Benny Binion, born Lester Ben Binion on November 20, 1904, in Plot Grove, Texas, was an American gangster and casino owner. He founded the World Series of Poker and Binion’s Horseshoe, a casino resort in Las Vegas. Benny Binion was known for his extensive criminal activities and contributions to the development of the Nevada gambling industry.
Binion was born to a poor cotton farmer family in Texas. As a teenager, he was a triple threat – involved in bootlegging, horse stealing, and armed robbery. Although arrested several times and considered a dangerous criminal by the authorities, it wasn’t until 1928 that Binion was charged with a capital offense, murder, after shooting and killing a rival bootlegger in a dispute over territory. However, he was acquitted of the charges due to insufficient evidence and no witnesses ready to testify.
In the 1930s, Binion moved to Dallas, Texas, where he ran a true floating craps game, setting up tables in exclusive hotel rooms for wealthy customers. Later, he opened several gaming clubs and was a member of the infamous Dallas Mob, a group of criminals involved in gambling, racketeering, and other illegal activities who split the expenses of paying judges, sheriffs, and even newspapermen. Their ties spread as far as Chicago.
However, elected officials aren’t always re-elected, and as government officials changed titles, Binion’s fix went flat. When the authorities cracked down on his operations, and local competitor Herbert Nobel proved nearly impossible to kill – Binion and his henchmen tried at least six times – Binion packed his family into a brand-new Cadillac and arrived in Las Vegas with a trunk filled with cash.
That’s the fanciful story, but he did arrive with plenty of money. He moved to Las Vegas under a gentleman’s agreement with Tony Accardo in Chicago and took a piece of the Las Vegas Club, Bugsy Siegel’s old haunt. In the meantime, Binion and Noble continued their feud and Benny told his old Texas gang that Noble’s life was worth $25,000 and a Dallas crap gang. Several murder attempts failed, including a car bombing that killed Noble’s wife in 1949.
Noble took extreme measures to protect himself and his family, including a plan to fly over Binion’s home in Las Vegas and drop several bombs. The idea hatched, but it never grew to fruition as Herber “The Cat” Noble was killed by a bomb explosion as he drove past his home mailbox. More on Benny and The Cat is found in Blood Aces, a great crime-biography of Binion’s life.
Expansion in Las Vegas
Binion purchased the Eldorado Club casino in 1951 (which had also been several casinos, including Tony Cornero’s SS REX) and renamed it Binion’s Horseshoe. Unfortunately, the tax man finally caught up with him, charging unpaid tax bills and five years in Leavenworth prison. The charges required Benny to relinquish his Nevada gaming license, which was never reinstated!
Before heading to jail, Benny arranged with Joe W. Brown to purchase the Horseshoe for a limited time. When he was released, Brown balked at returning the club to the Binion family and it took several years to arrange a new deal.
However, Benny’s sons, Jack and Ted, were eventually licensed at the Horseshoe. He and his wife also had three daughters, and in the late 1990s, Becky took over the presidency of Binion’s Horseshoe and managed the club for six years before selling the name – and the WSOP trademark to Caesar’s Gaming group.
The World Series of Poker
In the early ‘50s, Binion’s Horseshoe offered occasional high-limit poker games and at one point the game featured Johnny Moss and Nick “The Greek” Dandalos, a legendary gambler, edge-finder, and questionable businessman. At times there was more than a million dollars on the table, a fortune in the fifties.
Although Benny lost his gaming license, he did retain a legendary reputation, offered higher gaming limits than any other club in the downtown area, and even proposed that “Your first bet is your limit” to accept any wager. Some players took him up on the offer and bet more than $1 million at craps.
And, as a colorful businessman, Benny held sway over decisions from a table in the Horseshoe’s Mexican restaurant. In 1969, he accompanied a group of poker-playing friends (Amarillo Slim, Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, and even Minnesota Fats (Rudolph Wanderone) to Reno for a “Texas Gambler’s Reunion” at friend Tom Moore’s Holiday Casino in Reno. The reunion went well, and everyone had a good time, although it was a one-time event.
According to Jimmy the Greek, he told Binion he should have an annual poker tournament and call it the World Series of Poker. Accurate or fanciful, the WSOP came true. Binion hosted the event for years, which was a deciding factor in Caesars’ purchase of the Horseshoe in the early 2000s.
Benny because a colorful grandfather-type character in Las Vegas history and a bright spot in casino owners. He passed away on Christmas Day in 1989. He was 85.
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