In a new five-part series writer Christian Henkel digs deep into Las Vegas history to uncover the truth behind some of the gambling world's most notorious figures.
This week’s subject is Benny Binion. Check back weekly for more profiles.
By Christian Henkel
Benny Binion went to Vegas after the Second World War. Little did anyone know he would change Sin City forever. His motto “If you want to get rich, make little people feel like big people” quickly turned the Horseshoe into one of the best casinos in Las Vegas.
But the biggest achievement of his marketing genius was the invention of the World Series of Poker. These are the stories of the men who made Vegas what it is today – the greatest and craziest place on earth.
Binion: Gentlest Bad Guy or Baddest Good Guy?
When the first news reporters and photographers came to Vegas to cover the WSOP in the mid-1970s, they were all impressed by the charming Benny Binion who was constantly smiling and shaking hands.
He was the inventor and the organizer of the growing poker festival and he seemed like an authentic figure in a world based on fraud and illusions.
Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston once said about his long-term mentor:
“He was either the gentlest bad guy or the baddest good guy you’ve ever seen.”
Binion’s response: “Tough times make tough people.” He knew what he was talking about.
Born on November 20, 1904, in Pilot Grove, Texas, a village with a population of then 193, he had to fight to grow up from very early on.
He was a weak, sickly boy so his parents didn’t send him to school, instead choosing to keep him on the farm. His father thought the boy would either get tough or die and he made Benny work. It was going to work out. Benny Binion said later in an article with CardPlayer:
“It was pretty cold. And I remember all the men, gettin’ off , and breakin’ up brush, and everything, and warmin’ their feet. And I stayed on that horse all day, and Dad left. And I doubt if I was over five, six years old. I don’t even remember where we went. And almost from that time on, hell, I just been a-going.”
Binion Turns to Illegal Gambling
He started moonshining, was caught twice and learned that his talents must lie elsewhere.
Gambling – illegal gambling – was flourishing, and it was much more to his liking. Binion saw his chance.
With the beginning of the world economic crisis, it became difficult for Benny Binion to earn money the legal way.
He took $50 and started his first lottery. One week later, he had turned his stake into $800.
In the early 1930s Binion was also beginning to show the recklessness necessary to prevail in a violent environment.
He had an argument with a guy called Frank Bolding, a notorious rum smuggler infamous for his brutality. Binion shot Bolding in the neck, but was sentenced only to two years of probation, because he was acting in self-defence.
Benny Binion was extremely ambitious; he wanted to make it all the way to the top. He moved to Dallas, one of these big Texan cities that had become wealthy thanks to oil trading and cattle farming.
Binion Leaves Texas for Bright Lights of Vegas
Binion started his own little casino, quickly found success, and removed rivals by any means necessary. He allegedly shot two competitors.
One of them was Sam Murray, another Ben Frieden. Both competitors were shot several times with Binion involved.
He was accused only in one case, but let go. Again, the judge ruled he had acted in self-defence.
Eventually, Binion was in charge of gambling in Dallas and had enough money to bribe politicians and the police.
Rumors say that there were times when Binion paid up to $600,000 in bribe money per year.
At the end of the Second World War, the Chicago mob came to Dallas. Binion had bribed one of the candidates who were campaigning for mayor but the guy lost the election and soon after major resource allocation conflicts ensued.
Binion lost the battle. He took his wife Teddy Jane, his children, bodyguard “Gold Dollar”, two million dollars and drove down to Las Vegas.
El Dorado Becomes Binion’s Horseshoe
At the time Sin City was in the hands of the mob as well but Binion quickly put his foot on the ground. He acquired the El Dorado casino on Fremont Street and renamed it Binion’s Horseshoe.
But the demons of the past continued to haunt him, particularly Herb “The Cat” Noble, another major player in Las Vegas gambling.
Noble had “dealt” with several of Binion’s most loyal employees and subsequently survived no less than twelve murder attempts.
When Noble’s wife was killed by a car bomb, Noble apparently planned to fly a plane full of explosives into Binion’s house.
The police thwarted his plans and the 13th attack was finally successful – Noble was killed by a bomb that went off when he opened his mailbox.
But Binion had caused too much trouble. The Las Vegas mob didn’t appreciate the fireworks that the new guy in town had lit. They took measures.
Binion Goes to Prison in Dallas
In 1951, Benny Binion lost his gambling licence and was charged for tax fraud. He was told that if he pleaded guilty, he would be able to buy his way out of a serious sentence.
In 1953, Binion drove to Dallas and turned himself in but was immediately taken to prison and sentenced to five years.
In addition Binion was forced to sell shares of the Horseshoe because he had to cover a lot of the court’s costs. It took him until 1964 to get all of the casino back.
But even in prison Binion kept his ambition. When he got out, he went back to Vegas and turned the Horseshoe into the best casino in town.
He was one of the first to find out that you needed to keep the players happy, and he knew how to do it: “good food, good whisky, good gamble.”
At the time there were about 50,000 people living in Vegas and most of the gambling halls were dark, shady places.
While other locations had the floors covered with sawdust, Binion laid carpets in the Horseshoe. In fact that’s how one of the carpet installers in Vegas worked off a substantial gambling debt he had accrued at Binion's.
Binion Revolutionizes Casino Experience
Binion was also one of the first casino owners who gave out drinks for free and made sure the food was of good quality. On top of the free drinks and great grub, Binion also had a free limo service for high rollers and a regular show on stage.
Binion no less than revolutionized the casino industry. But at the end of the day, Benny Binion always was a gangster. Occasionally Binion’s rivals simply disappeared.
Binion also bribed the police and the authorities. This time around he had to get along with the mob.
He had a firm grip on his casino. If customers were causing trouble, the security staff took care of them in their own special way. It would sometimes lead to severe injuries.
Over time Binion developed paranoid and eccentric tendencies. He would often retreat to his farm in Montana, where he - dressed in a buffalo fur coat - and his bodyguard “Gold Dollar” would drive around in a Cadillac with buffalo horns on the front.
Bring Poker to the Forefront
When in Vegas, Binion presented himself as a self-made millionaire and visionary, however. He was always fascinated by poker, although he didn’t consider himself to be very good at it.
In 1949, he organized a heads-up high-stakes poker game between the professional poker player Johnny Moss and one of the biggest gamblers on the planet: Nick “The Greek” Dandolos.
It was designed as a tourist attraction but it was destined to be his legacy and – in a sense - the birth of the largest poker event in the world.
But Binion still had other ideas. He raised the limits at the craps tables, for example. While other casinos capped the bets at $50, Binion allowed bets up to $500. Nobody had ever done that before.
Because of the raised limits people would walk into the casino only to watch what was going on but then ended up playing, too.
The landmark of the casino was a giant horseshoe with a display filled with one hundred very rare $10,000 notes.
In 1957 disaster struck and Binion lost his casino licence for good. His wife and son Jack took over management, while Benny watched the action from one of the coffee tables and assumed the position of “consultant.”
Officially, Binion was off his job but his most important achievement still lay ahead of him.
How the World Series of Poker Began
In 1970, after a weekend of poker in Reno, Binion invited the players to carry on with the game in the Horseshoe. He jokingly called it the World Championship of Poker.
They only needed one table and the winner was elected by a secret vote.
The format was quickly changed when everyone voted for themselves in the first edition of what ended up being the World Series of Poker.
Nineteen years later, a player named Phil Hellmuth became the then youngest world champion of poker. The Main Event had grown considerably with 178 players and the side events that brought the total number of tournaments up to 14.
Late in that year, Binion had a fatal heart attack. One year later, he was introduced posthumously into the Poker Hall of Fame.
In the years after his death, the Binion clan and its business slowly fell apart. In 1994, Teddy Jane died, and two of his children later became victims of drug abuse.
The remaining brethren Becky and Jack Binion went to court to determine who was going to take over the Horseshoe.
At the end of the trial, Becky would lead the casino, while Jack received one percent in shares so he could keep his own casino licence.
In 2004 – which would have seen Benny Binion’s 100th birthday – the Horseshoe lost its concession due to financial irregularities.
The casino was temporarily closed and sold. Although the brand was retained one of the biggest success stories of Las Vegas had come to an end.