A current generation of Las Vegans who are well familiar with the Binion family name might not be aware of the legendary figure who first made it famous.
No, it wasn’t Ted Binion, who was either murdered or OD’d on drugs in 1998, depending on whose trial testimony you believe in what was called the “Crime of the Century” in Las Vegas.
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Nor was it Ted’s older brother Jack, who is generally acknowledged to be as savvy a gaming operator as ever came to the desert and one of the most respected figures in Nevada gaming. Jack sold out his personally held properties a few years ago and is said to have pocketed over a billion dollars.
The man who branded Binion’s Horseshoe and subsequent properties was in fact Ted’s and Jack’s father Benny, a savvy cowpoke who left Texas shortly after the end of World War II. It was he who provided a blueprint in Las Vegas for how casinos ought to be run that is still in use today. And this despite indisputably killing two men and serving more than a three-year stretch in Leavenworth for income tax evasion.
There aren’t many ex-convicts who have statues erected to themselves to honor their impact on a community, but Benny was at one time seen riding high on the drive into McCarran International Airport. At last sighting the statue was at South Point Casino. And all the bull riders and calf ropers who make it to the National Finals Rodeo each year will tell you that it was Benny who first started paying their entry fees into the event, when Las Vegas snatched the NFR from Oklahoma City in the early 1980s.
Jack Binion says his father’s reputation as a tough character began when he got into a car collision while still in his late teens. As Jack told author A.D. Hopkins in our book, The Players, “Two guys got real pushy with him, and seeing that he couldn’t whip them both he grabbed a piece of the bumper that broke off when their car hit his. Some of these guys’ friends came to help them out and they kept coming until there was 14 of them with broken bones.
“That got written up in the newspaper, and that’s when Benny Binion actually got to be famous.”
In Las Vegas, Benny was the first downtown casino operator to put carpet on the casino floor, the first to send limos for his customers when they arrived at the airport, and the first to accept high-limit betting, as long as the customer established that limit with his first wager. Casino moguls like Steve Wynn and Michael Gaughan have said many times that Benny knew more about gambling than anyone they’ve ever met.
A man who shied away from publicity, especially television cameras, Benny Binion did make one memorable national TV appearance in the early 1970s at the urging of his friend Amarillo Slim. It was on the Tomorrow Show, hosted by Tom Snyder.
Snyder asked Binion why all the large hotels on the Strip had a limit on wagering, while a small casino owner like himself took nearly any size bet.
“Well, they got great big hotels and little bitty bankrolls,” Benny said. “I got a little bitty hotel and a great big bankroll.”
After he was finished laughing, Snyder said, “Well, aren’t you afraid that somebody will break the bank?”
“Not really,” Benny said. “I’ve got a darned good head start on ‘em.”
As near as anyone can tell, and despite dozens of requests to appear on television afterwards, that was Benny’s only national appearance.
On another occasion, Binion was asked why he never offered live entertainment to his casino customers. “I don’t want some guy blowing my bankroll out the end of a horn,” he said.
When Benny Binion died on Christmas Day, 1989, nearly every important business and political figure in Nevada attended his funeral. And many in attendance were surprised to learn in a eulogy that a good portion of the money needed to build the Catholic church from which he was buried was donated by Binion.
Although he was anything but a pious man on the outside, Benny had once said of religion: “It’s too big a mystery to doubt.”