You may never have heard of Benny Binion, but odds are you're familiar with some of his work. So, who was he? For starters, he was one of the pioneers in Las Vegas gaming and founder of the World Series of Poker.
While Binion was said to be one of the nicest men you'd ever meet, he was also a guy you didn't want to cross. From his start as a gambler and racketeer in Dallas, TX, to the establishment of his Horseshoe Hotel and Casino on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, Binion was as ruthless as he was charismatic. Binion reshaped Las Vegas gambling, attracting high rollers and average players alike.
Binion never forgot his Texas roots, often donning cowboy shirts and carrying a pistol, and he built a legacy he passed on to his five children following his life's end in 1989. His story is intriguing and troubling - though maybe a bit inspiring, too. Here's everything you never knew you needed to know about Benny Binion.
Binion Was Convicted Of Slaying A Bootlegging Rival In 1931Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images
As his bootlegging reputation grew, Binion became increasingly protective of his livelihood. In 1931, Binion suspected Frank Bolding, an African American bootlegger, was taking from him and confronted the man. According to Binion, the two men met to discuss the matter:
Me and him was sitting down on two boxes... he was a bad b*stard. So he done something I didn't like and we was talking about it, and he jumped up right quick with a knife in his hand. Then he'd cut the sh*t out of me, but I was a little smarter than that. I just fell backward off of that box and shot the sumb*tch right there.
Binion shot Bolding in the neck and the latter soon succumbed to his wounds. Binion later changed his story about the whole exchange and admitted Bolding didn't brandish his blade, something authorities later determined as well. Binion did, however, remain steadfast in his claims that he feared for his life. Binion was convicted for the slaying but only received a two-year suspended sentence. After that, Binion took on a nickname: the Cowboy.
He Offed One Of His Gambling Competitors And Claimed It Was Self-Defense
In 1936, Binion again killed one of his competitors, a man named Ben Frieden. Frieden was a game operator in Dallas who encroached on Binion's territory. According to the Dallas Times Herald, Binion and one of his associates, H.E. "Buddy" Malone, shot and ended Frieden's life on September 12, 1936.
Both men were put on trial, but witnesses disappeared and, once it was determined "Frieden was armed and fired the first shot," neither were convicted.
Binion maintained he only drew his arm in self-defense, using his shoulder wound as evidence of that claim. Some observers believed Binion shot himself in the shoulder after offing Frieden, but it was never proven. According to John L. Smith, "Frieden was unarmed... [and] the bullet came from Benny's own pistol."
Binion's Southland Syndicate Controlled Dallas Gambling By The Late 1930s
Binion learned a lot about running a successful crime syndicate from Warren Diamond, a well-known gambling powerhouse in Dallas. Binion idolized Diamond and learned how to mix business, style, and illegal activity while making a lot of money in the process. Diamond went into pseudo-retirement during the early 1930s, plagued with cancer, and ended his own life in 1933. From then on, Binion was the most powerful racketeer in the region.
In 1937, Binion based his gambling operations at the Southland Hotel in Dallas. The Southland was eight stories tall and featured a coffee shop, drugstore, and barbershop with bellhops that could procure controlled substances, ladies of the night, or access to one of Binion's dice games. Binion didn't control only the Southland, however, he also had games running at locations throughout Dallas, thanks to the city's lax adherence to gambling laws. He controlled bookies as well, providing an array of gambling options to high rollers like Howard Hughes and Texas oil magnate H.L. Hunt. With his reputation and gambling monopoly at an all-time high, Binion decided to expand into nearby Fort Worth, TX.
By the end of WWII, however, the Chicago Outfit was in Dallas and law enforcement began to crack down on illegal activity. Binion decided to leave Texas - though he didn't give up his interests there - and headed to Las Vegas in 1946.
After Leaving Texas, Binion Set Up The Horseshoe Casino In Las Vegas
When Binion arrived in Las Vegas in 1946, he invested in a couple of casinos before purchasing the Eldorado Club in 1951. The Eldorado was experiencing tax troubles and Binion was able to seize the opportunity to reframe the casino in his own image. He put in $18,000 worth of carpet, according to his own accounts, the first carpets ever to be featured in a Las Vegas casino. Despite this feature, the Horseshoe was decidedly no-frills, with neither performers nor other fancy features - just free drinks for customers and liberal slot machines.
Binion's wife helped design the Horseshoe. Binion said she "did a very good job, and it's had a lot of comment on it. I don't know nothin' about designin' nothin' like that. Hell, all I want's four walls and crap tables, and a roof to keep the rain off, and the air condition to keep people comfortable."
In addition to the design, the Horseshoe distinguished itself as a no-limit establishment, one that "didn’t believe in calling the police. They took care of trouble their own way." Binion's establishment attracted gamblers of all kinds, and his rivals had to raise their own limits to stay competitive. Within a year, however, Binion was charged with tax evasion and, after failing to bribe the judge, received a 42-month prison sentence.