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Taking Cue From Over the Border, N.H. Bets Big on Keno

Josh Rogers for NHPR
Keno tickets on sale at The Winners Circle in Salisbury, Massachusetts

Two of the year’s biggest policy proposals, the state budget and full-day kindergarten, both bank on the state collecting more money from gamblers.

In total, close to $30 million - via Keno and online lottery tickets. The changes mark the biggest expansion of gambling in New Hampshire in more than a decade.

Talk to governor Sununu about his recent legislative accomplishments and he’s quick to spread the credit. That’s particularly true when it comes to the gambling policies, which Sununu didn’t propose but ended up endorsing.

“I think the legislature did a great job, looking at these pieces individually and deciding whether they were in the best interests of the state and clearly they decided that they were.”

When asked if he's ever played Keno himself, the governor was less sure.

“Um, honestly, I can tell you I don’t think so. No I don’t think I’ve played it.”

Clearly, the Governor’s not a regular at the Winners Circle. The sprawling sports bar is just over the New Hampshire border in Salisbury, Massachusetts. Keno’s been available there since 1993.

When I visited recently, Bob Seymour, a retired school administrator, told me he’s been playing longer.

“I’ve been playing KENO for 30 years. It’s a great game and you shouldn’t play it because the changes are winning are not good.”

"That doesn’t stop you?"

“No that’s my story. It’s a stupid game”

"You are playing right now.

“I am, as we speak. I am a player.”

This was at 11:30 in the morning. On a Wednesday.

Credit Josh Rogers for NHPR
Bob Seymour plays Keno with NHPR's Josh Rogers at the Winners Circle in Salisbury, Massachusetts

“It’s my second beer and I’m going to have one more and that’s it. Would you like a beer?”

"No, I’m all right, thank you."

A beer wasn’t Bob’s only recommendation.

“You ought to just pick one of those cards up. Play one game. I’ll tell you what I’ll split it with you. We’ll go $2.50 a piece.”

"I’ll play one game, why not?"

“Five games for $5, $2.50 apiece,” Bob suggests.

"I’ll defer to your expertise," I say to Bob.

“I am an expert,” Bob says.

Plenty of other experts consider Keno among the worst bets in gambling. But popularity, particularly with players of a certain age, is undeniable.

New Hampshire is hoping to attract younger players, people less likely to play midday Keno at the local bar with online lottery, which will allow players to buy tickets on their smartphones.

Both games are already in Massachusetts.

Jeff Dufort, one of the Winners Circle’s owners thinks the outcomes in New Hampshire, particularly on Keno, will hinge on implementation.

“You know it depends on how they do it. Massachusetts does it really well. And I’ve talked to people who’ve gone to other states and they said Massachusetts Keno is just more exciting and better payouts.”

It’s also big. $900 million dollars in annual sales; $23 million of that wagered by people from the granite state.

That was part of New Hampshire Lottery Director Charles McIntyre’s pitch to lawmakers this spring.

“Massachusetts is the largest Keno state in the U.S. and the largest Keno per capita in the world. The biggest Keno retailer in the world is on our border and three of the top ten in Massachusetts actually form part of the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

Keno’s been good for Massachusetts' bottom line, but what Keno will do for New Hampshire is far from clear.

Plenty - including the number of games per hour, payouts and licensing details - still need to be sorted out by lawmakers. And since cities and towns must approve Keno before local bars and restaurants can offer it, there’s a lot that remains unknowable.

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR
This primer details how Keno is played

Right now, the New Hampshire law presumes 250 licenses will get issued. Lottery director McIntrye told lawmakers he’d expect the number to double if we end up adopting a Massachusetts-style policy, where Keno can be played outside of bars and restaurants.

“We are happy to do whatever the legislature and the Governor want, this is an operational matter for us, infrastructure.”

Back at the Winners Circle the operational matter of Bob’s and my crack at a Keno glory was increasingly touch and go.

"Here comes your last chance," Bob tells me.

"I don’t know, it’s looking grim, Bob."

"That that our last game."

"I believe it is."

"We got three bucks," Bob says.

"Or a net loss of two..."

“Oh my god, we’ll get 'em next time. I’ll come up to your country.”

And Bob will be welcome. If all goes according to plan, he and anyone else of age will be able to play Keno in here by late spring.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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