Government & Politics

How your rush to play Powerball kept Missouri’s Keno game in a glitch

How a 'glitch' was affecting Missouri's Keno game

Missouri Lottery spotted a “glitch” in the display of its Keno game results in early July. Here's how the "glitch" was affecting the Keno game.
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Missouri Lottery spotted a “glitch” in the display of its Keno game results in early July. Here's how the "glitch" was affecting the Keno game.

As the Powerball jackpot soared last month, a “glitch” in another Missouri Lottery game drew far less attention — and no repair for weeks.

Throughout most of July and August, the glitch played out over and over on Missouri’s Club Keno and Keno To Go screens across the state. Players who spotted it shared the word in the bowling alleys, bars, restaurants, convenience stores and fraternal lodges where Keno is played.

Some said they stopped playing or changed how they played once they saw the glitch. It persisted because money — or, more precisely, the risk of missing out on big Powerball money — delayed the Keno repair for weeks.

The glitch happened as the Powerball jackpot was climbing and ticket sales were booming throughout the 47 states and territories that play. Long lines formed at lottery retail sites and millions of Powerball tickets popped out of lottery terminals.

Fixing Missouri’s Keno would mean sending a software fix to those same terminals. No one wanted to gamble whether the repair might cause new problems and disrupt the state’s windfall from Powerball’s brisk ticket sales.

“It is a risk to download any software to our gaming system that could interrupt heavy sales and profits here in Missouri,” Susan Goeddes, spokeswoman for Missouri Lottery, said in an email.

Only after a Massachusetts woman hit Powerball’s $758.7 million jackpot on Aug. 23 did Missouri’s Keno glitch get fixed, five days later. Players say the game is back to normal.

Only cosmetic

Missouri Lottery officials said repairs waited also because Keno’s problem was cosmetic.

It didn’t alter the outcome or the winnings on the thousands of Keno games played at the pace of roughly one every four minutes.

Computers continued to randomly pick the 20 numbers, from a pool of 1 to 80, that Keno players try to match.

Computers continued to randomly pick which two of those 20 numbers would be designated the winners for two additional wagers that Keno players can make on their game cards: the Bulls-Eye and the Double Bulls-Eye.

The results of each game’s draw is sent to Missouri Lottery terminals that then send an animation to nearby Keno screens showing which numbers had been picked.

This is where the glitch hit.

Normally, the animation shows the Bulls-Eye and Double Bulls-Eye being picked randomly from among the 20 numbers drawn. During the glitch, the animation always showed the Bulls-Eye was the first of the 20 numbers drawn and the Double Bulls-Eye was the second.

“We were immediately aware of this issue and working to correct it,” Goeddes said in an email. “The 20 numbers — including the Bulls-Eye number and Double Bulls-Eye number — were selected randomly; there was nothing wrong with the drawings. The animation of the Bulls-Eye and the Double Bulls-Eye just didn’t appear in random spots, as it had in the past animations.”

Not all Keno players were convinced everything was jake.

“I did not play bulls eyes for a while,” said “Keno Bob,” a regular Club Keno player who asked that his last name not be used for family reasons.

He had learned about the glitch at The Players Club Bar & Grill in Independence early in August and continued playing the Keno numbers without bulls eyes.

Others found out at Walsh’s Corner Cocktail in Kansas City. The American Legion Tirey J. Ford Post 21 in Independence pointed out the glitch to Missouri Lottery officials who were there during an unrelated visit.

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Who knew?

Joe Hunn said he plays Keno nearly every day and had seen the unusual bulls-eye pattern.

“I just thought it was an occasional thing. I didn’t know it continued that long,” Hunn said.

He acknowledged that a glitch in the animation on Keno screens wouldn’t matter or change players’ odds of winning, as long as the draw itself was OK.

“If it wasn’t, that wouldn’t be a good thing for the gambler,” Hunn said.

Others who watch the lottery industry said the glitch posed a problem even if the numbers and the bulls eyes still were selected randomly.

“The real problem is one of appearance,” said Clyde Barrow, who teaches political science at the University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley. “It makes people think that maybe this is not fair or it’s not genuinely random.”

It’s not clear how many Keno players picked up on the glitch or thought it was a problem.

Data for July and August showed that Keno sales including Bulls-Eye and Double Bulls-Eye plays remained steady. And the state said it received a “minimal” number of calls and emails about the glitch.

“Normally our players, when something’s distasteful to them, they’ll tell us,” said Gary Gonder, chief branding officer for Missouri Lottery.

Gonder said Missouri Lottery notified its sales force and customer service representatives of the glitch. It did not provide a notice to players that there was a glitch.

The delay

By delaying the repair, Missouri Lottery officials weighed the potential impact on a steady earner for the state.

Keno players tend to be loyal, and the game reliably brings in more than $1 million a week to Missouri’s purse. Missouri earned between $58 million and $60 million a year from Keno over the last three years.

Powerball sales bring in more to Missouri, between $81 million and $131 million a year in the last three years. But sales tend to be lumpy.

Big jackpots, like the one in August, entice coworkers, family members and groups of friends into pooling their money to buy tickets. Sales soar. States get suddenly richer.

The glitch happened after the company that runs Missouri’s games had downloaded an update for a new mobile app. Fixing the glitch would mean sending a software update to the same equipment, which happened to be the Lottery terminals that were spitting out Powerball tickets.

Missouri officials said the glitch hit only the Missouri Keno game, not other games in other states.

IGT Global Solutions Corp. runs lottery games in Missouri and many other states. It is based in Great Britain with offices in Las Vegas and Providence, R.I. The company referred questions to Missouri Lottery.

Missouri Lottery said that IGT has a policy to deal with glitches while Powerball sales are hot: If possible, do nothing.

And waiting to fix Keno’s cosmetic problem was delayed until the woman in Massachusetts hit the Powerball jackpot. Keno players played around the glitch for weeks as Missouri filled its coffers.

It’s a logical strategy to “maximize the bottom line,” said Jeff Dense, professor of political science at Eastern Oregon University and a student of the gaming and lottery industries.

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar