Benny Binion (November 20, 1904 - December 25, 1989) was a well-known American casino owner.
Binion was born and raised in Texas. He never had any formal education, partly because his parents initially kept him out of school due to his bad health. Binion's FBI file shows that he had a criminal history that dated back to 1924 and included offenses such as theft, carrying concealed weapons, and two murder convictions. When he was 17 Binion moved to El Paso, where he began moonshining. He gave it up after being convicted, and then opened a numbers operation. It was also in El Paso that Binion learned to gamble.
In 1931, Binion was convicted of murdering a rum-runner, Frank Bolding, "cowboy style" (this was the origin of Binion's "Cowboy" nickname). Binion received a two-year suspended sentence.
By 1936, Binion had gained control of a gambling operation in Dallas, with protection from a powerful local politician. Later that year, Binion and an associate reportedly stalked a numbers operator who was a competitor of Binion, and emptied their guns into the unarmed man. Binion then shot himself in the shoulder and turned himself in to police, to make it look like the man had shot him first. Binion was indicted, but these indictments were later dismissed on the grounds that Binion had acted in self-defense. In 1938, Binion and his associates allegedly killed Sam Murray, another of his competitors in the underground gambling world. Binion was never indicted for this murder, and charges were dropped against his associates.
By the early 1940s, Binion had become the reigning mob boss of Dallas. His next goal was to take over the gambling business in Fort Worth. The local mob boss of that city, Lewis Tindell, was murdered shortly afterwards. Binion fled to Las Vegas after he lost his power with the local government after the 1946 elections and the Chicago mob made a successful move into the Dallas area.
In Las Vegas, Binion became a partner of the "Las Vegas Club" casino, but left after a year because of disagreements about the limits on bets. In 1951, Binion purchased the building which had previously held the Las Vegas Club, and re-opened it as the "Westerner Gambling House and Saloon".
He purchased the Eldorado Club and the Apache Hotel, opening them as Binion's Horseshoe casino, which immediately became popular because of the high limits on bets. The table limit at the craps table was $500 - ten times higher than his competitors at the time. The Horseshoe would also honor a bet of any size as long as it was the first one made. On one occasion, a cowboy from Texas arrived with a suitcase and wanted to bet $1 million on one roll of the dice at craps. Benny took the bet and the bettor won his million, but later came back to lose it all. Because of this stiff competition, Binion sometimes received death threats, although eventually casinos eventually raised their limits to keep up with him.
The Horseshoe changed the face of Las Vegas gambling forever. The Horseshoe developed a reputation for taking the biggest action in town. To attract tourists, there was a large display by the door with $1 million in $10,000 bills embedded in plastic where tourists could get their picture taken with it. The casino was also one of the first places to give gamblers great service. They comped small-time gamblers with free drinks to players and dispatched limousines to transport customers to and from the casino. They also set the trend of downtown casinos being more aesthetically pleasing, with carpeting on the floors throughout the casino. Binion was more generous to gamblers than any other casino owner in Las Vegas. Although the Horseshoe was a small privately-owned casino, it was reportedly the most profitable casino in town because Binion was good at attracting people who wanted to gamble as opposed to people who wanted entertainment.
Binion was unpopular with national Mafia bosses, who thought that he was drawing unwanted attention to their gambling operations in Las Vegas and Dallas. After one of Binion's bodyguards murdered someone in the men's room of Binion's own casino in Las Vegas, the mobsters helped the federal government put Binion away. Binion lost his gambling license in 1951, and was sentenced in 1953 to a five-year term at Leavenworth federal penitentiary for tax evasion.
Binion was forced to sell his share of the casino to pay about $5 million in legal costs, resulting from his trial and conviction. His family later regained a controlling interest in the Horseshoe in 1957, and regained full control in 1964. Binion served three and a half years in prison and was never allowed to hold a gambling license again, although he remained on the payroll as a consultant.
In January 1949, Binion arranged for Johnny Moss and Nick "The Greek" Dandalos to play a heads-up poker tournament. The tournament ended up lasting five months, with Nick the Greek reportedly losing two million dollars. Moss had to take breaks to sleep occasionally, during which the Greek, then 57, went and played craps. After the final hand, Nick the Greek uttered the now-famous quotes, "Mr. Moss, I have to let you go."
Binion had the idea to invite six high-rollers to play in a tournament in 1970. They would compete for cash at the table and the winner would be determined by a vote of the players. Johnny Moss was voted champion of the competition and received a small trophy. The next year, the tournament was run with a freeze-out format and a $10,000 buy-in. The World Series helped the game of poker spread and become more popular. In 2006 the World Series main event had 8,773 entrants.
Binion died of heart failure at the age of 85 on Christmas Day, 1989 in Las Vegas. He was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1990.
Binion had five children - two sons (Jack and Ted) and three daughters (Barbara, Brenda and Becky). In 1964, Jack and Ted took over as president and casino manager, respectively. In 1998, Jack moved on to other things and Becky became the president after a legal battle. Subsequently, the casino sink into debt and, in 2004, federal agents seized $1 million from the Horseshoe's bankroll for unpaid union benefits, forcing the Horseshoe's closure and eventual sale to Harrah's Entertainment.
Barbara and Ted developed drug problems, with Ted fighting a heroin addiction and Barbara committing suicide in 1977. Ted was under constant scrutiny from the Nevada Gaming Commission from 1986 onwards because of involvement in drugs and associating with known mob figures. His gaming license was revoked in 1998, and he died under mysterious circumstances a few months later. Ted's girlfriend and a man with whom she was having an affair were convicted of his murder, but the verdict was later overturned. They were later retried and acquitted. The trial surrounding Ted's death was reviewed in "Positively Fifth Street" by James McManus.
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