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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

Benny Binion (1904-1989)

Courtesy: Becky Behnen

Born Lester Binion in 1904 in rural Texas, "Benny," as he was called, was exposed to the world of gambling at an early age. As a child, Benny was too sickly to ever attend school, and never had a formal education. He learned basic reading skills only after a stint in jail in his fifties. Instead, in hopes that being in the outdoors would improve his health, Benny spent his childhood tagging alongside his father, a horse trader, as he conducted business.

Errand Boy to Horse Traders
At his father's side, Benny's education was in the world of horse trading and gambling. Benny became the traders' errand boy, serving as a runner and becoming quite adept at trading horses. When they weren't doing business, the traders passed the long hours in their campgrounds playing poker and other card games. Binion would watch the traders and quickly picked up on the players' tricks, skills that later on would undoubtedly come in handy.

Small Time Operator
Applying what he had learned under this apprenticeship, by 1928, at the age of 24, Binion had relocated to Dallas to work as a horse trader. Binion had established a profitable lottery (or "policy" as it was then known) and bootlegging operation. He was well known for the fierceness with which he guarded his empire. In the 1930s and 1940s many murders in Dallas were attributed to Binion. For most of the next two decades, Binion built up a lucrative underground business, becoming involved with prominent politicians and members of the Syndicate.

Skipping Town
But by 1946, fighting had emerged among competing Dallas gangs, and the politicians who had afforded him the protection he needed to run his illegal enterprises were no longer in office. Binion, now 42, was beginning to feel the heat. Binion tried to kill a competitor named Herbert Noble and missed with his trademark bomb. Facing possible prosecution from authorities, or worse from rival gang members, Binion decided to skip town. As so many of his fellow gamblers had done in the past, Binion stuffed suitcases with cash and, with his wife and five children in tow, headed to Las Vegas.

Innovative Promoter
By August 1951, Binion opened his own casino, Binion's Horseshoe Casino. At a time when other Las Vegas casino resorts offered guests luxurious, highbrow accommodations -- the Horseshoe was a glorified sawdust joint. But Binion was an innovative promoter, and the Horseshoe was a success.

No Frills, No Limits
The Horseshoe's no-frills restaurant served chili made from a recipe Binion had learned in a Texas prison. Aside from its aesthetics, however, the Horseshoe's policies were what set it apart from other casinos. Binion, wanting to encourage gamblers to spend, served guests an endless supply of free alcohol. Most astonishingly to Las Vegans, the Horseshoe became famous for accepting any bet a player would put on the table.

Million Dollar Horseshoe
In the 1960s, one of the Horseshoe's gimmicks was to put a million dollars cash, in ten thousand dollar bills, on display in a glass horseshoe-shaped case. Tourists thronged to have their picture taken in front of the display.

Ten-Gallon Stetson
With his white ten-gallon Stetson hat and cowboy-style shirts, Benny Binion seemed tailor made to Las Vegas' Old West theme. A perennially unshaven, tall, robust figure, Binion still spit on the floor as if it were sawdust. His shirt buttons were real gold coins. His favorite overcoat was a buffalo hide. Although federal regulations held that convicted felons were not allowed to own firearms, Binion always carried at least one pistol with him wherever he went. He kept a sawed-off shotgun in his golf cart.

Secret of Success
His "office" was a booth in the Horseshoe's restaurant, where he would conduct all business meetings, with politicians, with members of the Syndicate, or where he simply mingled with his guests. Once, when asked what his business secret was, Binion replied, "If you wanna get rich, make little people feel like big people... good food cheap, good whiskey cheap, and a good gamble. That's all there is to it, son."

A Vicious Streak
Binion's straight-shooting attitude and flamboyant personality endeared him to tourists and Las Vegans alike. But his gregariousness belied a vicious streak. Gamblers caught cheating at the Horseshoe were often physically "punished." One of Binion's personal mottos being "Do your enemies before they do you," he had been convicted twice of murder before coming to Las Vegas. He killed people through others and then killed the witnesses. One victim was a former FBI agent, Bill Coulter, who Binion had blown up in a parking garage in 1972 and still remains an unsolved murder. Binion, as with many of the casino owners in his time, had connections -- "juice" as Las Vegans call it -- and charges were never placed against him.

Tax Evasion
But Binion was not fully able to escape the law. From 1954-1957, he served time in Leavenworth Penitentiary for tax evasion during his gambling operations in Texas. To finance his unsuccessful legal battles to stay out of prison, Binion sold his controlling interests in the Horseshoe, temporarily losing ownership of the casino that had made him famous. By 1964, however, Binion was out of jail and his family had control of the Horseshoe once more. Binion was never reissued a gambling license after his stint in prison, but his sons, Jack and Ted, and his wife, Teddy Jane, ran the casino, as he earned a salary as a "consultant."

World Series of Poker
His casino operating days officially over, Binion nonetheless remained a major player in Las Vegas. In the 1970s, he helped to establish the National Finals Rodeo and the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

A Monument
On Christmas Day 1989 Benny Binion died of a heart attack. He was eighty-six years old. Across the street from the Horseshoe, a bronze statue of Binion astride a horse, his famous Stetson hat cocked to the side, pays tribute to a hood who became known as the "wily sage and grandfather of Glitter Gulch."

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