Lester "Benny" Binion was born in 1904, in rural Texas. He was exposed to the world of gambling at an early age. As a child, Benny Binion was too sickly to attend school, and never had a formal education. Instead, in hopes that being in the outdoors would improve his health, Benny spent his childhood tagging alongside his father, a horse trader, as he conducted business. Benny Binion learned basic reading skills only in his fifties, after a stint in jail.
As he spent his childhood years alongside his father, Benny's education was in the world of horse trading and gambling. He became the traders' errand boy, and later becoming quite adept at trading horses. When they weren't doing business, the traders passed time gambling, playing craps, poker and other card games. Young Benny Binion would watch the gamblers and quickly picked up on the players' tricks.
By 1928, at the age of 24, Binion had relocated to Dallas to work as a horse trader, where he had established a profitable lottery and bootlegging operation. He was well-known for the fierceness with which he guarded his empire. In the 1930s and 1940s many murders in Dallas were attributed to Benny Binion. For most of the next two decades, Binion built up a lucrative underground business and become involved with prominent politicians.
But by 1946, fighting had emerged among competing Dallas gangs, and the politicians who had afforded him the protection he needed to run his illegal enterprises were no longer in office. Binion, now 42, was beginning to feel the heat. He tried to kill a competitor named Herbert Noble and failed. Facing possible prosecution from authorities, or worse from rival gang members, Binion decided to skip town. As so many of his fellow gamblers had done in the past, Binion stuffed suitcases with cash and, with his wife and five children in tow, headed for Las Vegas.
By August 1951, Binion opened his own casino, the legendary Binion's Horseshoe Casino. At a time when other Las Vegas casino resorts offered guests luxurious, highbrow accommodations, the Horseshoe was a glorified sawdust joint. But Binion was an innovative promoter, and the Horseshoe proved to be a success.
The Horseshoe's policies were what set it apart from other casinos. Binion, wanting to encourage gamblers to spend time gambling, served his guests with an endless supply of free alcohol. Most astonishingly, the Horseshoe became the only casino in Las Vegas famous for accepting any bet a player would put on the table.
In the 1960s, one of the Horseshoe's gimmicks was to put a million dollars cash, in $10,000 banknotes, on display in a glass frame. Tourists thronged to have their picture taken in front of the display.
Benny Binion's "office" was a booth in the Horseshoe's restaurant, where he would conduct all business meetings. Once, when asked what his business secret was, Binion replied, "If you wanna get rich, make little people feel like big people... good food cheap, good whiskey cheap, and a good gamble. That's all there is to it, son."
Binion's straight-shooting attitude and flamboyant personality endeared him to tourists and locals alike. But his gregariousness belied a vicious streak. Gamblers caught cheating at the Horseshoe were often physically "punished." One of Binion's personal mottos being "Do your enemies before they do you," he had been convicted of murder twice before coming to Las Vegas. He killed people through others and then killed the witnesses. One of his victims was a former FBI agent, Bill Coulter, whom Binion had blown up in a parking garage, in 1972, and still remains an unsolved murder. Binion, as with many of the other Las Vegas casino owners in his time, had connections -- "juice" as Las Vegans call it -- so charges were never placed against him.
However, Binion was not fully able to escape the law. From 1954-1957, he served time in Leavenworth Penitentiary for tax evasion during his gambling operations in Texas. To finance his unsuccessful legal battles to stay out of prison, Binion sold his controlling interests in the Horseshoe, temporarily losing ownership of the casino that had made him famous. However, by 1964 Benny Binion was out of jail and his family had regained control of the Horseshoe Casino once again. Binion was never reissued a gambling license after his stint in prison, but his sons, Jack and Ted, and his wife, Teddy Jane, ran the casino, while Benny earned a salary as a "consultant."
His casino operating days officially over, Binion nonetheless remained a major player in Las Vegas. In the 1970s, he helped establish the National Finals Rodeo and the now famous World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
On Christmas Day 1989 Benny Binion died of a heart attack, at age eighty-six.
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