Road Gambler - Benny Binion, Part II
Wednesday, 1 February 2012
By Johnny Hughes.
The Texas Centennial in 1936 celebrated Texas’ independence from Mexico. It was depression-era, hard times, and the political bosses of Dallas and Ft Worth allowed wide-opening gambling. Benny flourished in hard times, first bootlegging, then dice, then the policy wheels. Benny said, “Tough times make tough people.”
Benny Binion had a dice joint in wide-open Ft Worth over a Mexican-food restaurant, not at all a secret. They had a tame burro as the mascot of the joint. They put signs on the sides of the burro advertising the restaurant. Each morning, they would take the burro to another part of Ft Worth, and let it out. It would head home by the side of the highway like a homing pigeon. And other pigeons would follow.
When I'd hit Las Vegas, I would look for Benny Binion, Johnny Moss and Bill Boyd, living history. Benny would sit in his booth at the Sombrero Restaurant talking on the phone or telling stories. He wore a western shirt with signature, three-dollar gold piece buttons. Benny Binion died Christmas Day of 1989, at 85 years of age. He said, “I'll tell you the truth, but I won't tell you everything.” Me too.
In gathering material for this, a couple of quotes really stuck out. When law enforcement would ask Binion if he knew a whole list of outlaws, including Mob guys, he would admit he did. Benny said the Mob had been into Dallas since the 1930s, but especially after 1946. When asked about a list of leading mobsters that were Binion friends and associates, Benny said, "They never told me they was in it."
For a while, Benny owned a third of Paul Harvey's massive book in Odessa, Texas. I played in that poker game where Paul Harvey, Pinkie Roden and Johnny Moss were the regulars. Ben "Bugsy" Seigel was a West Coast Mob boss. His number two was Mickey Cohen. They did business with Benny and Paul. When Mickey Cohen came to visit Paul Harvey in Odessa, the fabled Texas Rangers knew about it right away. They called Harvey on the phone and told him to get Cohen out of Texas, fast. Paul Harvey said, “Why, is he an outlaw or somethin’?”
Benny Binion controlled some of the numbers racket and a great many gambling joints in Dallas and Ft. Worth. After spending $30 million on legal fees, he was convicted of income tax evasion. Benny told the federal judge, “I didn't intend to cheat the government. I'm kinda ignorant. I got to gambling and all, you know.”
One year at the World Series I was staying at the Mint, next door, which became part of Binion's Horseshoe. I always befriended those large ol’ Texas security guards. This was in the early eighties, I think. I made a big winning, and while I cashed, the guard suggested he walk me to the Mint. My lock box was there. Neat, two armed guards to go next door.
During that World Series, a guy grabs a woman's purse and cuts out running. Those same two heavy guys gave chase. I ran along to see what happened. The guy runs into the Mint, knocks Dixie cups of quarters out of the hands of old ladies near the slots, knocks an ol’ lady over and then they tackled him and led him back into Binion's. When other casinos had troubles, they would call the police. The Binion's allegedly “backroomed” cheats and thieves, which means they took them to an office to beat the hell out of them.
Benny Binion used that same example in his later oral history. He said that you beat folks up bad for stealing an old ladies purse and folks cheer. He said it saved the woman from coming back to testify. Over the years, the casino has been in trouble several times for “backrooming”.
I come from a few generations of gamblers, some con artists. We say, we are not “in the muscle end of it”, meaning no violence. When you walk into another man's gambling joint, you follow their rules. As a poker player, I expected and got safety from the house man. I do not remember any violence or shootings while I was still there. At the Shop in Lubbock, which lasted 35 years, the poker was high. They booked and loaned money for juice and there were all manner of outlaws around, and that was none of my business and I asked no questions. Same at Binion's, where all those same guys went like a sacred pilgrimage.
I was talking with some of Johnny Moss’ kinfolks yesterday. He was never broke really. Virgie held on to a big bankroll, as some writers have alleged.
One year at the World Series, the paging system kept paging Jimmy Fratianno, aka the Weasel, a big-time Mob informant, Witness Protection guy that sent a whole slew of fellow made mafia members to prison. That was a joke.
In the late seventies, the Weasel, went to the FBI, and said what they wanted him to say, initially. Weasel said that he killed Russian Louis Strauss, a former Dallas friend and bodyguard sometimes for Benny, but a low level dude who disappeared sometime. He said he killed Russian Louie for Benny.
What would he blackmail Benny about? He was the most investigated guy going, and they made a deal to lump all old charges, and Benny went to prison a while for tax evasion
Now get this part, which gets repeated over and over due to the misinformation on the internet. Benny Binion promised a slew of mafia guys 25 per cent ownership of a brand new casino in Las Vegas that Benny would pay millions to build and run and they'd get 25 per cent forever, if they could only find someone to kill Russian Louie Strauss. Millions and millions. The FBI put this out. Benny was never indicted for anything. However, a whole list of mafia people did go down when the Weasel testified. He never testified about Benny or Russian Louie in court in any way, but on TV he'd tell of killing Louie before a rapt mafia audience or a dozen or so onlookers, some of whom went to Witness Protection, but none mentioned Benny. That was a silly story, silly. Why would the FBI put that out at first, and then mum up? That's easy. Benny was seeking a pardon for his old tax case from President Jimmy Carter. The FBI tailed Benny for decades and he made jokes about it. Benny sought a pardon from every President from Eisenhower on, except Kennedy, because, Benny said, “his brother was so bad”.
Benny Binion went to the White House and had lunch with President Jimmy Carter's secretary. His advocates were many, "his Senators", as he called them, and Robert Straus, the huge Texas brain and negotiator, former cabinet member and top biggie. He negotiated Middle East peace, or tried. Benny wanted two things: a pardon, and a federal judgeship for his personal lawyer Harry Claiborne. While they were deciding, the FBI put the Weasel's child-like Benny story out to the press. They said Benny would pay millions for a hit. A reporter called ol’ big mouth Benny, who was outraged, and righteously so. Benny said, “Tell them FBIs, I am still capable of doing my own damn killing,” which made the national news. Claiborne got the judgeship, but Benny’s time for a pardon was killed by the FBI and essentially a lie they knew was not true.
Benny was very careful all his life, and was under FBI surveillance in Las Vegas and at his ranch in Montana, and he knew it. At first he stopped them to explain he needed to know it was them and not some enemy. Sometimes for kicks, he'd get to going very fast and lose them, then go look for them. All lawmen and judges ate free at Benny's.
The stories of killings in the Dallas gambling wars are not exaggerated, but Benny's part always, always is. He was too busy trying to kill and trying to keep from being killed by Herbert “the Cat” Noble. Cat Noble was basically an informant for the Texas Rangers. He killed several people himself. A Texas Ranger found Cat Noble with an airplane rigged with bombs and a map of Benny Binion's family home in Las Vegas. He was not arrested for the plane. Benny was informed immediately of Cat's plan to bomb him. The Cat was killed when his mail box was blown up, after eleven or so attempts on his life.
I interviewed Jack Binion in 1990. He said Benny Binion came to Las Vegas in 1946, and he did! There were lots of killings back in Dallas and Ft Worth after he left, many over hijackings. My great uncle was beat up really bad and died about this time, in what was called the “gambling wars”. With killers everywhere. Johnny Moss said he knew 20 or so. Why would Benny Binion pay the mafia of Chicago and Los Angeles, and let a ton of folks know about it to kill ol’ Russian Louie, and pay millions?
J Edgar Hoover had directed the FBI to get something on Benny Binion, and they tried from his release from prison in 1954 until his death. With tens of millions of dollars and several law enforcement agencies after him, Benny Binion didn't need to do anything illegal.
Johnny Hughes, is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom which is now available on Amazon Kindle for $3.99. His new book, Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories, will be published shortly.