“A cross between John Wayne and Jesse James”, is how Mafia gambling kingpin Meyer Lansky once described Benny Binion. Lester Ben “Benny” Binion was born in rural Texas, between Dallas and the Red River border with Oklahoma, in 1904. Still very much the Wild West, a man survived by his wits and wisdom, luck and pluck. Life was a competition for survival and fairness was folly. Everybody looked for an edge and Justice was your own responsibility. As a boy, Benny was frequently weak and sick. If his young son was to grow-up strong and be able to take care of himself, his father believed Benny needed to learn the lessons of Life more than those of the classroom. Consequently, he didn’t go to school but went everywhere with his father. Benny’s father was a professional horse trader, one of the most risky, speculative, and rough occupations on the Frontier. A good trader had to know what he held, what it was worth, and how to get the most for his horses or his money. Not surprisingly, gambling was the most popular pastime among traders. The first game Benny learned to play was Poker. “Everybody had his little way of doing somethin’ to the cards…” he recalled. Befriended by a group of old road gamblers, they taught the boy every gambling trick and scam. Although he always took pride in being an honest gambler, he learned early to be “pretty capable about keepin’ from getting’ cheated.” By the time he was 12, Benny was a horse trader. During World War I he worked for an outfit selling mules to the U.S. Army. “I learned how to tell horses’ and mules’ age by lookin’ in their mouth,” he remembered. “I was real good at it… they’d let me do the mouthin’ of the mules and horses… while they was tradin’ and talkin’.” Young Benny soon learned he could make more money gambling than horse trading. At the age of 24, he moved to Dallas and set up a “policy game” (lottery or “numbers” game) and a bootlegging operation. Gambling was an illegal and often violent business in those days. Benny carried three pistols, two .45 automatics and a .38 revolver. In 1931, he was convicted of murder after shooting a thug who attacked him. Because of the victim’s bad reputation and Benny’s good relations with police and politicians, he received a 2-year suspended sentence. A few years later, he shot and killed a numbers operator who drew first. Binion was found innocent on the grounds of self-defense.
In 1936, Benny learned the dice business. “I didn’t fool with dice ’till I knew a lot about it,” he explained. After working with and learning from some of the greatest craps players and operators of the era, Benny ran underground craps games for ten years.
Eventually the political climate changed in Dallas becoming more conservative and less tolerant. Consequently, in 1946 gambler Binion moved to the town of Las Vegas, Nevada, population 18,000. In 1951, he opened Binion’s Horseshoe Casino.
Benny Binion immediately started revolutionizing casino gaming and taking the first steps toward making Las Vegas the gambling capitol of the world. He was the first to have carpet installed throughout the casino. The dark wood and red velvet wallpaper caused one writer to say the style was “like a San Francisco, gold-rush era whorehouse”.
In addition, Benny offered free whiskey to players and inexpensive food. His philosophy was, “If you want to get rich, make little people feel like big people.” But what really distinguished Binion’s Horseshoe were the betting limits – there were none! Benny was once tested by an Austin, Texas gambler who wanted to make a million dollar wager on the craps table. Benny agreed, as long as it was the player’s first bet. The player lost and three months later committed suicide. With the Horseshoe’s reputation for high stakes, Benny was often called on to arrange big games. When legendary gambler Nick “The Greek” Dandolos came to town, he asked Benny to find someone to play no-limit heads-up poker with him. Benny called the best poker player he’d ever met, Johnny Moss, a Texas road gambler.
Moss caught a plane in Dallas, took a cab from the Las Vegas Airport to the Horseshoe, and immediately sat down at the poker table across from The Greek. The game continued for five months with breaks for sleeping and eating. Large crowds gathered every day to watch the contest which Benny had cleverly positioned in front of a large window. Nick-the-Greek had busted every big name poker player on the East Coast. Nevertheless, after five months playing and stuck for more than $2 million, Nick Dandolos rose from the table and uttered one of the most classy concessions in the annals of Poker, he simply said, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
In 1970, Benny Binion decided to recapture the drama and excitement generated by that earlier poker marathon. The inaugural World Series of Poker featured five games and seven players. Johnny Moss won all five events! He won the title again in 1971 and 1974.
Binion died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 86. Frontier gambler to Las Vegas legend, he was instrumental in bringing Poker from the backroom to the world stage. Benny Binion was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1990.