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 where he was twice convicted for it. In 1928, under fear of legal consequences, he gave up moonshining and opened a numbers game, or lottery, which was also illegal. While he was in El Paso he 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 into the 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. Binion then sought to take over the gambling rackets in Fort Worth. The local mob boss of that city, Lewis Tindell, was murdered shortly thereafter.
The Chicago Outfit made a successful move into Dallas after World War II. Binion lost his fix with the local government after the 1946 elections, and fled to Las Vegas.
While in Dallas, Binion had begun a long-running feud with Herb Noble, a small-time gambler in Dallas. The feud continued even after Binion moved to Vegas. Binion demanded that Noble increase his payoff to Binion from 25 to 40 percent. Noble refused. 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, and he escaped or survived numerous attempts on his life, although sometimes with gunshot wounds. Eventually Noble's wife was killed in a car bombing aimed at Noble. 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 assasinating Noble.
Because of the nationwide publicity over the Binion/Noble feud, Binion was unpopular with national Mafia bosses, who felt that he was drawing negative attention to their operations in Las Vegas and Dallas. After one of Binion's bodyguards committed a murder in the men's room of Binion's Westerner Club in Vegas, the mobsters helped the feds put Binion away. Binion lost his gambling license in 1951, and went to Fort Leavenworth federal penitentiary in 1953 on a five-year tax evasion rap.
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 Apache Hotel opening them as Binion's Horseshoe casino. It 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 monetary value as long as it was the first bet made.
Binion was in the vanguard of Las Vegas casinos, being the first in downtown's Glitter Gulch to replace sawdust-covered floors with carpeting, the first to dispatch limousines to pick up customers to and from the casino, and the first to give free drinks to players. Although comps were normal for high rollers, Binion opened the door for all players.
Binion, in a Nevada oral history, said he followed a simple philosophy when serving his customers – Good food, good whiskey, good gamble. He was more generous to gamblers than any other casino owner in Las Vegas. Although the Horseshoe was privately owned, it was reportedly the most profitable casino in town.
Despite physically getting away from Texas, he still had legal troubles. He served time in Leavenworth Penitentiary from 1953 to 1957 for tax evasion related to his operations in Texas. He had to sell his share of the casino to pay around $5 million for legal costs. His family regained controlling interest in 1957, but didn't regain full control until 1964. Benny, however, was never allowed to hold a gambling license afterwards, although he remained on the payroll as a consultant.
To the day he died, Binion remained, at bottom, a cowboy. He 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 most of his customers by name.
Jack and Ted took over as president and casino manager, respectively, in 1964. His 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, Owned by Terry Lynn Claudill, Who also owns the Four Queens located on the adjacent corner of Fremont Street
Largely due to their wealth and environment, both Barbara and Ted ended up having drug problems, with Ted fighting a heroin addiction since 1985. Barbara attempted to shoot herself and was left with a badly disfigured face, and eventually succeeded in committing suicide in 1977. Ted was under nearly constant scrutiny from the Nevada Gaming Commission from 1986 onward for his involvement in drugs and associating with known mob figures. His gaming license was revoked in 1998, and he died a mysterious death a few months later. Ted's live-in girlfriend and a man she was having an affair with were each charged and convicted of murder, but the verdict was later overturned. They were retried and acquitted.
Legends and legacy
In January 1949, Binion arranged for Johnny Moss and "Nick the Greek" Dandalos to play a head-to-head poker tournament which ended up being five months long, which Nick the Greek ultimately ended up losing a reported two million dollars over the five months. 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, this 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.
Binion died of heart failure at the age of 85 on December 25, 1989 in Las Vegas. His friend and 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.
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 as he always paid all of 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.
- Reid, Ed, and Ovid Demaris. 1963. The Green Felt Jungle. Buccaneer Books, p. 154; Jay Robert Nash, World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime (1993). Da Capo Press
- Reid, Ed, and Ovid Demaris. 1963. The Green Felt Jungle. Buccaneer Books, pp. 156-157.
- Reid, Ed, and Ovid Demaris. 1963. The Green Felt Jungle. Buccaneer Books, p. 158.
- Reid, Ed, and Ovid Demaris. 1963. The Green Felt Jungle. Buccaneer Books, p. 160.
- Reid, Ed, and Ovid Demaris. 1963. The Green Felt Jungle. Buccaneer Books, pp. 157-176.
- Reid, Ed, and Ovid Demaris. 1963. The Green Felt Jungle. Buccaneer Books, pp. 176-177.
Ann Arnold. 1998. Gamblers & Gangsters: Fort Worth's Jacksboro Highway in the 1940s & 1950s. Eakin Press.
Jim Gatewood. 2002. Benny Binion: The legend of Benny Binion, Dallas gambler and mob boss. Mullaney Corp.
Jay Robert Nash, 1993. World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime. Da Capo Press
Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris. 1963. The Green Felt Jungle. Buccaneer Books.
Gary Sleeper. 2006. I'll Do My Own Damn Killin': Benny Binion, Herbert Noble, and the Texas Gambling War. Barricade Books.