Benny Binion was an illiterate Dallas crime boss, a ruthless killer, a founding father of modern-day Las Vegas, and a bombastic and outsized personality. And you’ve probably never heard of him, which will make the bizarre twists in a new biography of Binion all the more surprising.
Doug Swanson’s Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster who Created Vegas Poker is rollicking and darkly hilarious in a Coen Brothers, dang-it-what-happened-to-the-dynamite kind of way. Binion is a combination of Bugsy Siegel, Boss Hog and Donald Trump, and Swanson tells the story with a curious eye for what drove Binion to such violence and ambition.
Swanson, the investigative projects editor at the Dallas Morning News, recently talked to Kirkus Reviews about Binion’s strange and sordid story.
I looked through several lists of notorious gangsters, famous gangsters, etc., and I didn’t see Benny Binion on them anywhere.
Yeah, Benny doesn’t usually show up in the all-star list of gangsters. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. First, there’s never been a full-length, mainstream biography of him until now. Second, he became in the second half of his life a respected businessman running a perfectly legal operation. Plenty of thuggish elements remained from the old days, but Binion was a pillar of the Las Vegas commercial establishment for decades.
Would you say Binion is as well known in Dallas as he is in Las Vegas?
Binion was certainly well-known in the Dallas of the 1940s and ‘50s when he was the boss of gambling. And you can still find some old-timers in Texas who knew him. But in Vegas, he’s a legend. To this day, people in Las Vegas speak of Benny with awe and respect. He was one of the founding fathers of modern Las Vegas.
How did you come across him?
I would hear stories about Binion when I covered cops many years ago for the Dallas Times Herald. In the early 1980s I went to Las Vegas and did a story on the World Series of Poker for the Dallas Morning News, so I got a full dose of the Binions and the Horseshoe then. Also about that time, I wrote a story about a professional poker player named Clifford Henry Bowen, who had been framed for murder in Oklahoma. Benny was a friend of his and helped pay for his legal counsel.
This story is kind of outrageous — page after page of just crazy, crazy things. Can you talk about one of the weirder stories?
One of the strangest things in Binion’s life, and in the book, is his continuing feud with a rival gambler in Dallas, Herbert Noble. There were at least 12 attempts on Noble’s life over the years, and Noble always suspected Binion was behind them. The local thugs shot at Noble—and missed—so many times that the Dallas newspapers began calling him the Human Clay Pigeon. The would-be assassins tried to blow him up several times, and once killed Noble’s wife by mistake. When Noble was in the hospital once, a sniper fired at him from the hospital courtyard. Noble plotted revenge. He was going to fly his airplane over Binion’s house in Las Vegas and drop napalm bombs. That plan was interrupted by Dallas police before he got his plane off the ground. Noble finally ran out of luck in 1951 when a homemade land mine got him.
How do you know Binion actually killed anyone?
Benny admitted to killing only two people—a rival bootlegger and a guy who was trying to compete with his numbers business in Dallas. But there are plenty of other people who crossed Binion and wound up dead. Nothing was ever proved, and Benny never admitted anything publicly. But even as an old man he was bragging that he could take care of his enemies “in a most artistic way.” Nobody messed with Benny and walked away healthy.
How did Binion get involved in Las Vegas?
Benny was the boss of Dallas gambling for a good 10 years starting in 1936. That was made possible in part because he had good friends in the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office. But in 1946, Dallas elected a new sheriff and DA who promised reform. Benny was told that if he didn’t leave town he’d either be arrested or killed. So he loaded up his Cadillac with cash and machine guns and headed for Las Vegas, where gambling was legal.
When Binion arrived in Las Vegas in 1946, it was a very primitive place relative to what it would soon become. There were only a few casino resorts out on the Strip, including Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo, which was just about to open. Most of the action was downtown on Fremont Street. That’s where Binion opened his first place, the Las Vegas Club, with Fred Merrill, who was a friend from Dallas, and Kell Houssels, a Vegas businessman.
How did the World Series of Poker come about?
The World Series of Poker was initially a very small-scale affair—just a handful of professional players sitting around a table at the Horseshoe. It grew every year, but by the mid-1980s, when I first saw it, the series was still a pretty low-key event. It was like watching a poker all-star game, but you could get yourself just a few feet from the main table and watch. Now it’s this huge deal with thousands of players sitting in a huge ballroom out on the Strip, covered by ESPN. It’s very lucrative and impressive, but it’s lost every bit of the original flavor.
Binion spent much of his later years under investigation, but the Justice Department eventually dropped their investigations. Why couldn’t they find anything?
The feds were after Binion until the end. They formed a task force and called it Operation Benny Binion, and their goal was to shut down the Horseshoe. They believed the casino was being used, principally by Binion’s son Ted, for laundering drug money and running cocaine. But Benny up and died on them in 1989, and the investigation ultimately fizzled out.
Scott Porch is an attorney and contributing writer for Kirkus Reviews and The Daily Beast. He is writing a book about social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s.