Vegas Pioneer and Enemy of the State

The final table of nine was set in the 2014 World Series of Poker this week. Nine players from six countries playing for a guaranteed first prize of $10 million.

The man who started it all was Benny Binion.

During my 20 years in Las Vegas, I never heard or read a negative word about Benny Binion. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, just another fresh rube in town from Topeka blinded by the neon lights.

I would always take out-of-town visitors to the Binion’s Horseshoe to have a picture taken in front of that million dollars in cash displayed in a huge horseshoe. The pictures were on the house, and I couldn’t get enough of gazing at those $10,000 bills.  The food in the coffee shop was cheap, yet surprisingly good, so when we stayed for a bite, who knows, maybe Benny himself was sitting in the corner booth.

What I remember was that million dollars, the smoke-filled casino, and playing dollar single-deck blackjack.  Benny was 81 when I hit town in May of 1986 (the same year Murray Rothbard and Hans Hoppe arrived). The real Benny was a wheezing shadow of the bronze version on horseback erected in 1988.

Indeed, as the Las Vegas Review Journal’s John L. Smith wrote after his death, “Revisionist historians will paint Binion as a sweet old man.” However, crime novelist and Dallas Morning News investigative reporter Doug J. Swanson does exactly the opposite. Taking a swing at non-fiction, the Vegas legend is Swanson’s punching bag for, Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker.

Anyone picking up Blood Aces should expect a very unflattering version of Binion’s life. Swanson’s point of view is revealed in the “notes” section at the book’s end. “Much of this book relies on law enforcement files, principally those of the Dallas Police Department, the FBI, and the federal Bureau of Prisons.” he writes. “This carries certain obvious hazards, because such documents are often self-serving, biased, and full of errors. Great portions of them may be redacted by government censors, and they are, by their nature, one-sided.”

Benny had only a second grade education, evidenced by the sprinkling of ungrammatical direct quotes throughout the book. Binion’s father, a drunkard and horse trader, gave his son another kind of education, “a world of renegades, grifters, hustlers, and highwaymen.”

So while big business was cartelizing the rest of the country during the Progressive era, Swanson writes that Texas was essentially lawless. From his telling, dice games and prostitutes were around every corner in early 20th century Dallas.

The young Binion was arrested for bootlegging at 18 and went into the gambling business from there. The only living Binion child who would speak with Swanson, Brenda Binion Michael, told the author her dad was “a happy, jolly man.” The author doesn’t believe it. His cynicism reeks throughout, with lines like, “County records are gone, and all that remains are family recollections, which tend to paint Binion as an enterprising scamp with a heart of gold. But Benny Binion roamed El Paso as a young man in a violent place, launching a professional career of brutal strategies and heartless expediency.”

Much of the book is devoted to Benny’s gambling empire in Dallas and his defense of it.  So much so that Blood Aces is as much about Binion rival, Herbert “The Cat” Noble, as Binion himself.  Noble survived 11 known attempts on his life, all attributed (with no proof) to Binion.

Before dying in a bomb blast while picking up his mail in 1951, Noble, a pilot, was caught by police that same year, rigging an airplane with two large bombs, one high explosive and one incendiary. He had a map of Las Vegas clearly marked with Benny Binion’s Las Vegas home on Bonanza Road as his target

Engaged in businesses for which there was customer demand but deemed against the law, Binion used private and self defense to protect his business, in addition to bribing anyone necessary to keep operating. John L. Smith wrote recently, “The fact he was a killer and a corruptor of round-heeled politicians and cops only made [Binion] more colorful to a generation of Las Vegas visitors and locals alike.” Power & Market: Govern... Murray N. Rothbard, Mu... Best Price: $71.86 Buy New $2.99 (as of 09:35 EDT - Details)

In both Dallas and Las Vegas, Binion allegedly engaged in what economist Murray Rothbard termed defensive bribery. Benny was merely paying for the service of “the failure to enforce the government edict as it applies to the particular person paying the bribe.” Rothbard goes on to explain in Power & Market, “There is no economic difference between the purchase of a government permission to operate by buying a license or by paying government officials informally.”

Swanson opens each chapter with a Benny Binion quote and the best one starts the book’s best chapter, “Mobbed-up Pilgrims.” Benny didn’t have much schooling but he knew, “There’s nothing on earth I like better than inflation and corruption.” This chapter on Vegas’s early history shows off Swanson’s investigative reporter chops, providing an accurate and nuanced account of Sin City’s beginning.

Swanson doesn’t think much of any Vegas luminaries that hung around Binion, whether they be a federal judge, Henry Claiborne, or noted defense attorney and eventual mayor, Oscar Goodman. “Claiborne treated Binion’s club as a combination frat house, dating service, and bank,” writes Swanson. And no doubt the law enforcement memos the author relied on spoke ill of Goodman who represented Jimmy Chagra, Tony Spilotro, and other notorious figures.

Goodman was involved in the case of Rance Blevins who was murdered in the early morning hours on Fremont Street in May, 1979. Blevins was losing at poker and accused a Horseshoe’s dealer and another player of cheating him. As he was being escorted out by casino staff he shattered a pane of plate glass, then took off running.

A Horseshoe security officer, pit boss Walt Rozanski, and Benny’s son Ted chased after him. When Blevins fell, his pursuers caught up and surrounded him. Someone took the guard’s 9-mm, pressed it against Blevins’s head, and fired. The three left the dead man on the sidewalk and walked back to the Horseshoe.

Police wouldn’t enter the casino to investigate because they weren’t allowed.  Oscar Goodman kept Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Bowman at bay for five hours, before Bowman found a judge to sign a warrant. By that time the gun was long gone.

Bowman’s boss at the time was Bob Miller, son of Chicago bookmaker Ross Miller. Miller would eventually be Nevada’s governor and mentioned the understanding law enforcement had with Binion’s in his book, Son of a Gambling Man: My Journal From a Casino Family to the Governor’s Mansion.

Miller writes that Benny had lost his gambling license because of tax-evasion convictions, but Binion’s sons Jack and Ted “continued their dad’s unwritten policy that the club’s security staff would forcibly handle any criminal problems, such as pickpockets or slot cheats, right there on the premises, instead of calling the police.”

Initially, three witnesses identified Ted Binion as the man who pulled the trigger. Prosecutors were readying their case when “All three witnesses did a 180 and fingered Walter Rozanski, who was a pit boss at the Horseshoe,” Bowman said.

With Goodman as his attorney, Rozanski said the gun fired accidentally, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and was sentenced to probation. Bowman says police and prosecutors always suspected that Binion was the actual gunman, though they had no chance of securing a conviction with all the witnesses pointing the finger elsewhere. “I thought the witnesses had been paid to change their story, but I couldn’t prove it,” Bowman said.

Swanson writes that ten years after the Blevins murder federal authorities assembled a secret strike force with the codename: Operation Benny Binion. They intended to finally get the elder Binion for mob associations, customer beatings, and past murders. The shooting case of Rance Blevins was opened up as well with the hope of pinning it on Ted.

A detail the author missed was the labor strife ongoing in Las Vegas  at the time. The family-held casinos refused to sign labor agreements with the Culinary Union in 1989. “The Boyd Group recruited Binion’s Horseshoe, Michael Gaughan’s Barbary Coast, Jackie Gaughan’s casinos, and the Elardis’ Frontier into an alliance by arguing that they were not in the same league as the large Strip resorts and deserved a less demanding contract,” writes Courtney Alexander in The Grit Beneath the Glitter:Tales from The Real Las Vegas.

But the Feds and the Culinary weren’t Benny’s biggest problems. He was 85 years old and had trouble breathing. He entered Valley Hospital a few days before Christmas in 1989 with doctors giving him little chance of making it. He passed away on Christmas Day.

With the family patriarch gone the Culinary Union Local 226 seized the moment and three weeks later on January 19, 1990 began a strike at Binion’s. The picketing went on for months. The National Labor Relations Board issued constant complaints alleging unfair labor practices. The union engaged in a smear campaign, distributing videos alleging the Horseshoe was engaged in racketeering.  “These activities,” contends Alexander, “combined with a picket line that cut the casino’s business by an estimated $16 million during the strike, prompted Binion to settle the dispute in November 1990.”

But was that really it? According to Alexander the property had no debt, and Swanson writes the operation was earning $67 million a year.  Forget the pickets and the NLRB, the rumor at the time was that the Culinary had information that would have put Ted away for the Blevins murder. However, the union wouldn’t play their their hole card if Binion’s would sign the union’s contract. Their dad had done enough time in Leavenworth, they couldn’t bear to see Ted do time as well.

Ted was the family favorite. Benny said, “My other son Ted, he’s sorta like I am,” and he had the same interest in hoarding silver as his mother Teddy Jane, a four-pack-a-day smoker who filled nine Horseshoe hotel rooms with her clutter. The author describes him as “highly intelligent yet completely undisciplined–a self-educated history buff and math whiz who also enjoyed gambling and strippers.”

The union’s victory was not a small one. “Binion’s political and financial power made the settlement that much more important for the union,” writes Alexander, and soon other family properties fell in line except for Margaret Elardi at the Frontier, who soldiered on alone for seven years despite interference from Bob Miller who by then was governor. In his book Miller brags about gaining the AFL-CIO endorsement for his re-election bid. The unions recognized “I’d earnestly tried to get the lengthy strike resolved,” writes Miller, along with the fact “some of my advisers’ closeness to the unions.”

In June 1997, a drive-by shooter, presumably at the mob’s direction, sprayed Ted’s house with bullets. Ted’s attorney, Henry Claiborne, was told his client should leave town. “The problem with that, however, were the urinalyses Ted had to have three times a week as a condition of his license suspension by the Nevada Gaming Commission,” writes Cathy Scott in Death In The Desert: The True Story of Murder, Money and Mystery in Sin City.

Ted would die in September 1998. A heroin addict since high school, he was found in his home, dead from what was first suspected to be an overdose of his drug of choice and Zanax. Swanson refers to the death in Blood Aces, but inexplicably doesn’t mention Ted’s girlfriend, Sandra Murphy, or Sandra’s paramour Rick Tabish by name.

Movies have been made and books written about Ted Binion’s death. Was it Ted’s girlfriend, and her lover who forced him to ingest the toxic cocktail? Or was it mob associates of Herbie Blitzstein who, according to the FBI, had plotted to kill Binion with an overdose?

Murphy and Tabish were convicted once but later acquitted, after Murphy contacted famed attorney Alan Dershowitz. “She wrote me a 30-page letter that was so compelling, so passionate, and so persuasive that, although I get hundreds of letters every month from inmates, I responded to it,” he says. “She practically wrote a brief.”

Wealthy construction company and nightclub owner William Fuller paid Murphy’s legal bills and posted a $300,000 cash bond for her. “He saw Sandy Murphy come out of the police van shackled and being tugged by an officer,” Fuller’s friend told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “He felt like that wasn’t the right way to treat a woman. He felt she was not getting a fair trial.”

After her Las Vegas experience, in 2010 and not yet 40, Murphy was married and co-owner of a Laguna Beach art gallery, while enjoying golf, boating, and surfing in her spare time.

Any man who has been in the same room with the bewitching Murphy understands how she easily attracts men.

Writing for Orange Coast Magazine, Matthew Heller writes of the famous Vegas femme fatale, “She still has the wholesome, girl-next-door looks that made her stand out at Downey High School—honey-colored eyes, arched eyebrows, and high cheekbones. But there’s also something worldly, wise, tough, even haunted about Murphy.”

Benny’s oldest son Jack, a thin, bald workaholic who his dad called a “long hour man,”  made Binion’s a success after taking over the Horseshoe at age 26. The eldest son would eventually  battle his sisters, Brenda Michael and Becky Behnen, for the property. Becky took over and promptly ran the property into the ground with the help of her husband Nick.

Jack would develop riverboat casinos and his name remains on a number of casino steakhouses.  He would join his father as a member of The Gaming Hall of Fame in 2004.

Behnen sold the $1,000,000 display to collector Jay Parrino after it had been on display since 1964. “For decades it was one of the most popular attractions in Las Vegas,” wrote Benjamin Spillman for the Las Vegas Review Journal. It was all downhill from there for the tattered property.

In her book about Ted Binion’s murder, Cathy Scott wrote that Benny never actually owned the one hundred $10,000 bills, but leased them. So it was the lease Parrino bought, not the bills. Behnen claimed she couldn’t afford to make payment on the bills and premium on the display’s insurance policy.

In November 2002, the Culinary filed a complaint with the NLRB alleging that Ms. Behnen hadn’t signed a collective bargaining agreement and was behind on medical insurance and pension payments. After reaching a settlement in March 2003, again the Horseshoe fell behind on its payments, and a federal judge issued two separate judgments ordering the Horseshoe to pay over $1.5 million.

Behnen stopped making payments and the Culinary  obtained a court order paving the way for federal marshals and IRS agents to seize $1 million from the casino cage that effectively shut down the operation.

The federal government, having chased Benny for years, had finally closed the Horseshoe, and within days Behnen sold it to Harrah’s Entertainment, that didn’t care about the property, but coveted the Horseshoe brand and the World Series of Poker.

The government claimed Binion was a ruthless criminal, and Swanson portrays him as such in Blood Aces. But veteran Review Journal reporter A.D. Hopkins saw him differently, reminding us that  Benny was “the first to give gamblers a fair shot at winning big.”  “Binion injected courage into an industry too timid to take a high bet,” wrote Hopkins, ”He forced gambling houses to change from sawdust joints to classy, carpeted casinos.”

The business was simple in Benny’s view. He told the Frontier’s Margaret Elardi that people just wanted a clean bed, good food, and a fair game. They got that and more at the Horseshoe.

Year in and year out, Las Vegas draws millions who look to get lucky and have fun trying. The city is again on pace to attract nearly 40 million visitors this year. Visitors who come for a little bit of danger and a fair shot–the Las Vegas Benny Binion created.