Early World Series

May 18, 2010 7:09 AM

With the World Series set to kick off next week, I can’t help but think about what the Series was like in its early days, when Benny Binion decided to get a poker game together at his "little club" in downtown Las Vegas.

I first met Benny in the ’60s at the Stapleton International Airport in Denver, Colorado. We were snowed in, couldn’t fly anywhere.

I was sitting on a bench at the airport next to a man who was glancing at the pages of a newspaper. He was sort of a pudgy fellow with a cowboy Western look about him and I noticed that he had gold coins for buttons on his shirt. I instantly related to him and since there was nothing else to do, I introduced myself to him saying that I was traveling from Tulsa to Las Vegas. "Well, I’m going to Las Vegas, too," he said. "I own a little club out there."

And then he told me all about his "little club," the Horseshoe Club in downtown Vegas. "My wife really doesn’t enjoy me wanting to play poker," he said, "but occasionally on a Saturday afternoon, a few of the fellas – mostly Sunday school teachers, a couple of professors, old ranchers, a retired judge or two and a few of the elite of the town – will gather up and come over to my club for a little game."

Of course, he was talking about the beginning of the World Series of Poker ... these "old-age school teachers and retired preachers" that came by to play with him were none other than Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, Bill Boyd, Puggy Pearson, Curt Gaudy (the sports announcer), Dolly Brunson and Titanic Thompson (the pool hustler) ... just a few of the good ol’ boys. "Now, Mrs. Binion don’t like for us to play," he repeated "but she allows us to have a game once in a while, and I’d like you to come on down and play with us."

Benny was flying first-class and it just so happened that I was, too, because I’d already made a few dollars back in Oklahoma by then. I came to Las Vegas to relax and enjoy myself and I had a considerable roll on me to play with when I came to town.

This was back in my salad days when I played with the dice, the blackjack and sports betting ... I had all the bad habits except for drinking. So, Benny and I visited together on the plane and he told me about his little ranch he had up in Montana and a few other personal stories.

"One time it became necessary and I toked myself into prison" he said. It seems that he had bribed a governmental official. This story reminds me of when my daddy used to say, "Money ain’t heavy to carry."

"So when they sent me up," Benny continued, "I just took a supply with me, $1 million or so, just so I could have the comforts of home while I was there and perhaps even toke my way out."

Then he talked about how he had shot a man in Texas and, most unfortunately, had been forced to leave the state rather hurriedly, but now he was back at home in Las Vegas. You see, Benny was one of the old-time road gamblers who had run some illegal poker games and casinos in Texas and Louisiana. He wasn’t always legitimate, or at least he didn’t have a license to do what he was doing.

A couple of days later I found myself in Benny’s little club where a group of men was assembled around a poker table in the old part of the hotel, the room where they first held the World Series of Poker. The boys invited me in, I dusted off a chair, took out $500 and settled in to play a few hands. I noticed that the chips in Benny’s little club had his picture on them with the initials BB. I took my $500 and I played rather carefully like my daddy had taught me, with some degree of skill and some degree of luck – against some degree of foolishness on Benny’s part.

He was playing any two cards ... a 2-9, a 3-K, any two cards he got a hold of, he’d play. And I was able to quite smartly move my $500 up to $1,000, the $1,000 to $2,000, then to $3,000.

One of my rules is that when you make a satisfactory win, you quit. But this was good! Every time I’d bust Benny, he’d just reach back and get another rack of BB’s. He didn’t care what he was playing ... and the others sitting around there were enjoying themselves, too. Benny was putting on a party. Pretty soon I got myself up to $3,000. Then all of a sudden, I looked down and I had two magnificent black kings staring back at me. I like ’em! I tease the pot a little bit

... Benny teases it back ... I kinda hit it a lick ... and Benny puts some more money in the pot.

This looks like an opportunity for me to really do well, so I drag my money by the ear into the center of the table. Without any reluctance, he pushes all his chips in, too. I turned over my two black kings, and Benny turned over his two red aces! I knew immediately that I was in trouble, but I couldn’t extricate myself from it because my chips were already in the pot.

To find out what happened, check out next week’s column.