Q: Benny Binion, the man who started it all right, way back in 1970? We see those bricks of cash at the World Series of Poker when it gets heads-up in the main event, It’s all thanks to him. You picked a good subject.
DJS: Yes, I was surprised. I knew he was a old subject going in but I was really happy, as I did the research, to find find out what a truly great character he was.
Q: I’ve been told that on floor, if you were a square gambler, he was very kind and accommodating but if you crossed the line, if you cheated, he could turn nasty?
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DJS: That’s true. He was often described as he best friend you could have and the worst enemy you could have. You did not want to cheat at Benny Binion’s casino. They didn’t call the cops, they took you out back and handled justice their own way. At the same time, he was a tremendously compassionate individual and people were exceedingly loyal to him. In the course of my research, I’ve talked to people who again and again and again, years after his death, were still talking in the most glowing of terms about the man. Thy loved the man because he engendered this loyalty.
Q: It takes that kind of personality to rise the ranks in that business, doesn’t it. The mob was involved, it was sometimes a seedy venture - gambling. It’s like he had this attraction quality, that people wanted to be around him.
DJS: People did want to be around him and he had that common touch. At the Horseshoe in Las Vegas, he didn’t have an office. He just hung out in the restaurant there, near the casino, and anybody could come up and talk to him. He loved to entertain visitors, especially those from Texas, but if you were a farmer from Iowa, and you saved up all your money to go to the Horseshoe, you could go right up to Benny and talk to him. He’d treat you like he was your long lost cousin. People really loved that.
Q: HJow does a guy from the middle of nowhere rise the ranks, first in Dallas and ultimately in Las Vegas, Nevada?
DJS: He was a really smart guy, number one. He was illiterate, couldn’t do a multiplication table, couldn’t read very well and could barely write, but he learned the trade with his father, initially, going out across Texas with these roving gangs of horse traders, who weren’t always honest. Then, he fell in with the travelling gamblers who would go from town to town, back in the early 20th century all across Texas and have gambling operations in back alleys, hotel rooms and places like that. He learned the trade that way. That was his education. He always used to say that was his ‘Harvard’, hanging with these old time gamblers. So, he learned the trade early, but he also learned you had to be tough. The weak didn’t survive that environment, that was a very harsh environment.
Q: He killed a guy in Dallas?
DJS: Yes, he was bootlegger before he was a gambler in Dallas during prohibition and there was a rival bootlegger who got in the way and Benny killed him. Then, Benny got in the numbers business, there was a rival numbers operator and Benny killed him. So, you know, you didn’t want to cross Benny. You didn’t want to be is competition because you wound up dead.
Q: Was he was pushed out of Dallas?
DJS: Well, one of Benny Binion’s great strengths was that he made friends everywhere. By everywhere, I mean the county court house, the olice department and the sheriff’s office. The most powerful man in Dallas, the most powerful law enforcement figure in Dallas, was also Benny Binion’s best friend. So that’s ow Benny stayed out of trouble, he also paid a lot of bribes in Dallas, but in the early 1940’s, there was an election and Benny’s candidate lost. He no longer controlled the sheriff’s office, he no longer controlled the district attorney office, and they told him ‘You either get out of town or you’re going to be arrested.’
Q: Sounds like the Old West, time to get out of town?
DJS: That’s exactly what it was. He loaded up his car, his Cadillac, and allegedly put $1 million the trunk, He had two of is henchman, who carried Thompson sub-machine guns, and they headed out for Las Vegas in the early 1940’s. That’s where he made himself anew.
Q: Wow. Incredible. You always hear about the stories of old-time gamblers with a gun in their sock at the poker table, but here he is the company of machine guns.
DJS: He didn’t have to carry the sub-machine guns, his guys did. Yes, he always had a pistol in his boot, that’s the way it worked back then. That was just life back then. You talk to some of these legendary poker players, back before they played their games in fancy hotels, they were doing it on the down low and often were robbed. So, they carried sawed-off shotguns with them just as a tool of the trade.
Q: We talked about Benny’s appeal with gamblers. He gets to Vegas, they like him, he makes contacts and it begins to happen? Is that how it works?
DJS: He did it the same way in Vegas as he did it in Vegas. He made friends with the powerful people on both sides of the law. He worked out an arrangement with the mobsters after some initial friction, that he did his business and they did theirs. He also controlled people in law enforcement. By controlled, I mean bought them off. So they stayed away from him too. He bought off the regulators. He spread the money around.
Q:You write that he was ‘star struck’ by Bugsy Siegel and the flamboyant grand opening of the Flamingo Hotel?
DJS: He was star struck. He was flabbergasted by that grand opening, he loved it. I call Benny Binon the Will Rogers of mobsters because he never met one he didn’t like. He loved all those guys and they loved him, that’s just the way he did business. But yes, he was at the opening that first night and really had a great time. When he opened the Horseshoe he took some tips from the Flamingo. The Horseshoe was not a fancy place but it had some nice touches. What Benny wanted to appeal to were the common people. He wanted them to come in and feel rich. If you only had $20 in your pocket, he wanted you to feel like a millionaire.
Q: He was one of the first guys to take all bets, right?
DJS: Yes, no limit! First bet was your limit. You come in and put down $500,000, that’s your limit right there.
Q: A lot of casinos were too afraid of offering that, that perhaps the High Rollers would come in and wipe them out?
DJS: You know, they’re looking at the bottom line from week-to-week, from month-to-month. Benny took the long view. There’s a country singer named Larry Gatllin, who I unfortunately talked to after I wrote the book, and recalled for me a story. He was sitting in the Binion’s restaurant with Benny when one of the pit bosses came up to them and said, ‘Hey Benny, there’s a guy here who wants to put down $100,000 on a roll of the dice. Can we do That?’ And Benny looks at him and says, ‘It’s a damn gamblin’ joint ain’t it?’ That was his approach. Benny figured, rightly, that he was going to win it back in the long run. He might lose that first big roll but, at the end of the day, at the end of the year, he was gonna get it back. And he did. He was a tremendous success.
Q: I read somewhere that Benny’s business philosophy was ‘Good food, good whisky and good gamble?'
DJS: That’s absolutely right. The food was cheap but it was good. A lot of the beef for the steaks came from Benny’s ranch in Montana. As I said, he wanted you to have a good time and it didm’;t matter if you were a high rolling movie star or a guy off the farm. His goal was to treat everybody like they were royalty. That was his business model and it worked really well.
Q: Good reception on the book?
DJS: Yes, I’ve heard some really nice things. I’ve done some great talks in Dallas and Las Vegas and I’ve met some fascinating people who knew Benny Binion and had some great stories about him. Like I say, the loyalty endures. People almost tear up sometimes when they talk about him. You can make the argument that the people who loved him are still around and the people who hated him died an early death. The people who knew him are fervent in their admiration for the man.
Q: You had access to FBI files?
DJS: Yes, and even though they are public record, I found stuff in there that nobody knew about because it had never been published. For example, Binion went away for a few years for tax evasion, to Leavenworth, that’s how they got him. He never really trussed the FBI because of its role in putting him away. However, years later, as he became an older man, he became a confidential informant for the FBI. It’s right there in the FBI records. He was officially, as designated by J. Edgar Hoover, an FBI confidential informant. That had not been published before but it was sitting there in the records and i happened to see it.
Q: What was his relationship like with J. Edgar Hoover?
DJS: Hoover kept wanting Binion to flip the big guys in Vegas. Hoover wanted to put away some of the money launderers and mobsters who were skimming off of the Vegas proceeds. I don’t think Binion ever really gave them any valuable information. I can find no record of that in the FBI files. I know that was Hoover’s hope, that Binion would become his big insider. I don’t see anything in the records to suggest that ever materialized.
Q: Could Benny Binion, back then, ever have imagined what the World Series of Poker has grown into?
DJS: Oh, he could;t believe what happened. I mean, early on, he just had a handful of players and I think he said he hoped to get to 50 or 75 players, that was the big goal. Of course it’s gone way beyond that. As you know, it started at the Horseshoe, right there on the casino floor, and they didm;’t even have a poker table to begin with. They had to move some of the other tables out of the way, the roulette and blackjack tables, just to make room to play poker. When it started out, people just stood there and watched these big poker names, like Doyle Brunson and the others, play poker. Now it’s grown into this huge worldwide enterprise on ESPN, millions of dollars in purses, thousands of players, but no he never envisioned that. It was just a publicity stunt to get people into the casino because he knew that if you walked in to watch the poker you;’d eventually head over to the blackjack tables and lose your money. That was the plan.
Q: Can you comment briefly on his family and some of the drama that’s unfolded there?
DJS: He had five children, two of them have died. Jack Binion, who was instrumental in helping Benny start and continue the World Series of Poker, is probably most familiar to people in the poker work;d. Ted Binion was the problem child. He was an extremely bright guy, a genius at calculating odds, but Ted had drug problems. He died under som mysterious circumstances, maybe he was murdered maybe he wasn’t. There were people convicted of killing Ted Binion but that was overturned later. So that was a tragic problem. Once Benny died, in the late 1980’s, the family fought over the assets. That was finally settled and the Horseshoe was sold to Harrah’s, which now has the World Series of Poker. It was a long difficult process. Originally, this was a family operation, not a corporate operation like much of Las Vegas has become today. They would take the money back to the counting room and put it in a big pile. When that pile got too big they’d put it in another pile. That;s the way they kept track of their money. Ted Binion was famous for allegedly burying millions of dollars of silver out in the desert. They had an unconventional approach to money.
Q: When he was running things, the atmosphere at Binion’s must have been electric?
DJS: The Horseshoe was the place to go if you were a stone gambler. That’s just where you went cause that;s where the gamblers were. They didn’t have any floor shows, they didm’t have any magicians, no ventriloquists, no bands, nothing. Benny always used to say he didn’t want his money ‘flowing out the end of some guy’s trumpet.’ You went there to gamble. You didn’t go to hang with the rat pack or to watch owing, you went there to gamble.
Q: Can you leave us with Benny Binion in three words?
DJS: “Fascinating, compassionate, dangerous!
Doug J. Swanson Thank-you!
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(Right) Benny Binion, legendary figure in gambling, poker & the casino business. Founder of the World Series of Poker.
"Fascinating, Compassionate, Dangerous!"
- Doug J. Swanson on Benny Binion.