Metro

The abiding success of Keno in a casino era

Mike McFarland of Amesbury played Keno at the Winner's Circle bar in Salisbury, Mass.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Mike McFarland of Amesbury played Keno at the Winner's Circle bar in Salisbury, Mass.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

Perhaps the key to its success lies in its widespread presence in restaurants, gas stations, liquor stores, and supermarkets. Players don’t have to seek the game out as much as stumble upon it.

“The Massachusetts State Lottery has done a really good job in creating a very deep and broad market for Keno,” Barrow said. “It’s practically everywhere.”

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The lottery has also sped up the game to 15 drawings each hour, a rate that provides “almost instant gratification,” Barrow said.

Keno’s durable popularity also rests on the success of the lottery as a whole, which ranks among the top states in total sales. Per capita spending on the Massachusetts lottery is almost $740 annually, by far the highest in the country, according to La Fleur’s Magazine, a trade journal.

Keno is also a simple game that can be played casually, leaving time to chat or watch the game. Players pick a combination of up to 12 numbers, and win cash prizes if their numbers are drawn. The more winning numbers, the bigger the prize.

“Keno is often enjoyed in a social setting,” said Christian Teja, a lottery spokesman.

At the Winner’s Circle in Salisbury, a welcoming sports bar less than a mile from the New Hampshire line, patrons wager nearly $50,000 a week on Keno, placing it among the most lucrative locations in the state, if not the country.

Jeff Duford, the manager and co-owner, said about one-quarter of the bar’s revenue comes from Keno and other lottery games.

“We have a great local following,” he said. “And a big part of it is seeing someone you know and talking to friends. It’s like a home to some of them.”

Ernie and Emma Burnham of Seabrook, N.H., played Keno at Winner's Circle bar in Salisbury.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Ernie and Emma Burnham of Seabrook, N.H., played Keno at Winner's Circle bar in Salisbury.

He described Keno as “something to do in the background” while socializing with friends. Casinos can’t offer the same kind of sense of belonging, he said.

Keno got its start in Massachusetts at Winner’s Circle in the 1990s, when lottery officials chose the unpretentious bar as one of a half-dozen test sites for the game. With its proximity to New Hampshire, which does not have Keno, the pub quickly became a magnet for gamblers.

Keno sales are so brisk that Duford keeps one clerk on duty just to dispense tickets.

On a recent weekday afternoon, regulars fed a stream of $10 and $20 bills to the clerk, Rita, in exchange for slips of paper printed with their numbers. They joked with the bartender while the clock counted down to the next drawing. Then the 12 winning numbers, drawn from the numbers 1 to 80, appeared on the screen as yellow balls.

Nobody said much. The numbers had not gone their way. No worries. The next drawing was only four minutes away. In the meantime, the TV screen flashed promotions for other gambling: “Play Powerball. Tonight’s estimated jackpot $125 million. Play here now.”

Dan Ahern, 71, a retired engineer from Newburyport, said he comes to Winner’s Circle several times a week with a pocketful of cash and a thirst for familiar faces and easy talk. On some days, he drops $100 on Keno, he said.

“I have a couple of beers and I play Keno with my friends,” he said, rolling his eyes at the crew around him. “It’s a very social time.”

“And once in a while, you actually win,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.
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