I occasionally write vaguely poker related articles for the Gutshot site http://www.gutshot.com/ but this one on Benny Binion didn't make the grade...
But here on roGER's Rants, the editor thinks it's brilliant.
Judge for yourselves....
Benny Binion is important to poker players for three reasons; he founded the World Series of Poker, he founded the venue that bears his name, and he bankrolled and encouraged several of the legendary professional players who (largely unwittingly) popularised poker in the 20th century. He was also a murderer, a gangster, a raconteur, a racist, a loyal friend, and remorseless enemy.
Lester Ben Binion was born on the 20th November 1904 in Pilot Grove, a tiny settlement in Western Texas. His early life has the tough sentimentality of a Cormac (All the Pretty Horses) McCarthy western. He was the son of a horse trader, and as a child suffered from chest infections and asthma. At the time fresh air and exercise was the only prescription for chest trouble so his parents took him out of school and into horse-trading. At a very impressionable age, Benny Binion met some of the last of the real cowboys, saw some of the last cattle drives, and was entranced by the old men’s stories of gunfights and Indian raids.
It sounds impossibly romantic and it was. At 14 he’d outgrown the asthma, and was head of the family after his father disappeared from too much gambling and booze and misfortune. The Wild West was long gone now, and any skills the slim tough cowboy had acquired on the plains were worthless. So he took a series of dead-end jobs, the low point was spreading gravel on car parks. Desperation, or ambition, or whatever, led him to small time smuggling across the Mexican border. His salvation, like so many professional criminals in the United States, came with prohibition. From 1920 to 1933 supply could never keep up with demand. Bootlegging suited Benny perfectly - he knew where in the country to hide illegal stills, he had a horse trader’s charm and business sense, and he liked violent action particularly gunplay – he carried two .45 automatics (one for each hand) with .38 revolver tucked away as insurance.
1924 found him in Dallas, then as now the most important city in Texas. He’d done a bit of jail time and already made a lot of money. Two years later he felt confident enough to set up his first gambling operation – a craps game in the Southland Hotel owned by a Mafia boss called Sam Maceo. Binion had two simple sales gimmicks – the most important was he ran a fair game; zero tolerance for cheats. The second was that the game was no limit (i.e. there was no limit on the amount you could bet). It was a huge success, but also illegal and there were plenty of jealous rivals as well as the perennial problem of any casino – cheating staff. Binion’s methods were simple. Officials and the police were bribed, rivals and cheats and disloyal employees were tortured and killed, their bodies often left on the outskirts of the city, half buried and riddled with buckshot as a message to all.
He didn’t escape the law completely. In 1931 he shot dead a fellow bootlegger after an argument got violent and his victim pulled a knife. The charge was first-degree murder, but Benny’s “influence” ensured he got a 2-year suspended sentence. In 1936 he was nearly killed when a rival drew a gun. Binion tried to grab the weapon but was shot in the armpit. Somehow forcing the gun aside he had the presence to draw one of his own guns, shot, and killed the man. This time the court didn’t even have to slap his wrist. Why? Because self-defence isn’t a crime.
By the early 1940s Dallas had become the vice capital of Texas, and Lester Ben Binion, the illiterate son of an alcoholic bankrupt horse-trader was master of it all. He’d expanded into loan sharking, and the numbers – a type of local lottery. He was so successful that in 1947 he’d begun to attract the jealousy of the Chicago Mafia, keen to expand into the booming South West, and his tame sheriff failed to get re-elected. No longer the reckless young bootlegger, he weighed up the odds, decided that without police protection he’d lose the turf war, and fled. He was 42 years old and had a chauffer, a Cadillac, a wife, five children, and several suitcases filled to the brim with cash. Binion told the chauffer, a black man known as “Gold Dollar,” to head for Las Vegas…
Binion’s charm, money, and connections served him well. His first move was to buy shares in the Las Vegas Club casino (still with us) on Freemont Street, downtown. Various other deals and trading ensued, with Binion partnering bigger investors, and essentially managing and publicising their casinos. It was around this time that he set up the most famous poker game ever, between one of his Texas cronies (and occasional employee) John Moss, and Nick “The Greek” Dandolos. The story has been told and embellished many times, but Gutshot’s very own Derek Kelly has done an excellent job debunking many of the myths that swirl around it. You can read his very plausible version of the game here:
Suffice to say the big game was a tremendous draw for the public, and indirectly a tremendous money earner for Binion, who incidentally probably bankrolled John Moss.
By 1951 he’d finally got enough capital to buy a casino of his own and acquired a run-down joint half way down Glitter Gulch called the El Dorado, and the old Hotel Apache above it. Incredibly, or inevitably, the convicted murderer and bootlegger had no problem getting a license to run the properties, which were combined and renamed The Horseshoe Club, later Binion’s Horseshoe. The Horseshoe soon became famous for attracting “serious” gamblers who appreciated the no-limit rule. The comp policy was generous, the atmosphere friendly and informal, and the games were run with scrupulous honesty. It was Dallas all over again, only this time it was legal, at least on the outside.
The entire edifice almost came crashing down in 1953 when Binion’s past caught up with him. Supremely confident that he could bribe his way out of trouble, he went back to Texas with $100,000 in cash to face sentencing for income tax evasion and running an illegal lottery. Unfortunately, the state police learned of the plan and “reminded” the judge of his responsibilities. A stunned and furious Binion found himself in jail for the next three and a half years, despite spending a fortune in legal fees for an appeal. He lost his Nevada gaming licence, and was forced to sell a portion of Horseshoe shares to cover expenses.
The setback proved temporary, although he claimed to have found god while inside, as well as a recipe for chilli that he blamed for the weight he’d put on. On release he returned to the Horseshoe, and carried on exactly as before, an owner/manager who legally wasn’t allowed to manage. Nobody cared. As always Binion made serious money, and a cowboy at heart he spent it on horses, ranches, shares in other casinos and “favours.” By 1964 the casino was once again all his. Swaggering around in a ten-gallon hat, jeans and denim shirts adorned with solid gold buttons, occasionally spitting on the floor, to tourists the fat middle-aged owner must have seemed a joke. But behind the costume and the blubber and the charm and the colourful stories there remained the ruthless operator.
The Horseshoe was law unto itself. Cheats and dishonest staff were beaten up, and in one six year period there were seven murders and over 100 assaults. Undesirables who wandered in off the streets in winter were hosed down, beaten up, and dumped shivering in the alley at the back. Black customers were often thrown out for no reason and black staff almost unknown except for ever loyal Gold Dollar. More subtle pressure was put on senators, governors, judges, police officers, and anyone else who had power or influence. Mostly they received election campaign contributions (often in cash), but interest free loans, and “gifts” also featured. In return they looked the other way, misplaced files, or simply ignored complaints or information about illegal activities.
In 1970, Binion came across an idea by Tom Morehead of the Riverside Casino in Reno to run an elite poker competition that would feature the best players in the world. Remembering the publicity success of the big game years before, he acquired the rights to the World Series of Poker, an invitational event for professional players and a few wealthy amateurs. The concept survived a couple of years, before becoming a proper open event in the early 1970s. Rising numbers meant that a formula had to be devised to ensure an undisputed winner in a reasonable length of time. It isn’t clear whether Binion invented or just helped invent the system of raising the blinds/antes at regular intervals, but he certainly approved of it and ensured its use in the tournament. The concept has been refined and adjusted ever since but the basic idea remains the same. With hindsight, it was revolutionary, although it took the best part of a decade before the tournament began to attract much interest outside the closed world of high stakes poker.
Within that elite world, Benny and his family were universally admired, not least because he was always good for a grand or two to get you back in action if you were broke. He probably knew all the high stakes players in the country, and if you gained his trust and didn’t betray it you had nothing to worry about. Age mellowed him a little, and by the late 1970s his sons Ted and Jack effectively ran the Horseshoe day to day. Semi-retired, Benny sat at his permanently reserved table in the Sombrero Restaurant, telling stories, doing deals, and ever ready to charm and entertain visiting gamblers, journalists, and wide-eyed writers such as Al Alvarez and Tony Holden.
Lester Ben Binion died of natural causes on Christmas Day 1989. Within months, bitter arguments had broken out amongst his children as to who would inherit and control the empire he’d created. Today, the Horseshoe has been sold and faces an uncertain future. Ironically, now that the family has lost control for good, the new owners have renamed it Binions. The news probably wouldn’t surprise him. Binion had few illusions about himself or the world he lived in. When asked why he’d given money to a particular politician he replied “For favours, what else?”
Binion’s gradual transformation from professional criminal to lovable old rogue with a colourful past mirrors the rise of poker from sleazy backrooms to the verge of corporate sponsorship. His empire may have crumbled, and his family fallen apart, but the World Series of Poker goes from strength to strength. Unwittingly, the creation and promotion of the tournament, which did so much to popularise the game and make it gradually more respectable over three decades is likely to be Benny Binion’s lasting achievement.