Geno Lawrenzi Jr. remembers Benny Binion
Benny Binion was not the easiest person in the world to interview. The diminutive poker king of Las Vegas with the craggy James Cagney looks and the Dale Robertson ‘Wells Fargo’ voice was always too busy doing something else to take time to talk to a bothersome reporter. I know this is true. Over the years, as a journalist and magazine writer, I made many attempts to slow him down for an interview, and I failed far more than I succeeded. Benny had his reasons for being uncomfortable with the press. There was his lack of formal education, and, of course, the interviewer always had the option of digging up some past skeletons, like a couple of fatal shootings in Texas. To Benny’s way of thinking, that happened a long time ago. That was then, this is now. He lived in the present better than any man I have ever known, including myself.
One person who did get through to Benny was the late Mary Ellen Glass, a University of Nevada at Reno professor. In 1973, as part of the University’s Oral History Program, she persuaded Binion to grant her an interview. She promised the interview would focus on his family and his influence in Las Vegas casinos, as well as his creation of the World Series of Poker. Put in those terms, how could Benny, a genial gentleman at the core, turn her down?
Over a two-day period, she asked questions and Benny responded factually and openly about his past. Probably no major gambling figure in the history of gaming has been more open about his activities as Binion was during those interviews. He regaled her with tales (often making her laugh out loud) about mobsters, hit men, swindlers, crooked politicians, and legendary gamblers he had known.
Although Benny did not answer all of her questions -- rather than lie to her he would just move on to the next one -- he was very open about some controversial issues. He also told her how he had built Binion’s Horseshoe into the most respected casino in downtown Las Vegas and possibly in the world.
Binion was born in Pilot Grove, Texas in 1904 into a family that farmed, raised livestock, and traded horses. Supervised by the strong male influence of his father and his grandfather, he was also exposed to outside influences like gambling, moonshine, and shady characters at an early age.
”When I was growing up, we always had real good food,” he said. “We’d buy them country hams and what, and we’d eat off them farmers most of the time. All them guys on the trail were good cooks. They cooked over a Dutch oven on a campfire. It was a good life.” Playing poker came as natural to him as riding a horse, and he did plenty of both.
“Some of them road gamblers taught me their stuff,” he surmised. “Everybody had his little way of doing things to the cards and I wasn’t too long in wising up to that. Some had different ways of marking or crimping them. They taught me a lot.” His early poker friends included the late Puggy Pearson, a cigar-smoking self-proclaimed redneck gambler. Others included Jack ‘Treetop’ Strauss, Amarillo Slim Preston, and a truly shady character named Johnny Moss, who later became his best friend and gambling partner.
Although Binion created his own legend with his casino and the World Series of Poker, his earliest gambling triumphs involved dice.
“A lot of the dice games were crooked,” he said. “They had what they called ‘daub,’ and they would put it on dice. It caused the dice to hesitate, slow down and turn up on the right number. Of course, it wouldn’t do it every time, but it did it enough to make it enormously profitable.”
One of his best friends, and a man who taught him everything about dice, was Warren Diamond, he said.
“When Warren got out of the penitentiary, he had a lot of money and he opened up a no limit ‘Do and Don’t’ dice game. In the early 1930’s, a fellow came up to him and threw an envelope filled with cash on the line.
‘Diamond, I’m going to make you look at that,’ said the man with a grin. Warren knew the man as a high stakes gambler and just shrugged.
‘Whatever it is, I’ll cover it,’ he said. He turned to the stick man. ‘Pass him the dice.’
The man shook the dice in his closed hand for a long time, then he flung them across the green felt table. He caught a point -- Binion never said what the point was -- and fired again catching a four and three and sevening out. Only then did Diamond open the envelope. It contained $172,000, all in $1,000 bills.”
Benny learned how to treat his customers from Diamond. He called him “one of the finest men I ever knew, a man who kept his word and who did a lot for everybody. If you were in trouble or needed money for an operation or whatever, he’d probably give it to you. I got my idea of dealing high limits on the dice from Warren. You couldn’t help admiring the man.”
I caught up with Benny in the early 1980s while working as a reporter for the Phoenix Gazette in Phoenix, AZ. In those days, I was just learning to play blackjack by counting cards -- I had read Professor Edward Thorp’s book, ‘Beat the Dealer,’ and was convinced I could bankrupt Las Vegas. My love for poker would come later.
In the 1980s, Binion’s was the place to be. His generous food comps and $19 a night rooms attracted everybody’s attention. When you ate at Benny’s Horseshoe, he fed you, he didn’t fool you -- steak and lobster for $5.95, prime rib for $3.95, homemade spaghetti and meatballs, cowboy breakfasts featuring eggs and steak from his own butchered steers, and so on.
But there was something else Benny offered to the players -- something today’s new casinos in places like Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, California and elsewhere -- seem to be ignoring. Cash perks. And they were substantial ones.
I remember making that lovely 170-mile drive from Phoenix through Wickenburg, Wickieup and Henderson into the City that Never Sleeps one Friday night. When I arrived at Binion’s and checked into my room, I hurried down to the poker room. The poker room manager recognized me instantly.
“Hey,” he said. “I have a seat available for you. We’re having cash drawings every eight hours. Each time you make a full house or better, we write your name on a ticket. Then we put that ticket into a drum and give it a spin. The winner receives whatever the cash amount is up to. You have to be here playing in a game to win, and every 24 hours, we dump all the tickets out and start it all over again.” “Fantastic,” I said. “How much is the prize up to as we speak?”
He glanced at the board. “It’s $1,900,” he said. “We just got rid of all the tickets, so you’re coming in on a fresh deck.”
That did it. I promptly sat down to play $4-8 Texas Hold’em with a kill. By the way, players, that’s a lot better game than no-limit. It protects your bankroll, it’s fun and it can be very profitable without the risk that accompanies no-limit. I immediately ran into a string of full houses and tried to fill the barrel with tickets containing my signature.
When the drawing took place at 2 am, I was thrilled to hear them call my name. Suddenly I was $1,900 richer. To make matters ever better -- and this is on record that I am not lying -- eight hours later, around 10 a.m., I hit it again for another $500. When it came to running a casino or running a poker game, Benny Binion had few peers. He had a few skeletons in his closet like most of us, but when it came to walking tall, there were few who could match his stride.
Geno Lawrenzi Jr. is an international journalist, short story author, ghostwriter and novelist who lives in Springfield, MO. You can reach him via email by writing to him at email@example.com.