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Men Of Action: Benny Binion, The Cowboy Gangster Part 2

'If You Want To Get Rich, Make Little People Feel Like Big People.'

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Benny Binion The Day He Got Out Of JailNote: This is part two of a two-part series. For part one, click here.

Dallas was a bear trap to him. Benny Binion’s political cronies, including the sheriff and deputy sheriff, were voted out of power. A rival accused him of blowing his wife up in a car bomb and was caught loading makeshift bombs onto an airplane. He also had a map with Binion’s house circled. That guy would die years later when a bomb buried in front of his mailbox exploded.

Benny Binion showed up in Las Vegas in 1946 with three kids, a wife named Teddy Jane, a 6’6” black bodyguard named Perry Rose, better known as Gold Dollar, and a suitcase every last one of us has dreamed of owning.

He used some of the cash in that suitcase (some say there was more than one cash-filled suitcase) to buy into the Las Vegas Club with Vegas businessman J. Kell Houssell, Sr.

“Kell was about the biggest landowner and operator out here at the time,” said son Jack, in Jack Sheenan’s great The Players: The Men Who Made Las Vegas. “He was a dead serious guy, just opposite of Dad, but he liked Kell all his life.”

Despite his manslaughter conviction and suspended sentence and his reputation as a Dallas mobster, he was given a casino license. Binion described his first Vegas property with mild disgust, and considering he wasn’t involved with it very long and also butted-heads with management, it’s no surprise he lasted only a year.

“This Las Vegas Club wasn’t the most beautiful place you ever seen; it was an old, run down kind of place,” he told UNLV’s Marry Ellen Glass in 1973.

But then again, Las Vegas wasn’t exactly the most beautiful place. In 1947, when the Las Vegas Club opened, about 18,000 people lived there. The casinos were low-ceiling sawdust joints. Plane service was sketchy and even Binion claimed he failed to see the potential of the place, despite his instant success.

“So I kept thinkin’ I’d leave, you know. I didn’t think this town was ever goin’ to be anything like it is. I just couldn’t believe that. I just thought—bein’ that I’d been where they close up, and do this, that, and the other all the time, I thought this just had to go. But it didn’t. Thank God for that,” Binion told Glass.

During this time, Binion bought a ranch in Montana where he and Gold Dollar would show up in a Cadillac with steer horns across the front. It also had bullet-proof windows. Binion had made enemies in Dallas and his paranoia wasn’t unfounded.

“There’s been a lot of ’em wanted to kill me, but they missed,” Binion told Glass.

Mysterious circumstances surrounded the deaths of several his rivals, but Binion nor his associates were ever indicted. Of course, he denied any involvement. Even the self-defense ruling of Ben Frieden’s death was questioned by some. People claim Binion shot his own armpit after he ambushed him, then claimed self-defense. Benny did know an awful lot of judges.

He would soon make even more enemies when he opened the Horseshoe in 1951 and raised betting limits as high as he pleased.

The Horseshoe

Binion bought the Apache and the El Dorado and built his Horseshoe, complete with carpeting, comps for all players, and betting limits that made some of the diamond-hard casino mobsters want to walk across Freemont and put a bullet in Benny’s chubby behind.

Binion's Horseshoe CasinoUntil Binion showed up, casinos had no reason to compete with each other by offering better odds or higher limits. The owners saw no reason to allow players to gamble high, and they hated the idea of letting players let it ride at the craps table.

Higher the limits, as the theory goes, the more volatile business becomes. Benny disagreed. Binion’s Horseshoe opened with craps limits at $500 while the city’s standard was $50. The serious gamblers flocked to the Horseshoe.

“Up until that time, gambling around here had been more of a taking business,” said Jack Binion, according to Sheenan’s The Players: The Men Who Made Las Vegas. Sheenan also quotes son Ted.

“But Daddy had been used to dealing high. At his better places, even back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, he was dealing $200 and $400. And a lot of his best customers came to him for that.”

The limits would eventually be set as the player’s first bet, no matter how high they wanted to wager. Binion may not have any type of formal schooling, but he knew math and he had balls of steel. The money would come back. It always does in his chosen industry.

Other Vegas standards that are attributed to Benny include carpet on the floors (a carpet installer lost $18,000 at the Horseshoe, so Benny let him pay it off with carpeting), giving comps to low-stakes players (“If you want to get rich, make little people feel like big people,” he said), picking high-stakes players up in limos at the airport, and tournament poker.

But just as soon as the Horseshoe was picking up speed, Binion pled guilty to four counts of tax evasion for the years 1947 and 1948, ironically after he was out of Dallas (but still collecting from some craps operations).

In December of 1953, Gold Dollar drove Benny to Dallas for sentencing. He paid the $20,000 fine off a roll of cash he thought would be used to bribe the judge. The deal apparently fell through and Binion was given a five-year sentence. He served three-and-a-half years. It took him until 1964 to regain complete control of the Horseshoe after selling a percentage to pay for legal fees.

By the time he got out, his wife, Teddy Jane, had the Horseshoe running like a well-oiled mechanical bull. From a profile on Benny by Texas Monthly’s Gary Cartwright, he describes Teddy Jane:

“She was a familiar sight on Fremont Avenue, this scrawny old lady with dyed hair and a cigarette between her nicotine-stained fingers, trudging from the casino to the bank with hundreds of thousands of dollars stuffed in the pockets of her trench coat.”

Son Jack would get involved as soon as he was working-age in the late 50s and became casino president at the age of 26 in 1963.

Now 52, Benny would never be given another casino license again, but he never really cared about such formalities. Just ask those who were busted cheating at Binion’s Horseshoe during the 60s and 70s, when the security guards preferred to leave the police out of it.

World Series of Poker

The WSOP wasn’t just born. It’s an event that evolved since the 70s to the spectacle that it is now. Jack Binion and a handful of others have more to do with its ongoing success more than Benny.

The first WSOP took place in 1970, a year after Benny attended a poker party called the Texas Gamblers Reunion in Reno. He had such a good time, he invited the players to his casino in 1970, where they played a few days of mixed cash games and voted for the best player. Johnny Moss won.

Binion’s didn’t even have a poker room.

Here’s how Benny told it to Glass:

“Well, there was a fellow by the name of Tom Moore started it in Reno, invited us all up there one year. Holiday Hotel. So we enjoyed it very much, everybody enjoyed it so; good get-together too, you know. So Tom Moore sold out, so I says, “Well, we’ll just put it on.” And Jack took a hold of it, went to puttin’ it on. So we’ve really improved it over what it did. We improve it every year.

And this was the most thrilling game — I’ve seen lot of poker games; this one this time was the most thrilling game I’ve ever seen. Pug (Pearson) was down to $30,000 once — there’s $130,000 in the game—and when it got down to two men, Pug was down to $30,000 once, Johnny Moss was down to $30,000 once. Johnny Moss come back, put Pug down to $30,000, and then Johnny bluffed his money off Pug. Johnny’s a big bluffer anyhow, you know.”

The next year, the freeze out format was implemented, and six players put up $5,000 to play the “main event.” Four events took place. Jack and Benny Binion, seeing the potential of the WSOP, hired Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder’s public relations company, and like a knobby-head Johnny Appleseed, Snyder planted the idea of poker as sport in the minds of reporters across the country.

Two years later, Snyder filmed the WSOP for the first time and it aired as a special on CBS. It was a good start.

In a Sports Illustrated article written by Edwin Shrake in 1971, he claims a heads-up mixed poker match was played between longtime Binion friend Johnny Moss and famous gambler Nick “the Greek” Dandolos for half a year in 1951. Moss said it took place in 1949, but he could be mistaken. The Horseshoe didn’t even exist then. There is no written record of the match despite that fact that Binion was friends with newspaperman and powerful Vegas operator Hank Greenspun and Dandolos was already famous. Benny didn’t mention it in his interview with Glass.

Either a romantic poker story or a legitimate event, this match is supposedly the zygote that led to the first WSOP in 1970, so is most definitely worth mentioning. The real importance of it will forever be debated.

There’s no debate how much influence Benny’s son Jack had on tournament poker. Without Jack’s impressive managerial skills, foresight and passion, tournament poker would have had a steeper climb to sport legitimacy.

Benny turned 70 in 1974, and he spent the next decade trying to grease Senators and Presidents to pardon him for his crimes. It didn’t work, and he would die a convicted felon on Christmas Day in 1989.

A statue of him riding a horse was erected on the corner of Casino Center Boulevard and Ogden in the late 70’s. It was relocated to South Point Casino’s equestrian center, where the National Finals Rodeo takes place annually. Binion helped move the finals to Vegas in 1985. For it, he’s in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

The Binion family would lose the Horseshoe in 2004. It was sold to Harrah’s, who bought it specifically for the WSOP brand. Harrah’s sold it to MTR Gaming a year later. TLC Casino Enterprises bought it in 2008.

Binion’s name is still on the marque in neon.