Wednesday, June 27, 2007


One of the most colorful people who made Las Vegas the city it is today was Benny Binion, so beloved that the city erected an equestrian statue of him in downtown Las Vegas (take that,Bugsy Siegel!)

Lester Ben (Benny) Binion was born in 1904 to horse trading parents who were constantly traveling around rural Texas. He never stayed in one place long enough to attend school. He learned enough to live by his wits, by running errands for gamblers and directing people to the clandestine gambling joints, which catered to the cowboys and the roughnecks in the oilfields.

At age 18, he moved to El Paso where he learned the art of bootlegging. After being arrested and convicted a couple of times, he promised the judge that he would get out of the liquor business.

Instead, he started a numbers racket. Nowadays, the State controls that and calls it the State Lottery. But back in the 1920's and 30's and to some extent today, entrepreneurs ran their own (illegal) lotteries. Eventually, he graduated to floating crap games in hotel rooms in the oilfields of Beaumont, Texas. Although
his reading and writing abilities were suspect, he could count better than most people, and he became a successful gambler.

Unfortunately, success in illegal activities brings unwanted attention, both from law enforcement and crossroading crooks. In 1931, Binion shot and killed a fellow bootlegger, Frank Bolding, after Binion accused Bolding of stealing liquor from him.
In the confrontation, Bolding reached for his knife, and Binion, rolling backwards off a log, shot him in the neck. He was convicted of first degree murder and received a 2 year suspended sentence. The sentence was lenient because, apparently, the man he killed had a reputation for violence, and the authorities believed that Binion had done them a favor by killing him. Several years later, Binion killed a rival numbers game operator who had shot him in the arm. The court found him innocent because of self defense.

By 1946, Binion was prominent in Dallas gambling circles but violence between gambling rivals was escalating, and nobody in the business was safe. The last straw came when his favorite politicians were voted out of office and "reform" candidates were elected. It was time to head for the high country.

In the same month that Ben Siegel (his enemies called him Bugsy) opened the Flamingo casino, Benny Binion piled his family into the station wagon along with a suitcase full of money, and headed to Las Vegas where gambling was legal. He bought into a small casino in downtown Las Vegas, and in 1951, he opened his own casino, the famous Horseshoe. The big attraction for gamblers was that Binion would accept any size bet, provided that it was their initial bet. With the highest limits in town, the Horseshoe became a Mecca for high rolling gamblers.

To keep the gamblers in line, Binion nurtured his unsavory reputation from back in Texas by telling many stories about the bad old days in the rackets in Texas.

In 1953, the Feds indicted him for tax evasion (remember Al Capone?), and he was forced to sell the controlling interest in the Horseshoe to pay his legal bills. Nevertheless, he ended up as an honored guest of the government for over 3 years in Leavenworth. The Binion family got the Horseshoe back several years later, but, because of his criminal record, Binion could not hold a gaming license.

Instead, he became a consultant for the casino and initiated new ideas such as comping small time gamblers and slot players with free drinks and meals. Binion said, "If you want to get rich, make little people feel like big people." His most famous idea was the World Series of Poker which he hosted, starting in 1972, with 8 players. The WSOP was actually begun by Tom Morehead from Reno, but Binion took it over and, by revising the rules to resolve the tournament over a short time period before people got bored, made it a major commercial event. The first winner was Thomas Austin Preston, a/k/a Amarillo Slim. (See April 18, 2007 issue of KENSUSKINREPORT). The WSOP, with national TV coverage, now attracts thousands of players annually, even despite the $10,000 entry fee. The key to its popularity was that any schlepper with $10,000 to buy in could compete with the pros and maybe even win.

Binion had no office in the casino, but informally held court in a booth in the hotel coffee shop. He didn't require appointments, but he would talk to ordinary people as well as congressmen and judges, often telling colorful stories of rodeos and crap games.

He died on Christmas Day, 1989, and over 1000 people turned out at the church. Senator Harry Reid summarized it well, "He's my hero, Nevada is a better place because of him." I guess he was a classic example of rehabilitation--only in Las Vegas can a former crook merit a statue for doing what was illegal in every other state.




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