The golden keno
In autumn, Michigan offers colorful leaves and keno players.
Saugatuck, Michigan, is an old port city on the breezy, tree-lined Southwest coast of Lake Michigan. In the summer, house-sized yachts from as far as Florida dock in the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. In autumn, tourists come to see the tree canopy ignite with fiery yellows and reds and to stroll quaint shops, their artsy knickknacks inspired by nearby Ox-Bow, a 105-year-old residency run by School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the winter, according to one local, the town “goes from 3,000 to 1,000” (quite literally, according to the 2010 census) as tourists head home or opt for warmer climes.
But any time of the year, you can find a certain sight: someone sidling up to the bar at a friendly old-man joint and playing keno. Bars like highway spot the Cove (41 Blue Star Hwy, Saugatuck, MI) offer $2 burgers, two-finger whiskeys, and keno play slips in canisters dotting linoleum tables like flower vases. Every four minutes a flat screen—courtesy of the Michigan Lottery—flashes a new set of winning numbers. To play, you can let the computer choose numbers, but the fun is bubbling in one to ten numbers on the slip. The amount of spots—or numbers—you choose change the odds, which are deceptively simple and fun fodder for number wonks. (Case in point: The Michigan Lottery reports that, by giving you 1 in 16.63 chance of “winning”, the two-spot game offers the worst odds of breaking even—but what the lottery doesn’t say is that the pick two also has the smallest expected loss). Place a $1, $2, $3, $4, $5, $10 or $20 wager; make it once or multiply it for consecutive draws. The waitstaff rings each ticket into the computer. The television monitor flashes 20 numbers from 1 to 80, and generally the more of your numbers that match the drawn numbers, the more money you take in (The minimum progressive jackpot is $10,000).”
The game dates back to 2003, when the Michigan Lottery began offering Club Keno at bars and restaurants. Just a year later keno outlets averaged $4,065 in weekly sales. This year, about 2,200 Michigan bars and restaurants will offer customers keno. Gamers range from the family who wants to play a game or two, à la Cracker Barrel, before their food arrives to all-day ticket buyers. “At one time people did Club Keno to visit with people,” the Cove bartender Britt Riedle says. “But now for some of those people it’s a keno-only thing, and they’ll make the rounds to other bars to avoid being seen at the same bar all the time.”
Inside Saugatuck’s quaintest dive, Sand Bar (141 Butler St, Saugatuck, MI), hand-painted ceiling tiles—patriotic eagles and cartoonish area maps—allude to the city’s artsy nature. Our friendly bartender tells us that regulars pop in to play or fill in cards to pass the time between beers. Slung nearby, a sign says that the bar has doled out more than a $1 million and a half to keno winners in the past few years. That much?
“Well, it’s like Vegas,” our bartender says, “When they say the house gave out $3 million they fail to mention that the house took in twice that much.” This time we skip the keno and spend the evening drinking generous vodka-tonics, shooting pool and listening to tunes piped out of a blues-only jukebox.
Play keno at the Cove (41 Blue Star Hwy), Sand Bar (141 Butler St) and other restaurants and bars in Saugatuck, MI.