Benny Binion: Texas Boss Gambler by Johnny Hughes
Wednesday, 4 January 2012
By Johnny Hughes
So, I've turned 21 and can get a police card to work in a casino, if need be. After misadventures travelling from our beloved West Texas all along Route 66, the Mother Road, America's Highway, my poker and road partner and I are beating Las Vegas and Fremont Street hard on the free sandwiches, cigs, mixed drinks.
He'd bet a buck on the pass-line and I'd bet a buck on the don't-pass at the dice table. We'd get our cigs, sandwiches and drink order in and break even unless the dice hit boxcars, twelve. I tried a spin shot on the dice tables, where you kill a five on the bottom with spinning, centrifugal force. Gruff 'ol Box Man told me, “Go practice somewhere else, kid”. There must have been some secret society, because all the old gamblers called you “kid”.
I’d travelled bridge tournaments, big like poker now, and became a Life Master in my mid-twenties, the highest rank, so I thought I was unbeatable at all card games.
I found a money auction bridge game at the Horseshoe, owned by the legendary Benny Binion, the very man I had come to see. In no time I was gambling at my road game against three old men no smart person would trust. God could not have beat them. I was getting cheated big time.
My bridge partner would bid really high, get doubled and go down a bunch. Each hand, I owed more money. I told them I was pulling up, and we were a few hands into the first of three rubbers. Pleading dry pockets, I swore I would run to my flop house and be back with the long green.
Then a booming voice behind me told me I did not have to pay them anything. I had met Benny Binion, the most famous gambler Texas or Las Vegas will ever produce. Benny sent my partner and me across the street to work for future Poker Hall of Fame member, Bill Boyd, shilling poker at the Golden Nugget. For decades, I would say hello at the World Series of Poker to the Poker Hall of Fame members that I met when I was 19 to 21: Johnny Moss, Bill Boyd, and Benny Binion. They'd pretend to remember me most graciously.
When Benny Binion went to Las Vegas to own a mere casino, he took a huge step down from his position as "Boss Gambler" of downtown Dallas and secret partner in gambling houses in Ft Worth and other towns. He had five policy wheels (the numbers racket), and a part of dice games everywhere, when that was the major form of gambling. All the gambling in wide-open downtown Dallas paid Benny Binion 25 per cent street tax. He had the laws and politicians in his pocket, until his Sheriff lost in 1946. Binion maintained a great deal of control in Dallas and Ft Worth for a decade after moving to Las Vegas.
Benny had this epic struggle with this other boss gambler, Herbert "the Cat" Noble. Benny's forces allegedly made 13 unsuccessful and one successful attempt on the Cat's life. Cat took out a few of Benny's key lieutenants. Cat's car, aeroplane, house, his wife's car and finally his mailbox were rigged with explosives. He was shot several times: shotguns, pistols, and rifles. His wife's car explosion killed her, and Cat went crazy with grief and a zeal for vengeance. Nine lives? Get it. The Cat was caught with an aeroplane rigged with bombs and a map of Benny's Las Vegas home, where his wife and five children lived.
When a mailbox bomb detonated from across the road in 1951, it got Cat. It left a four-foot-deep crater. Two playing cards, an ace of diamonds and a joker, were photographed near the hole.
Benny Binion, though illiterate, was a marketing genius, a pure genius. He said he wanted to make the little people feel like big people. He invented food and booze comps. Benny said folks want good food, good whiskey and a square gamble. He invented the World Series of Poker with his five-month public match between Johnny Moss and Nick "the Greek" Dandalos, but they were taking off the Greek. Two million, probably.
When I first went to Vegas, Benny's joint had ten cent craps with a big neon sign. This was 1960. The dice table was at the front door, touching the sidewalk. Chips were a dime. The big dice table was elbow to elbow, and these system players stood at the edges, writing down each roll of the dice in the false belief that it mattered – the Gambler's Fallacy. A big ol’ sign said to watch your own bets, because the whole dice spread was packed with stacks of ten cent chips and folks would rob each other for a stack.
Benny Binion was a megalomaniac before he left Texas, wanting control of as much as possible. The Chicago and New Orleans mobs had been in Dallas in a light way – pinballs, marble boards, slots, drugs – but Benny kept them out of his gambling operations, until he had to flee the state. He first opened up in Vegas as partners with an old-style Sicilian mob guy, but he didn't like Benny's take-any-size-bet philosophy. Benny pioneered high stakes; your first bet is your limit. He knew you could make more money off a square joint / rug joint in the long run, than you could from a bust-out / sawdust joint.
Davie Berman, a mob spokesperson, supposedly called Benny to a sit down to say all the national press about his running shoot out and continual bombings of the Cat were enough to give gambling a bad name. Some of those boys from Illinois don't need to threaten.
Benny brought in "sixty hop heads off the Jacksboro Highway" to sleep on the Horseshoe floor. These were gun-toting Ft Worth and Dallas thugs who played by no Mr Nice Guy mob rules. There was some very unseemly talk about going into Little Italy on Christmas Day to kill grandmothers. You know those Ft Worth folks. Mean.
Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom.