. That is, there are definitely keno games that beat Jerry’s number, especially when progressives are involved.

For example, even though the Fremont finished last in the comparison, it has a long-running 95-cent 5-spot “catch-all” that progresses $25 every day until it is hit. Starting at $1,000, the Fremont game becomes better than Jerry’s Nugget in five days, when the jackpot reaches $1,125.

It takes some analytical skills to determine which keno games are better than others, but the bottom line is live keno played for small stakes is a gambling bargain. Get a comped drink while you play, and you’ve got this one beat.

One more thing: This idea doesn’t apply to video keno. There, speed takes over and the deal evaporates. More on that soon.

Anthony Curtis is the publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor and