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Books: Bad ol' boy

BinionA terrific new bio of Benny Binion tells the whole, unvarnished story

Somehow, Doug Swanson, in his new biography of Benny Binion, successfully conveys two seemingly discordant messages: (1) that Binion was a gangster as cold-blooded as a Mafia hitman; and (2) that he was one of the nicest fellas who ever walked the planet.

In other words, Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Invented Vegas Poker (Viking, 310 pages) aims to tell the whole story of Benny Binion, because, indeed, he was both an organized crime kingpin and a community treasure. “He was brutal when he had to be and beneficent when the opportunity arose,” Swanson writes. “Benny was the approachable racketeer, the affable killer, the conversational kingpin.”

Many locals remember Binion as the aw-shucks proprietor of the Horseshoe casino and founder of the World Series of Poker. And they might know a little about his reputation as someone you didn’t mess with. But the story started long before Binion’s name ever graced a Vegas casino. Swanson, a Dallas Morning News investigative reporter, is most effective in narrating Binion’s epic 25-year run as an underworld boss in Dallas.

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Binion started out as a Prohibition bootlegger, but he discovered he could make more money in gambling. First, he controlled the “policy” games  — much like a daily lottery — in Dallas’ black neighborhoods. His “Southland Syndicate” grew as he bought a piece of the nicest casino in town.

For Binion, running a criminal empire sometimes meant dispatching people who stood in his way. In 1931, he killed a black man named Frank Bolding. Claiming self-defense, Binion pleaded guilty and received a two-year suspended sentence. In 1936, he killed a competitor, Ben Frieden. Binion claimed self-defense and the charges were dropped. In 1940 one of Binion’s key men, Ivy Miller, shot to death a rival racketeer, Sam Murray. Miller was arrested but never tried. The list goes on.

Swanson writes that Binion doled out $600,000 per year in “fines” to keep his illegal gambling operations running. It was the price of doing business in a city that eclipsed even Las Vegas for political corruption. But after World War II, Binion’s lucky streak in Dallas finally ran out with the election of a reform-minded sheriff and district attorney in 1946. Their No. 1 target: Binion.

With $1 million in cash in his trunk, Binion drove west. He was not alone in viewing Las Vegas as a postwar panacea for stressed-out mobsters. Swanson writes: “Binion had joined one of the great migrations in American organized crime history: the mob diaspora of the 1940s. They came from New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami ... It was Manifest Destiny, felony division.”

Wonderful lines like that make Blood Aces a joy to read. Swanson, also a novelist, combines in-depth research with some devilishly clever lines. For example, in contrast with the suave, pinstriped gangsters from the coasts, “Binion’s trousers were perpetually unpressed, and the buttons of his western shirts — made from gold coins — strained at his generous paunch. His hair looked as if it had been cut by the least promising freshman at a failing barber college.”

Binion’s Las Vegas ascendancy is reported in detail, and with no whitewash. After brief, unsuccessful investments in the Las Vegas Club and the Westerner, he finally struck gold when he bought the closed Eldorado in 1951 and transformed it into the Horseshoe Club. Although plagued by licensing problems in Nevada and criminal indictments in Texas, Binion’s Horseshoe became a going concern.

The law finally caught up with Binion in 1953 — not for murder but for tax evasion. He was sentenced to five years in Leavenworth. He was released in 1957, at which point he faced further tax troubles.

The Horseshoe’s heyday was the 1960s and ’70s, when Binion became known as a generous philanthropist. (The National Finals Rodeo never would have come to Las Vegas without his bucks.) His best friends included Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb and federal Judge Harry Claiborne, both of whom were targeted by the feds because of their close ties to Binion.

Right up to his death on Christmas Day 1989, Binion continued to be a controversial newsmaker. Swanson digs into all of his sticky entanglements. This book is sure to enrage some Las Vegans, delight others and make a few people nervous.

For that reason and others, it’s the best Binion chronicle we’ve seen so far, largely because Swanson recognizes and appreciates the dueling personas of the man he calls “the most beloved gangster of them all.”  

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