Benny Binion was a true cowboy with a six-gun and the King of Downtown Las Vegas. Like many transplants to the state of Nevada, Binion was a Mob boss who brought a colorful past filled with illegal gambling, bribery, extortion, and murder to his new home.
Born Lester Ben Binion (November 20, 1904 – December 25, 1989) in Pilot Grove, Texas, Benny never had any formal education. Instead, his father took him on the road and taught him about trading horses. We think he enjoyed the gambling the traders did more than anything else. His later life pointed to a man unafraid of taking any bet.
While “Bugsy” Siegel was making headlines in New York and Chicago as a reputed gun for hire, Binion made headlines by killing off his competition in El Paso and Dallas, Texas. In 1931, he shot and killed a rum-runner, Frank Bolding, by simply walking up to him and firing until his gun was empty.
The shooting earned him the “Cowboy” nickname and a two-year suspended sentence. It also got him friends in the Sheriff’s Department who had their hands out. Binion’s gambling operations in Dallas brought him into contact with politicians and high-stakes players. The money went both ways.
Over the next ten years, several competitors committed suicide. Another, Ben Frieden, was ambushed by Binion and a gang member. As the man lay dying, Binion gave himself a flesh wound in the shoulder and went to the police alleging that Frieden had shot first. Binion was never indicted.
Benny’s luck ran out when the Chicago Outfit moved into his territory, and Dallas County Sheriff Steve Gutherie took over control. What could a fine upstanding citizen of Texas do? Instead of fighting the good fight, one he couldn’t win, Benny packed his family into a new Cadillac, crammed the trunk with cash, and drove to Las Vegas.
A Trunkful of Cash
Binion felt safe in Las Vegas and was happy to leave behind a festering feud with Herbert Noble, a Texas gang leader who had refused to pay Benny a fee for his “numbers gig.” Binion’s gang responded with bullets, but Noble lived. So, they upped the ante to a car bomb, which killed Noble’s wife.
The media went crazy, recounting a total of six attempts on Noble’s life that had left him in the hospital four times peppered with bullets and shrapnel. His hearing was gone, but not his will to live. The thought of killing Binion kept him alive and in good spirits.
To that end, Noble bought a plane, planning to bomb him from the cockpit. But it didn’t happen. Instead, Binion’s $25,000 murder contract was raised to $50,000 for Noble’s head. The newspapers took to calling the oft-shot man The Cat.
Local law enforcement heard about Noble’s plans and kept him from using his private plane to hit Binion’s house in Las Vegas, but didn’t protect The Cat from retaliation. In August of 1951, Noble slowed his car to check his mailbox. A bomb detonated and incinerated the car, killing him instantly.
Back in Vegas, Benny was offered a piece of the Las Vegas Club by the Mob. He took it, handing over $150,000. Benny was a big time gambler, ready to take large bets, but his partners were stubborn, refusing to raise the table limits at craps and blackjack. Binion had that trunkful of cash and opened his own club, the Westerner.
During the licensing hearings, Governor Charles Russell said,
“The license is predicated on Binion’s affidavit and proof that he is not engaged in gambling in any other state where gambling is illegal.”
The state rolled-over and the gaming license was granted. That was good, but there was bad around the corner.
One of Binion’s bodyguards, Cliff Helms, killed a man trying to blackmail Benny. Well, that’s the story he gave. That was a little much for the Chicago Outfit, who insisted that killings be made outside the city limits. While Benny moved on to the Eldorado Club and Apache Hotel (which he reopened as Binion’s Horseshoe Club), a little office in Washington, DC started looking into Benny’s taxes.
To bring publicity to the new casino, Binion called on old friend Johnny Moss, highly regarded as one of the best poker players in the world. Binion’s idea was to have a high stakes game going near the new casino’s entrance. All he needed was another big time player, and there was nobody with more of a penchant for high stakes gambling than Nick “The Greek” Dandalos, who took down big name players like Arnold Rothstein and “Titanic” Thompson over the years.
The Greek said he was looking for “The biggest game that this world could offer.” Benny said he might just have such an animal, and pretty soon at 128 E. Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas the biggest poker game in the world started and ran for months and months.
Nick was certainly game, a wily competitor who took down most of the competition, but Johnny Moss was an animal. He slowly but surely chipped away at the millions of dollars the flowed across the table, playing for days at a time. Always when he returned after a day’s rest, The Greek could be found shooting craps, and would chastise him for “sleeping your life away.”
After five months, The Greek made his famous statement, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.” The game ended, but the legend lived on. Years later, when Nick Dandalos was reduced to playing craps for measly $5 chips, he quipped, “Well, its action ain’t it?”
The Binion Name
Binion’s fight with Herbert Noble was deadly, but his fight with the IRS was tougher. A team of government lawyers brought case after case and eventually, all the money in the world couldn’t stop them.
Benny was sentenced to a five-year term at Leavenworth for tax evasion, stemming from his gambling activities in Texas. Other charges were dropped, but Nevada pulled his gaming license permanently. In late 1953, Joe W. Brown purchased the Horseshoe.
He remodeled the club and designed a giant gold horseshoe with 100 $10,000 gold certificate bills, encased in plastic. One million dollars in fresh paper bills. The horseshoe became one of the most photographed symbols of Las Vegas ever conceived.
Released from prison in 1957, Binion convinced Brown to sell the property back to a group of 20 investors, including Benny’s son, Jack, who would hold the family’s 25%. Jack was licensed as President of the Horseshoe in 1963, but Benny was a constant at the club and held office in the casino’s downstairs restaurant. He dressed in cowboy clothes, with gold buttons and ten-gallon hats. He also carried a pistol in his pocket his whole life.
Benny set low limits at table games to entice all types of gamblers but always said “Your first bet is your limit,” meaning he took all action. Craps player Willie Bergstrom tested Benny, asking if he could wager $1 million on a single bet at craps. Benny said,
“If you’ve got the cash, son, I’ve got the action.”
A week later, Bergstrom arrived with a suitcase holding $777,000 in hundred dollar bills. He made his wager on the “Don’t Pass Line” at a chosen craps game and watched as the dice sevened-out, making him a winner.
The World Series of Poker
Benny’s high stakes poker game was a huge success publicity-wise for the Horseshoe. He expanded on that idea in 1970 by inviting seven of the best poker players in the world to a little competition with $5,000 buy-in table limits. The idea morphed into a tournament with the World Series of Poker in 1971 and made household names of players like Amarillo Slim Preston, Doyle Brunson, and Stu Ungar.
CBS News ran annual specials about the tournament, calling it a sporting event, and the huge popularity of internet poker brought new tournaments like the World Poker Tour to TV. Eventually, Harrah’s Corporation purchased Binion’s Horseshoe in 2004 to obtain the rights to the World Series of Poker.
Today, the WSOP is held at the Harrah’s-owned Rio Hotel and Casino just off the Las Vegas Strip. Meanwhile, Binion’s Horseshoe Casino downtown is still open. Benny’s gone, but was remembered by Amarillo Slim Preston as,
“Either the gentlest bad guy or the baddest good guy you’d ever seen.”