Connecticut Rolls Out Keno
WINDSOR LOCKS — Numbers bounce across the screen on a television behind the bar at Bobby V’s Restaurant and Sports Bar, lighting up lime green and enlarging when they’re selected. The 20 winning numbers are displayed, while a timer in the bottom-right corner ticks down the minutes until the next drawing for the newest form of gambling in the state.
The Connecticut Lottery Corp. has begun rolling out keno gambling in bars, restaurants and retailers across the state. And so far the launch has been far less contentious than the debate that rankled legislators, pitting those who saw it as a harmless new addition against those who saw it as the state preying on compulsive gamblers to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year.
Keno is a lottery draw game with winning numbers picked every four minutes. There are 80 numbers, a customer chooses up to 10, and 20 are ultimately drawn. The more numbers or “spots” matched, the greater the prize. Tickets start at $1 and the results are shown live on monitors in the establishments.
The lottery is running television, radio and online ads to promote the game, which became available the last week of April to little fanfare. Keno launched with nearly 3,000 locations across the state. It’s available at any retailer that has a lottery terminal, such as gas stations and convenience stores, in addition to the bars, restaurants and social clubs that signed up. The game has been offered in neighboring states and at Connecticut’s two tribal casinos for years.
At the venerable Federal Café, the oldest bar in Hartford, owner Justin Harned said it was a “no-brainer” to bring in keno. He scoffs at those who say the game will bring problem gamblers to bars and restaurants.
“Keno doesn’t do anything” for hard-core gamblers, said Harned, who said he enjoys visiting the state’s two tribal casinos. “It’s all luck and no strategy.”
Typical keno customers so far have been regulars interested in the novelty of the new game who throw a couple of bucks at it, or people waiting for a train or bus from the nearby Union Station, he said. Bar owners say keno is just beginning to catch on, with many people still unaware of what it is or how it works.
To play keno, patrons pick a ticket and first select how many numbers to play, anywhere from one to 10 and the amount to wager per game — from $1 to $20. Keno players must also select the number of games to play, from one to 20, and then pick the numbers to gamble on, which range from one to 80.
The ticket is scanned into a lottery terminal, a play slip is printed and gamblers can watch the results as they are drawn. A single ticket can cost hundreds of dollars.
A Casino or Lottery Game?
Keno was included in a budget implementer bill last year, and an agreement reached in October, which split 25 percent of the gross revenue from the game between the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, paved the way for its introduction last month.
A fiscal note accompanying last year’s budget implementer bill said keno would bring in $13.6 million in revenue in its first year and $30 million the next. Lottery contributions to the state’s general fund have been trending upward, hovering around $320 million the past two years.
In New York, that state’s keno game – Quick Draw – sold more than $787 million in tickets in the last fiscal year. Keno sales totaled more than $850 million in Massachusetts and more than $80 million in Rhode Island.
But opponents of the game say it feeds into compulsion and addiction. With a drawing every few minutes, losses can mount quickly. As part of the agreement to bring keno to the state, the lottery was required to contribute an additional $400,000 a year to a fund for treatment of chronic gamblers.
“This is a casino game,” said Robert Steele, a former congressman from eastern Connecticut and outspoken opponent of expanding gaming in the state. “The lottery argues this is a lottery game, but it’s in casinos all over the country.”
Steele said the introduction of keno is part of a larger push for more gambling in Connecticut. He pointed to talks to build a third tribal casino near Hartford and discussions about online gambling and betting on fantasy sports at the legislature this year. Revenue from new forms of gambling sharply drops once the novelty wears off, Steele said.
A report last month from the Rockefeller Institute of Government concluded that “if history is any lesson, gambling is only a short-term solution to state budget gaps.”
“State officials considering expansion of existing gambling activities or legalization of new activities should weigh the pros and cons carefully,” the report reads. “History shows that in the long run growth in state revenues from gambling activities slows or even reverses and declines.”
Supporters of keno say it’s simply something for people congregating at a bar or restaurant to do while they are socializing. They compare it to the existing games Connecticut Lottery already operates, like daily drawings and scratch tickets.
“Keno is an entirely new way to play the lottery, and is a more social way to enjoy lottery games,” said Anne M. Noble, president and CEO of the lottery. She predicted, while testifying before the legislature last year, that keno sales could eventually eclipse sales of Powerball tickets.
A keno bill was passed in 2013 but lawmakers pulled the plug on the program before it began. Years earlier, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell was criticized for twice trying to introduce keno as a way to bring in new revenue.
New Income for Bars
At Winners Bradley, the Windsor Locks betting parlor, keno is just the newest form of gambling available to patrons, alongside betting on horse racing, dog racing or jai alai. Patrons can watch the numbers come in on any television in the betting area or the adjacent Bobby V’s Restaurant and Sports Bar.
“Our customers like it, and we wanted to give it to them,” said Barbara O’Brien, who has worked there for years. “Why not?”
While Harned at the Federal Café was bullish on keno, another Hartford bar owner, Matthew Corey, was more cautious. But once the game became available, he installed it at McKinnon’s, his downtown watering hole.
“If it’s something that’s a hindrance I’ll be the first to get rid of it,” he said.
Numbers bounce across the screen on a television behind the bar at Bobby V's Restaurant and Sports Bar, lighting up a lime green and enlarging when they're selected. The 20 winning numbers are displayed, while a timer in the bottom-right corner ticks down the minutes until the next drawing for the newest form of gambling in the state.