- by Oliver Gaywood
Lester Ben Binion, commonly referred to as Benny, is the man credited with boosting poker’s profile from a game lacking respect to one with huge worldwide appeal.
Born in Texas just after the turn of the 20th century, Binion did not attend school as a child. Instead, he spent his youth travelling with his father who worked as a horse trader. Between market days, many traders would gather and play cards and this is where he learned to gamble.
In 1921, aged 17, he moved to El Paso and began moonshining. However, after being caught and convicted twice, he gave this up and set up a lottery (which was also illegal) and then began work as a bootlegger. These incidents were not Binion's last involvement with police.
Ten years later he was in trouble again. After suspecting fellow bootlegger Frank Bolding of stealing liquor, Binion confronted him. During their argument, Binion feared Bolding (who had a reputation for stabbing people) was going to draw a knife on him so shot him. Binion was taken to trial and found guilty of murder but was only given a two year suspended sentence, such was the poor reputation of his victim.
In 1936, Binion killed a second man – rival Ben Frieden. This time Binion was found not guilty on the grounds of self defence as Frieden had already wounded him. At the start of the next decade, Binion became the reigning mob boss of Dallas.
Binion was never charged with any other killings but there was one case where he was highly suspected.
Herbert Noble was a highly sought after guy who was nicknamed The Cat because he so frequently escaped or survived attempts on his life – including bombs, guns and car chases. In 1951, someone blew up his car in an attempt to kill Noble but instead it was his wife who fatally bore the brunt of the explosion. Noble, who was a pilot, blamed Binion for the event and seeked revenge. Binion always denied any involvement with the attempts on Noble’s life and he was never officially linked with them; however, in 1951, police caught Noble setting up bombs on an aircraft. In his possession was a map with a mark on Binion’s home. Noble died later that year when someone planted a bomb in his mailbox. There had been 11 known failed attempts on his life prior to this.
With gang wars heating up, he left Dallas for Las Vegas and opened up Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. The casino became popular with punters, and unpopular with rival establishments, because of its high limits – the craps limit at the Horseshoe was $500 whilst it was just $50 at most other casinos. Other casinos soon raised their limits in order to keep up as Binion set about making his the classiest joint in town. He replaced the sawdust floor with a plush carpet and offered free drinks and a limousine service to all gamblers, not just the high rollers.
Although in a different state, his past in Texas came back to haunt him. He spent four years during the 1950s in jail for tax evasion and had to sell his casino to cover his legal costs.
His family regained control in 1964 and Benny Binion was hired as a consultant as he was no longer allowed to hold a gambling licence.
What Binion is most famous for is establishing the World Series of Poker and glamorising the game. In 1949 he set up the famous heads up battle between Johnny Moss and Nick Dandalos which became a five month battle, with Moss eventually coming out on top.
He set up many similar head-to-head games in the following years and in 1970 he invited six of the best known poker players to compete in a tournament and Moss was voted champion. The following year a freeze out format was introduced and anyone who could afford the $10,000 entry fee could play. In 1973, Binion estimated that one day there may be as many as 50 entrants to the tournament, recent entries have been 100 times higher than that figure.
At the age of 85, Binion suffered a heart failure and died on Christmas day in 1989 but his legacy lives on, not least because of the statue of the man in Las Vegas.