Editor’s note: While video keno has never enjoyed the widespread popularity of video poker, there remains a loyal legion of players who are content to play nothing but video keno. These stalwarts can be seen daily, mostly in the locals casinos, hunkered down, marking their special numbers, and perhaps daydreaming of one day catching one of those mega jackpots that appear so enticing. In this series of articles, GamingToday has enlisted the services of an expert video keno player, L.J. Zahm, who will share his experiences and methodology for a winning keno system, which is the subject of his soon-to-be-released book, "Cluster Keno: Using the Zone System to Win at Video Keno." Most of this series will be presented in a question and answer format, which will give Zahm the greatest possible latitude in presenting his story.
GT: How did you get started playing video keno?
L.J.: Like everyone else, my first love was video poker. My specialty was Joker Poker, partly because it offered the chance to hit a "mini jackpot" with its five of a kind (1,000 coins), as well as the standard royal flush (4,000 coins). Plus the joker ensured a lot more four of a kinds, which would help fill those buckets with quarters. While playing joker poker, I had a fair amount of success, hitting a few progressive jackpots on the machines at the El Cortez.
What caught my attention about video keno was the somewhat astounding jackpots that you’d see on those old two-screen keno machines, with the payoffs on the top screen and the game layout on the bottom. Now, the game itself had very little appeal ”” what could be more boring than marking your numbers, and then waiting through the "beep, beep, beep" of the machine as it sang out its numbers. But because the payoffs looked appealing, I did some research and found that video keno was a game worth pursuing.
GT: How are the payoffs so much better in video keno?
L.J. The keno payoffs looked enticing because some of them are in the realm of lottery payoffs, and equally important, they simply looked closer to the actual odds than the poker payoffs. Let’s use the royal flush as an example. The odds of hitting a royal on a jacks or better and a deuces wild machine are about 41,000-1 (they’re slightly higher on a joker machine because of the 53rd card). However, the standard payoff is only 800-1 or $1,000 on a quarter machine. A comparable video keno jackpot would be hitting seven out of seven numbers, with a probability of about 41,000-1. Yet the keno payoff is a healthy 7000-1. On a quarter machine that means $7,000 for a bet of four coins (a single coin returns $1,750!). Obviously, there’s a lot more math involved when you take the entire game into consideration, and factor in the various hits, but bottom line for me is this: why would you chase an 800-1 jackpot when you can pursue a 7000-1 prize with about the same probability of hitting it?
Admittedly, hitting either a royal flush or a solid seven is not an everyday occurrence, and it’s even possible to play for weeks and weeks and never hit either one. You have to remember, when you’re dealing with large odds, especially when they get into the thousands or tens of thousands, it may take awhile to beat the odds. That’s why I usually play the higher number keno games, eight-, nine- and 10-spot keno, because they offer more opportunities to hit minor jackpots, while offering the always-present chance of hitting the Big One.
Here are a few examples: The 8-spot has a nice payoff for hitting seven out of eight numbers ”” $1,652 for four quarters bet. And with odds of 6200-1, the chances of catching seven of eight is nearly seven times greater than hitting a royal flush. Another way of looking at it: for every royal flush that’s hit, there will be six hand-pay jackpots for hitting seven of eight on a keno machine! While playing an 8-spot, hitting six of eight numbers, which have odds of about 422-1, results in a $98 payoff with four quarters bet. Those odds are close to what the odds are to hit a natural four of a kind, which pays less than half as much on a jacks or better machine. Incidentally, the odds of hitting a solid eight are about 230,000-1, but they’re not insurmountable. At the El Cortez, I hit the first two 8-spot progressives (on nickel machines!) for payoffs in the $7,500-$8,000 range, and have subsequently hit a few solid eights, but most of my most recent solid-8 wins have come on Four Card Keno games (more on this later). I also play a lot of nine- and 10-spot keno. Quite frankly, I’ve never hit a solid nine spot, but have cashed some eight of nine jackpots at $4,700. The odds of hitting eight numbers are about 30,600-1, which are about 25% lower than the odds for a royal, but the payoff is still a superior 4700-1 (as opposed to the royal’s 800-1). The nine-spot also offers a seven of nine payout of $335 and, with odds of 1690-1, can often be hit during a session. The 10-spot offers similar attractions: catching eight of 10 is attractive with a payoff of $1,000, but because the odds are about 7300-1, it doesn’t offer the value of hitting a seven of eight, whose odds are actually less (6200-1) while the payoff is actually more ($1,652). GT: You don’t mention playing the smaller number games, such as five- and six-spot video keno. Why not? L.J. Greed, I suppose. The five and six spots offer great value, and playing those games steadily will result in some nice ”” and relatively frequent ”” jackpots. In fact, the five spot offers the best value of any keno game: The payoff of 810-1 is better than the royal flush’s payoff (800-1), but the odds of hitting a solid five are only 1550-1! Remember, the odds of hitting a royal are about 41,000-1, so this difference can be interpolated to mean that for every royal, you should hit 26 solid five spots! But getting back to your question, I play the higher numbers in hopes of eventually hitting the top line payoff. And, because I’m frequently doing so on a progressive bank of machines, those rewards can be huge. Unfortunately, they don’t have monster progressives for five- and six-spot games, not yet anyway. GT: Before getting into your actual strategy and playing techniques, do you have some basic tenets that guide you? L.J. Absolutely. I think the main one is that you have to differentiate video keno from live keno. There’s an old adage in the keno lounge that states you should pick your numbers then “wait for them to come to you.” Coupled with this is the admonition to never “chase” your numbers. That’s probably good advice in the keno lounge, but it’s never worked for me at the keno machine. I could play the same numbers over and over until the cows come home and have nothing ”” except an empty wallet ”” to show for it. In fact, as an experiment, I’ve tried to play the same numbers, and it’s like blood letting: you slowly watch the life slip out of your veins, until you’re ready to yell, “Stop the bleeding!” I’ve found that sticking with the same numbers without switching is a loser. Which would seem to make sense, if you keep in mind that the keno game is the product of a computer software expert, whose job is to design a game that makes money for the casino. Can you imagine IGT sending out a game, in which all it took to win the big jackpot was a little bit of patience and deep pockets? I don’t think so. GT: What machines do you usually play? L.J.: When I started playing about 10-12 years ago, I exclusively played the upright, two-screen IGT Fortune keno machines. These were the old warhorses that plodded along, dumping out coins on every payout, and waking the dead with its jackpot ringer that was reminiscent of the doorbells in the 1950s. Most of those old machines have been retired, but you can still find some in places like downtown (El Cortez, Western, Plaza) and some of the locals oriented places like the Nevada Palace, Arizona Charlie’s, Gold Coast, Palace Station, plus a few more. You have to be careful, though, because some of the Golden Oldies have been retrofitted with different computer chips that have reduced the payouts. I made that painful discovery several years ago. Some of the other keno machines that have paid off are the Keno Plus games from Bally and IGT’s Game King. In recent months, I’ve taken a fancy to Game King’s Four Card Keno, but more about that later. (Next week: L.J. Zahm reveals the foundation of his keno strategy, and how “clustering” has been key to hitting big jackpots.)