Camelot keen on bringing keno game to Pa.
WEIRTON, W.Va. — Bill Bish waited until the video keno screen at The Peoples Choice Cafe flashed a list of “hot numbers.”
Then he revealed his secret.
“I play the cold numbers,” said Bish, 78. “I figure they're due to win because they haven't come up in a while.”
He once won $800 on the bingo-style West Virginia Lottery game that costs him $20 a week while he enjoys a beer and chat in a bank-turned-cafe decorated with photos of Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski near a portrait of Ernest Weir surveying the steel mill and city he founded along the Ohio River.
West Virginia's is one of 14 state lottery systems that offer keno. Delaware is poised to become the 15th on Tuesday, and Pennsylvania could be close behind if United Kingdom-based Camelot Global Services locks in a tentative contract its executives predict would generate a $34.6 billion profit over 20 years.
One of the first changes Pennsylvanians would notice is the addition of video keno gaming screens and consoles in bars, clubs and restaurants by year's end. Camelot executives said keno is part of a strategy to increase the profit of Pennsylvania's more than billion-dollar, state-run lottery system.
Relying on keno revenue alone likely would not be enough to make good on the promise in the long term.
Keno accounts for less than 1 percent of lottery sales in West Virginia, which began keno in 1992. The game's sales dipped steadily over a five-year snapshot to $6.25 million last year, down from $9.6 million in 2008. The lottery attributed the dip to competition from video poker.
Camelot won't discuss how it would run keno in Pennsylvania, or project its potential earnings.
David La Torre, a spokesman for the company, said keno “is a more convenient way for players to participate in social situations,” primarily bars or taverns. “Camelot would provide extensive training and monitoring to ensure responsible play.”
The company wants “a lot of people to play a little” and hopes to attract “lapsed and infrequent gamblers,” Alex Kovach, Camelot's president, has said.
Yet William R. Eadington, professor of economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno, cautions that keno “mimics the lottery, and it has a very high house advantage.”
“It's a game whose market share has been pretty steadily declining in the last 25 to 30 years,” he said. “It's not the most exciting of games.”
Keno can have a house edge on the odds of 25 to 30 percent. By comparison, slot machines can have an edge of up to 15 percent. Keno accounts for 6 percent of sales in New York and 7.6 percent in Ohio, but 21.6 percent of Maryland's much smaller lottery sales.
“(Camelot) would look to keno as an increment revenue source for themselves and state revenues,” Eadington said. “It's very likely viewed as a stepping stone” to video lottery terminals and, perhaps, online gambling.
Dan DiCarlo, 55, owner of Mario's Italian Restaurant & Lounge, said keno attracts few customers to his 1960s-vintage family business. Most gamblers prefer to play video poker machines kept in a separate room from the keno screen in the bar, he said, though a few play between bites of pizza or ziti.
In his bar, posters of Al Pacino in “Scarface,” Dean Martin, Robert DeNiro and the Rat Pack decorate a corner where the keno machine sits next to a cigarette machine.
Eighteen businesses in Weirton offer keno. Some, such as Mario's, are nice; other parlors have a seedier side, such as a convenience store with a spare room in which men huddle for an hour or more at a time, trying to beat the odds.
DiCarlo of Steubenville, Ohio, said a keno machine is necessary to stay competitive. Locations such as his can pay jackpots of up to $600 on the spot. To collect larger purses, gamblers must go to a state lottery office.
“If customers play, they may stick around longer and have another drink or another appetizer,” DiCarlo said.
Payouts at Mario's typically range from $20 to $200.
Players can wager $1 to $100. They mark the numbers and number of games they want to play on a keno card that resembles a multiple-choice, standardized test sheet. A restaurant employee feeds the slip into an automatic reader that produces an official lottery ticket with those numbers.
Players can watch the drawings every five minutes on a screen to see if they won, or they can redeem the ticket later and the lottery machine will indicate whether it's a winner.
Retired Weirton firefighter Mark Lowe, 55, said he and his wife sometimes play keno while dining out. He does not expect to hit a life-changing jackpot.
The biggest winner in the past decade won $37,500 in 2005, according to the West Virginia Lottery's website.
“I've won a dollar or so,” Lowe said. “But really, it's just something to do to pass the time.”
Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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