Other history stories

The Street-Straddling Elk of 1916
Butte's Far Eastern Influences
When Toil Meant Trouble: Butte's Labor Heritage
The Captain Who Fought World War I in Butte, Montana
Mark Twain's Trip to Butte
 
How Keno was Born in Butte, Montana
 
by George Everett
 
Before World War I, the underground mines in Butte boomed with three shifts a day. A dangerous mix of new drill technology and inexperienced immigrants new to the mines brought a dramatic increase in accidents and made for a situation where underground workers were gambling with their lives by going to work.

In such a town, full of high rollers, it isn't hard to understand why gambling would be a favorite pastime. And the Chinese loved to gamble. According to a visitor to Canton named Osmand Tiffany in 1844 "the boys learned gambling as soon as they could talk, and pursued it through life."

The most popular game in Butte's Chinese gambling parlors was Fan Tan, a game of chance that revolved around playing the odds with a hill of beans. Players would bet on the number of beans that would remain when the game manager counted out the total. Four beans at a time would be removed until there were less than four remaining. Players would bet on 0, 1, 2, or 3 and
then the beans would be counted out in front of the players four at a time.

The Chinese also operated a lottery called Pok Kop Piu (the White Pigeon Ticket) that was based on the first eighty characters of a book called the Ts'in Tsz' Man, or Thousand Character Classic.

Tickets with the eighty characters were printed in China and then imported by companies that ran the lotteries in Chinese communities throughout the country.

Daily drawings were held to draw 20 of the 80 characters. In the most common lottery, a player would pick up to 10 numbers on a card and then hand them to the game manager with his wager.

The game manager then rolled eighty pieces of paper, each marked with a separate character, and placed them in a pan, mixed them and then placed 20 of the pieces from the pan into a china bowl. He repeated this until four bowls each contained 20 characters.Then, a player picked at random from the crowd chose one of the four bowls as the one to use for the next lottery. The manager then took the selected bowl and carefully unrolled the 20 winning characters and pasted them on the board for all to see. If a player bet on 10 characters, they had to have at least five matching characters to win. Those who guessed at least five winning characters received a prize of as much as $3,000 depending on their wager.
 
Often before playing, Chinese gamblers prayed at shrines in the gaming room to Kwan Ti, the god of war. Here they could also check bamboo boxes or tubes about 18 inches long that contained paper chits marked with the 80 characters to help them decide how to bet.
 
To gamblers this game may sound familiar if they have ever played Keno in its paper or electronic form. It is played in its present form in casinos and bars around the country. How it got there from its Chinese form is a story that begins in Butte, Montana.
 
In the 1920s Joseph and Frances Lyden were two brothers helping their stepfather Pete Naughton to run the Crown Cigar Store at 110 E. Park Street.
 
Chinese lottery game managers approached the Crown about allowing them to run lottery games in the bar. At the time, Butte had a large Chinatown about two blocks from the Crown. Then Tong violence erupted in the mid-1920s, with three murders in Butte related to a struggle to control gambling and other ventures among the Chinese. The third murder caused the chief of police Jere "The Wise" Murphy to declare that the Butte police had formed a tong of their own and they meant business. Chinese businesses and residences were raided in an effort to suppress further violence. During this time Murphy paid a visit the Crown and told the Lydens to shut down the Chinese lottery.

The Lyden brothers asked if they could continue to run the lottery if they took over its operation from the Chinese game managers. Murphy agreed and the Lydens began running the lottery themselves.

In 1935, when gambling was legalized in Nevada, Frances Lyden took the game south to Reno and began operating a lottery in the Palace Casino.Authorities were not sure about the new game's legality, so Lyden was advised to change the game to resemble off-track horserace betting. At the time Frances changed the game to use numbers instead of Chinese characters and the games were announced as if each number represented a horse in a race. Bingo was then known as keno (most likely a combination of the Latin quine for five + o for lotto; also, quinas in Spanish means a run of two 5's in dice games). The new game was christened Racetrack Keno. When a short time later Nevada began taxing forms of off-track betting, the racehorse aspect of the game and the name were dropped and the game became simply Keno.
 
Joe Lyden
 
It was Frances' brother Joe, however, who made the game what it is today. At an early age Joe had traveled to China as a merchant marine and gained an appreciation for the Chinese in his hometown of Butte. At one time there were as many as 1,250 Chinese living in Butte. A Chinatown claimed about six square blocks Uptown jammed with noodle parlors and gambling houses.

Joe returned from his travels and studied electrical engineering, then worked as an engineer for Allis Chalmers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When his stepfather Pete Naughton became ill, he returned to Butte to help manage the Crown with his brother.

When Frances left for Nevada in 1935, Joe remained in Butte and managed the lotteries there which during the 1940s had an annual payroll of about $440,000.

In 1956 Joe moved to Las Vegas bringing along a few changes to the game of Keno. First he did away with the loud, heavy maple balls to select wining numbers and replaced them with ping pong balls imported from England. Also, Joe replaced the pans and bamboo tubes used by the Chinese with an electric board to announce winning numbers. Most importantly, Joe changed from one drawing a day to a drawing every 10 to 15 minutes with higher payoffs, the way it is done in casinos everywhere today.

Overall, the most important contribution made by the Lydens was to demystify Keno for long-shot, low roller gamblers across America, oblivious to the game's Asian, and Butte roots. Now, in its electronic form, gamblers can take a cheap crack at a long shot, risking a quarter or four bits and try to win as much as $1,000 in the modern version of the game -- a long way from when Chinese gamblers prayed at a shrine for luck before the daily drawing.
This site is designed and maintained by George Everett.
© 2001 by George Everett. All rights reserved.


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