Benny Binion was many things - a cowboy, gangster, casino mogul and founder of the wildly successful World Series of Poker.
But Binion is most remembered for his crucial role in shaping early Las Vegas - during the era when Vegas was run by the mob, Binion knew how to treat a guest. He was also a brutal man. He had local politicians in his corner, and was known for bribing cops and using violence when necessary.
Binion’s colorful and violent life in Dallas and Las Vegas has been captured in “Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion – The Texas Gangster who created Vegas Poker.” The book also tells the story of Binion’s rivals, like Herbert Noble, who survived 11 attempts on his life, but not the 12th.
Doug Swanson, author of the book and an investigative reporter in Dallas, said a lot of his time was spent discovering new documents about Binion and verifying the stories he was told.
“If I couldn't’t confirm it, I didn't’t put it in the book,” Swanson said.
Cutting through the myths and stories that had grown up around a larger-than-life character was one of the author's biggest challenges.
Swanson said the biggest surprise in researching his book was finding that Binion worked with the FBI for a couple of years, allegedly giving information about his friends and business associates to the Feds.
However, it seems like the agreement was more beneficial to the legendary gambler than the FBI. Swanson wasn't able to link any information from Binion to a case against another casino operator, but he believes Binion did have an FBI agent as a friend during those years.
“Benny worked everybody. He worked all the angles,” Swanson explained.
When Binion left Dallas in 1946 and headed West to Las Vegas, as did many other gangster from around the country, looking for a fresh start free from the pressures of the authorities, he brought with him a knowledge of how to run a business.
“He learned how to run an operation and he learned how to make powerful friends and I think he transferred a lot of that to Las Vegas when he was ultimately run out of Dallas,” Swanson said.
Making friends and loyal customers was part of Binion's success. Unlike other casinos owners of the day, Binion was accessible to guests.
“He worked on the loyalty of his customers and people would come back again and again to the Horseshoe because they felt they knew Benny,” Swanson said.
Benny Binion died on Christmas Day 1989 from heart failure.
His legacy lives on not just through the downtown hotel that still has his name or the World Series of Poker that he invented, but in the very fabric of the city.
“He made, as silly as this may sound, the place to gamble,” Swanson said.
At Binion's place, there were no entertainers, no chorus girls, no comedians, just gambling.
Anyone could gamble as much as the wanted at the Horseshoe. That spread the idea of Las Vegas far and wide long before it was an international brand.
“It leant a mystique that traveled outside Vegas and brought people in, I think,” Binion said.
(Editors note: This story originally ran October 2014)
Doug Swanson, investigative reporter,Dallas Morning News
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