The abiding success of Keno in a casino era

Mike McFarland of Amesbury played Keno at the Winner's Circle bar in Salisbury.
Mike McFarland of Amesbury played Keno at the Winner's Circle bar in Salisbury. –Suzanne Kreiter / Globe Staff

SALISBURY — A couple dozen men sat hunched at the bar, elbow to elbow with longtime pals. They were waiting for the next Keno drawing on the TV screens, as they’ve done hundreds of times before.

The wait is never long. Keno drawings come every four minutes, a drumbeat of betting opportunities that make the lottery game an enduring staple of Massachusetts gambling and pub culture.

Keno — the random numbers game offered in many convenience stores and 1,200 bars and restaurants across the state — rang up $900 million in sales last fiscal year, a popularity that belies its dated, somewhat dreary image. Even in an era of glitzy casinos and colossal lottery jackpots, the no-frills game has thrived, with sales climbing 20 percent since 2010.


That makes Massachusetts the country’s leading Keno purveyor by far, accounting for almost one-quarter of all Keno sales in the United States. Only New York comes close, but even with nearly three times the population, it falls short by $90 million.

“Keno is extremely big in Massachusetts,” said Clyde Barrow, a University of Texas professor who has closely studied the New England gambling industry. “The state is somewhat unique in how successful Keno is.”

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