Benny Binion was a casino magnate and alleged mob boss who cemented his place in history as a gaming legend. His gambling career which saw ruthless determination and spanned over thirty-five years. He was known to be ruthless to his foes but fair to all who worked with and around him.
In an industry that was too faint-hearted to take a high bet, Benny infused courage. He literally forced gambling houses to change from sawdust joints to classy, carpeted casinos. He was one of the boosters who made Las Vegas the home of the National Finals Rodeo. He founded the World Series of Poker in 1970.
Benny Binion was born “Lester Ben Binion” on November 4, 1904, in Pilot Grove, Texas (near Dallas). His father was a horseshoe trader. Benny was always falling ill as a child, so his father decided to take him on his horse trading trip hoping that the outdoor life would restore his health. It seemed to work, because the trips ended up helping him a great deal.
Benny never received a formal education. As he accompanied his father on different trips, he gradually learned the art of gambling, a favorite past time of horse traders, farmers, and merchants during that time when they all met during country fair trade days.
Benny became skilled in both the horse riding business and gambling. He was initially an errand boy for gamblers by directing people towards gambling joints, but he also made money as a bootlegger. In 1922, when he was 18 years old, he began moonshining. A year later in 1923, he moved to Dallas where he made arrangements for moonshining operations for which he was convicted twice. In 1924, he was arrested for various crimes including theft, carrying concealed weapons, and murder.
In 1928, Benny opened a lucrative numbers game and was doing very well. However, one of the problems he had was that he did not do well with rivals. In 1931 at the age of 27, he was convicted of shooting and killing Frank Bodling, an African-American rum-runner whom he had argued with in a backyard, cowboy style. This incident earned him the nickname “cowboy” and he received a two-year suspended sentence.
In 1936, an unofficial policy of tolerance towards minor vices was adopted by the Dallas government, to host the Texas Continental celebration. Gamblers were not put out of business by police, but they were continually raided. Benny established a network of private dice games at several Dallas hotels, including Southland Hotel. This was later known as the Southland Syndicate.
Because of the incessant police raids, Benny had craps tables built specially in crates labeled “hotel beds.” These crates could be easily carried if there was half an hour’s notice that they were going to be raided. By the end of 1936, Benny gained control of most gambling operations in Dallas, with protection from a powerful local politician.
Benny was known to fight his rivals and eliminated most of them over the years. In 1936, Benny had a feud with Ben Frieden. Together with a henchman, they emptied their pistols on Frieden, after which Benny shot himself on the shoulder, making it look like a gunfight. He then turned himself into the police, saying that Frieden fired the first shot. He was charged with murder, but the charges were later dropped on the grounds that Benny acted in self-defense.
Two years later in 1938, Benny and his henchmen shot one of his rivals in the gambling business, Sam Murray. Benny was never indicted for this murder and all charges against his henchmen were dropped. Benny eventually became a mob boss and was in charge of gambling in Dallas in the 1940s. He later killed the mob boss of Fort Worth, Lewis Tindell, to take over the gambling rackets in the entire area surrounding Dallas.
At the end of World War II, Benny and the Chicago Mob moved to Dallas. In the 1946 election for Dallas County Sherriff, Benny supported one of the candidates by bribing him, but the candidate lost to Steve Gutherie. This caused Benny to lose his fix with the local government and he fled to Las Vegas with his family.
Benny had a long-running feud with Herbert Noble, who was a gambler in Dallas. Benny demanded that Noble increase his payoff from 25% to 40%, which Noble refused to do. Because of this, Benny posted a reward on Noble’s head that eventually reached $25,000 and control of a Dallas crap game. Benny tried to kill Noble twelve times, but Noble survived all attempts.
Noble was called “The Cat” for he was thought to have nine lives. In 1946 he was shot in the back, in 1948 his car was riddled with bullets, in November 1949 a bomb was planted in his car to kill him, but unfortunately, his wife was killed. Noble blamed Benny for the death of his wife and spent the rest of his life trying to even the score.
Noble was a pilot, and in 1951 a police officer caught Noble rigging an airplane with two large bombs, one high explosive, and one incendiary. He had a map with Benny Benny’s Las Vegas home and it was clearly marked. Later that year in 1951, Noble was killed by a bomb that went off as he tried to open his mailbox.
Benny denied responsibility for the death of Noble and his wife. Benny lost his gambling license that same year. He was charged with tax evasion and was sentenced to a five-year jail term in 1953 at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
Benny acquired the Eldorado Club on Fremont Street in 1951 and renamed it “Binion’s Horseshoe”. It became popular because of its high limit games. Benny set the craps limits to $500, which was ten times higher than the maximums set at other casinos. Most people in the gambling industry did not like Benny’s limits, but they had no choice than to raise theirs if they wanted high rollers coming into their casinos.
The way Benny ran his casino stood out from the rest. The Horseshoe Casino is the first major casino to offer 100 times odds at craps. He was the first in downtown Glitter Gulch to replace sawdust covered floors with carpeting, the first to have limousines pick up customers at the airport, and the first to offer free drinks to slot machine players. Benny’s philosophy when serving his customers was “Good food, good whiskey, and a good gamble”. With all of his ingenuity and business skills, The Horseshoe became one of the most profitable casinos in town.
Benny was convicted of tax evasion in 1953 and he had to sell a majority share in The Horseshoe to cover all of his legal costs. The Binion family regained controlling interest in 1957, but it was not until 1964 before they gained full control. Benny never held a gambling license after going to prison – instead, Jack Binion, his son, became the licensee and was president, while Benny assumed the title “Director of Operations.”
Benny styled himself a cowboy all through his life. He almost never wore a necktie and used gold coins as buttons on his cowboy shirts. Even when he was technically barred from owning guns, he carried at least one pistol with him at all times and also kept a sawed-off shotgun close by. His office was a booth in the downstairs restaurant, and he knew many of his customers by name.
In 1970, Benny invited six of the well-known poker places to the Horseshoe for a single tournament. They would compete for cash at the table, after which they would vote for a winner. The next year, a freeze-out format with a $10,000 buy-in was introduced, and the World Series of Poker was born. Johnny Moss, 63, was the first winner of the World Series of Poker.
Benny created the World Series to help the game of poker spread and become popular. He, however, underestimated the popularity of the game. In 1973, he dared to speculate that someday the tournament may have 50 or more entrants; the WSOP main event in 2006 alone had 8,773 entrants.
On December 25, 1989, Benny died of congestive heart failure at the Valley Hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the age of 85.
Benny married Teddy Jane and they have five children, two sons, Jack and Ted, and three daughters, Barbara, Brenda, and Becky. Jack and Ted took over as president and casino manager respectively in 1964, while their mother, Teddy, managed the casino cage until her death in 1994.