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Lester Ben "Benny" Binion (November 20, 1904 – December 25, 1989) was an American gambling icon and mob boss.
Binion was born and raised in Grayson County, Texas, north of Dallas. His parents initially kept him out of school due to precarious health. His father, a horse trader, let him accompany him on trips. While the outdoor life restored his health, Benny Binion never had any formal education.
Binion's FBI file reveals a criminal history dating back to 1924, listing offenses such as theft, carrying concealed weapons, and two murder convictions. Binion moved to El Paso when he was 17. There, he began moonshining, for which he was twice convicted. In 1928, in fear of legal consequences, he gave up moonshining and opened a number of operations. While he was in El Paso, he also learned to gamble, a favorite pastime of the traders waiting on the campgrounds.
In 1931, Binion was convicted of murdering an African American rum-runner, Frank Bolding, "cowboy style." This was the origin of Binion's "Cowboy" nickname. Binion received a two-year suspended sentence. Binion would later kill Ben Frieden, a numbers operator in competition with Binion. By 1936, Binion had gained control of gambling operations in Dallas, with protection from a powerful local politician.
On September 12, 1936, Binion and a henchman reportedly stalked Frieden and emptied their .45s into the unarmed man. Binion then shot himself in the shoulder and turned himself in to police, claiming that Frieden had shot him first. Binion was indicted, but the indictments were later dismissed on the grounds that Binion had acted in self-defense. In 1938, Binion and his henchmen allegedly killed Sam Murray, another of his competitors in the gambling rackets. Binion was never indicted for this murder, and charges were dropped against his henchmen.
By the early 1940s, Binion had become the reigning mob boss of Dallas. He then sought to take over the gambling rackets in Fort Worth. The local mob boss of that city, Lewis Tindell, was murdered shortly afterwards.
While in Dallas, Binion had begun a long-running feud with Herb Noble, a small-time gambler in Dallas, which continued after Binion moved to Las Vegas. Binion demanded that Noble increase his payoff to Binion from 25 to 40 percent, which Noble refused to do. Binion posted a reward on Noble's scalp that eventually reached $25,000 and control of a Dallas crap game. Many tried to kill Noble, but he escaped or survived numerous attempts on his life, although sometimes with gunshot wounds. Eventually Noble's wife was killed in a car bombing intended for him. In retaliation, Noble planned to fly his private plane to Las Vegas to bomb Binion's house, but was restrained by local law enforcement before he could execute his plan. Eventually, a car bomber succeeded in assassinating Noble. Binion lost his gambling license in 1951, and was sentenced to a five-year term in 1953 at Leavenworth federal penitentiary for tax evasion.
In Las Vegas, Binion became a partner of the Las Vegas Club casino, but left after a year because of disagreements about limits on bets. In 1951, Benny purchased the building which had previously housed the Las Vegas Club, and opened it as the Westerner Gambling House and Saloon.
In 1951, 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. He initially set a craps table limit of $500, ten times higher than the limit at his competitors of the time. Because of the competition, Binion sometimes received death threats, although eventually casinos raised their limits to keep up with him. Additionally, the Horseshoe would honor a bet of any size as long as it was the first one made.
Binion was in the vanguard of Las Vegas casino innovation, being the first in the downtown Glitter Gulch to replace sawdust-covered floors with carpeting, dispatch limousines to transport customers to and from the casino, and offer free drinks to players. Although comps were standard for high rollers, Binion gave them to all players. He also shied away from the gaudy performing acts typical of other Las Vegas casinos.
Binion, in a Nevada oral history,[which?] said he followed a simple philosophy when serving his customers: "Good food, good whiskey, good gamble." Binion was known to be generous to patrons. For many years the Horseshoe had a late night $2 steak special, with most of the meat for the steaks coming from cattle on Binion's ranches in Montana. The Horseshoe is also believed to be the first major casino to offer 100-times-odds at craps (a patron with a bet on the pass or don't-pass lines could take or lay up to 100 times their bet in odds). The Horseshoe was one of the more profitable casinos in town.
One of the tourist attractions in Binion's was a large horseshoe with $1 million in $10,000 bills, embedded in plastic.
Binion was forced to sell his share of the casino to pay approximately $5 million in legal costs, resulting from his trial and conviction. His family regained controlling interest in the Horseshoe in 1957, but did not regain full control until 1964. Benny was never allowed to hold a gambling license afterwards, although he remained on the payroll as a consultant.
Binion styled himself a cowboy throughout his life. He almost never wore a necktie, and used gold coins for his cowboy shirts. Despite being technically barred from owning guns, he carried at least one pistol all his life, and 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.
Jack and Ted took over as president and casino manager, respectively, in 1964. Benny's wife, Teddy Jane, managed the casino cage until her death in 1994. In 1998, Binion's daughter, Becky, took over the presidency after a legal battle, and Jack moved on to other gambling interests. Becky's presidency saw the casino sink into debt. In 2004, federal agents seized $1 million from the Horseshoe's bankroll to satisfy unpaid union benefits, forcing its closure and eventual sale to Harrah's Entertainment. It now operates as Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel under the ownership of TLC Gaming Group.
Ted was under nearly constant scrutiny from the Nevada Gaming Commission from 1986 onwards for his involvement in drugs and associating with known mob figures. His gaming license was revoked in 1989, and he died in mysterious circumstances a few months later. Ted's live-in girlfriend and a man with whom she was having an affair (Sandra Murphy and Rick Tabish) were charged and convicted of murder, but the verdict was later overturned. They were retried and acquitted.
In January 1949, Binion arranged for Johnny Moss and "Nick the Greek" Dandalos to play a head-to-head poker tournament which ended up lasting five months, with Nick the Greek ultimately losing a reported two million dollars. The 42-year-old Moss had to take breaks to sleep occasionally, during which the Greek, then 57, went over to the craps table and played. After the final hand, and losing millions of dollars, Nick the Greek uttered one of the most famous poker quotes of all time, "Mr. Moss, I have to let you go."
After years of arranging heads-up matches between high-stakes players, the seed of an idea grew. Binion invited six high-rollers he knew to play in a tournament in 1970. They would compete for cash at the table, after which they would vote on a winner. Johnny Moss, then 63, was voted champion by his younger competition and received a small trophy. The next year, a freeze-out format with a $10,000 buy-in was introduced, and the World Series of Poker was born.
Binion's creation of the World Series helped the game of poker spread and become popular. He actually underestimated how popular it would become: in 1973, he dared to speculate that someday the tournament may have 50 or more entrants; the 2006 main event alone had 8773 entrants.
Benny never forgot his Texas roots and was a key player in getting the National Finals Rodeo to move to Las Vegas. He never forgot the cowboys after they arrived; he always paid the entry fees for all of the cowboys for their championship event. When the casino closed, Boyd Gaming took up the tradition that Binion started by continuing to pay all the entry fees. Every year during the NFR there is a large rodeo stock auction called "Benny Binion's World Famous Bucking Horse and Bull Sale."
Benny Binion was also the owner of the 1946, 1947 and 1948 National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) World Champion, Bred by Binion, ridden and trained by George Glascock, the solid black 15 hand gelding is the only horse to capture the NCHA World Championship three years in a row.
Binion died of heart failure at the age of 85 on December 25, 1989 in Las Vegas. Poker great "Amarillo Slim" Preston suggested as an epitaph, "He was either the gentlest bad guy or the baddest good guy you'd ever seen." He was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1990.