The astonishing story of Benny Binion—a rip-roaring saga of murder, money, and the making of Las Vegas
Benny Binion was many things: a cowboy, a pioneering casino owner, a gangster, a killer, and founder of the hugely successful World Series of Poker.
Blood Aces tells the story of Binion’s crucial role in shaping modern Las Vegas. From a Texas backwater, Binion rose to prominence on a combination of vision, determination, and brutal expediency. His formula was simple: run a good business, cultivate the big boys, kill your enemies, and own the cops.
Through a mix of cold-bloodedness, native intelligence, folksiness, and philanthropy, Binion became one of the most revered figures in the history of gambling, and his showmanship, shrewdness, and violence would come to dominate the Vegas scene.
Veteran journalist Doug J. Swanson uses once-secret government documents and dogged reporting to show how Binion destroyed his rivals and outsmarted his adversaries—including J. Edgar Hoover.
As fast paced as any thriller, Blood Aces tells a story that is unmatched in the annals of American criminal justice, a vital yet untold piece of this country’s history.
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Doug J. Swanson is the investigative projects editor at The Dallas Morning News. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and is the author of five crime novels, for which he was a finalist for the Edgar Award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
SNIDES AND DINKS:
We was all grifters in those days. All we had was grift sense.
He came from nothing, or the nearest thing to it. The son of Alma Willie and Lonnie Lee Binion, he was born in Pilot Grove, Texas, on November 20, 1904. The Binions lived in a drafty clapboard house, where they sweated through the furnace heat of rainless North Texas summers and shivered in the winter as the north wind whipped over the Red River. They weren’t the poorest people around, but hardly the richest, and the family took in boarders when money was tight. At night, in shadowed rooms lit by candles and flickering oil lamps, the paying guests could hear endless coughing through the walls: young Lester Ben Binion, a round-faced boy with blond girlish curls, had pneumonia five times before he was five. As he lay in his bed, gripped by fever and chills, he sometimes crept perilously close to death. His sickliness may have been his first great stroke of luck.
Like dozens of small towns scattered across the rolling blackland prairie, this one was destined to vanish. Originally called Lick Skillet, it was a place of bloodshed, hard living, and ill fortune from its founding. Even after being christened with a more pastoral name, Pilot Grove scratched by as a cotton and cattle town, as close to Oklahoma as to Dallas, and a long way from anywhere. Its main street, part of an old stagecoach route, was a dirt road that gave up clouds of gray dust or bogged carriage wheels in mud, depending on the misery of the season.
Many of the town’s early settlers—the Binions among them—had arrived on wagons after the Civil War, and some brought the war’s vestigial agonies with them. Thick woods nearby, which had been a perfect hideout for war deserters and other fugitives, now teemed with unreconstructed Confederates nursing their bitterness. Newcomers tended to be Union sympathizers, and it made for a deadly mix. There were raids and ambushes from both sides, and gunfights in broad daylight. The town doctor treated one of the wounded rebels, an act of mercy that so enraged one of the unionists that he murdered the doctor. One frosty morning in 1871, the leader of the Union League stepped from his house to retrieve some firewood when two rebels, who had been hiding in trees all night, shot him dead.
A few good, relatively peaceful years boosted the town’s population to about two hundred, then came the withering. Pilot Grove’s post office was shuttered the year Ben was born. When he was four, on a May evening, a line of boiling storms rolled in from the west with a blast of wind and cascades of thunder that shook the walls. Just after dark, a lightning bolt struck Sloan’s general store, and the wooden building caught fire. Flames, whipped by the gales of the storm, leaped to the barbershop, the drugstore, the blacksmith’s barn, and another general store. Townspeople could do little more than watch in escalating desperation, with firelight dancing over horrified faces. Pilot Grove had no fire department, no fire wagon, no way even to spray water on the flames. At sunrise the town’s commercial district lay in char and ashes, with only the hotel and one store standing.
Disaster was heaped upon catastrophe as drought and plunging prices destroyed the cotton market. Still, a farmer who had a mule and a plow could coax a living from the land around Pilot Grove, but not much of one. The Binions were not exactly noble sons of the earth, which worked to their advantage. One of Ben’s grandfathers had operated a saloon. The other also owned some land, but he rented it out. One summer day, hot enough to force a retreat to a canopy of oak trees, young Ben crouched in the shade and watched as his grandfather leased acreage to a man named Kato. When their business was done, as Kato walked away, Ben’s grandfather decided it was time for a lesson. “That’s the best farmer I know,” he said.
The boy stared. His grandfather pointed to the worn patches on the seat of the farmer’s ragged overalls. “You see where his so-and-so’s been sticking out there?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Ben answered.
“Don’t ever stick a plow in the ground.”
End of lesson, and one that had apparently taken hold much earlier with Ben’s father, who did not favor tending crops or any other kind of steady work. Lonnie Lee Binion listed his occupation as stockman, which meant he spent most of his time as a wandering horse trader. When he did come home, he hit the bottle. “Kind of a wild man,” his son recalled. “Kind of a drunk.” Such qualities did not make for a father given to softheaded sentiment, even when considering a sick child. One day Lonnie Lee looked at the boy, turned to his wife, and said, “Well, he going to die anyhow. So I’m just going to take him with me.”
Off they rode on two mounts, he and his father, out of Pilot Grove and the drudgery of its cotton and sorghum fields, and into a world of renegades, grifters, hustlers, and highwaymen. Ben, at the age of ten, had spent little time in any classroom; after four years he was still in the second grade. This would be a different sort of school, and it gave him his life.
“There’s more than one kind of education,” Binion said decades later, “and maybe I prefer the one I got.”
• • •
In much of America, the early 1900s marked the Progressive Era, a time of economic growth, social gains, industrial expansion, and technological leaps. But not so much in Texas. With a few notable urban exceptions, the state remained remote, parochial, and in parts lawless. Barely a generation had passed since the Indian wars had ceased. A hurricane wiped away the state’s most cosmopolitan city, Galveston, in 1900. In all its great sweep, Texas had little in the way of heavy industry, and its only semblance of intellectual life was sequestered at a university or two, where it was regarded with suspicion, if not hostility. By even the most generous of estimates, Texas at the dawn of the twentieth century remained a full fifty years behind mainstream American development. Although patches of it had been conquered and settled in the previous decades, the vast land remained essentially unchanged. So, for the most part, did its people.
The roaders, as roving livestock merchants were called, had likewise failed to evolve much from the frontier days. Young Ben Binion—sometimes in the company of his father, sometimes not—became one of them. The traders with their strings of horses made their way over the rough trails and dirt roads of the Lone Star outback in clouds of dust and flies. They carried guns and lived out of wagons. In Europe, the Great War had started. The Panama Canal opened, and commercial air traffic began in this country. In the cities—even those in Texas—buildings were lit with electricity. But the roaders cooked their meals over open fires, bathed in shallow brown creeks, and moved from camp to camp, from settlement to farm to town, in search of more horseflesh deals.
Small hardscrabble farms of this time and place had little in the way of mechanization; mules or horses pulled the plows and wagons. Rare was the farmer who owned a tractor, rarer still one who had a truck or car. The horse trader, therefore, peddled an essential element of the farmer’s survival. At times the stock was swapped straight up, horse for horse. Usually, though, the farmer had to throw in “boot”—food, tobacco, or occasionally cash—to make the trade.
Young Ben Binion watched and learned. He proved especially adept at gauging a horse’s age by inspecting its teeth. “I was real good at it,” he said decades later, talking to a historian. “All them old guys I worked for, they let me do the mouthing of the mules, and horses, and everything, you see, while they was trading and talking.” When not mouthing the mules, Ben absorbed the primary lesson of this marketplace: how to deal, how to cheat, and how to avoid being cheated. The assumption was that if someone wanted to trade away a horse, that horse was defective. Everyone was out for the swindle, and he who swindled best, won.
“They had heaves in them days. They were wind-broke horses, and balkies,” Binion said, referring to equine respiratory disease. “They called them snides and dinks. So you’d have to give ’em medicine to shut the heaves down.” This medicine provided no cure; it merely masked the symptoms long enough to close a trade. There were other tried-and-true ways to hide infirmities. Wads of cotton, soaked in chloroform and stuffed in the nostrils of dangerously excitable horses, made them temporarily docile. Pebbles in the ear of a sluggard would transform it, for a while, into a frisky and energetic creature, prancing and shaking its head as if it were raring to go. A “sweeney” horse—one that had been so overworked that its muscles under the harness had collapsed—could be made to look instantly vibrant if the trader punctured the skin over the sagging parts and blew in air through a goose quill. “Some men were smart enough to detect it,” Binion said, “and some weren’t.”
A ditty of the era, “The Horse Trader’s Song,” captured the attitude of those on the tactics’ receiving end:
It’s do you know those horse traders,
It’s do you know their plan?
Their plan is for to snide you
And git whatever they can.
Sometimes the deception could be achieved simply through strategic staging. “Get a horse up on a kind of a high place, and get the man down on a low place, you know,” Binion said. “And if he had anything wrong with him, try to keep that turned away from the guy.” Not all valuable knowledge imparted to the boy had strictly to do with animals. “I learned a lot about people.”
He became the man of the family, returning home now and then, a twelve-year-old grown-up. “He was an adult his whole life,” his sister, Dorothy, once said. Trading balky livestock was no way to become wealthy, but it did pay for the family’s groceries. When not hustling horses, he sometimes hauled fuel for an uncle’s syrup mill in Pilot Grove. Then, back on the road, he found an even better way to make money.
• • •
In those years, nearly every county seat hosted monthly events known as trades days. Named for their spot on the calendar—First Monday, First Tuesday, and so on—trades days usually coincided with the arrival of the circuit-riding judge. They served as a combination of county fair, open-air market, and gathering of the rural tribes. For farmers and others in the hinterlands, they provided a monthly relief from lives of privation and isolation. The sodbusters and their families streamed in from the countryside, wagons loaded with the crops they intended to barter for dry goods and assorted services. Itinerant merchants brought everything from axle grease to snake oil. There were evangelists, buskers, blacksmiths, and rainmakers. On a typical First Monday in Dallas, the streets adjacent to the courthouse were nearly impassable with the crush of horses, wagons, and people. The air smelled of hay, manure, and sweat.
And down Houston Street, C. D. Tatum’s Bar beckoned to men in overalls and felt hats. Trades days offered opportunities for recreation not available back on the farm. One might buy whiskey, smokes, or a woman, and watch dogfights, cockfights, or human fights. Into this licentious mix came the traveling gamblers, who moved from town to town, hunting suckers at trades days like predators stalking a herd. Men could be found in the alleys and side streets, or in the wagon yards at night, rolling dice on a blanket spread over the dirt, or playing cards by lanterns and firelight. Teenage Ben Binion was right there with them.
“I kind of got in with the more of a gambling type of guy, you know, the—you might say the road gamblers,” he said. “And then I’d go around with them, you know, and I’d do little things for them. And they’d give me a little money, kind of kept me going . . . They was all pretty good men.”
Here he served his apprenticeship. “First, I learned to play poker,” Binion recalled. “And everybody had his little way of doing something to the cards, and all this, that and the other.” Marking cards and crimping them were among the most popular ways to gain an advantage. “So I wasn’t too long on wising up to that . . . All this time I’m kind of learning about gambling from these guys.”
Soon he became a “steer man,” a recruiter who wandered the trades-day towns after dark, hooking customers for the big game around the corner. “I just hustled, never did work,” he said. He stayed on the lookout for someone with money to lose, but also searched for something more. Binion described his mark: “What I think makes a player is somebody with a lot of energy. Like if one of them kind of fellows come to town at night, you know, he’s kind of a nervous type, and he had to have some outlet, you know, couldn’t just go to bed like a ordinary person.”
Even as a young man, Binion didn’t gamble much. “I was never able to play anything, dice or cards or anything, myself. I was never a real good poker player,” he said. Instead, he was a partner—however junior—to the game’s operators. “Fact of business, from a early age, I was always kind of in, and just kind of on the top end of it.” Here he received his most valuable of lessons: that hot streaks come and go, that one good roll could feed a man for weeks and a bad one could destroy him. But the properly run house always turns a profit.
• • •
The youthful Ben became known more rakishly as Benny Binion about the time he headed for El Paso, in far West Texas, around the age of eighteen. He went to El Paso because he had cousins there, but he soon discovered he had landed in a place well suited to his abilities and instincts. This was one of the country’s great snake pits of smuggling.
Under Prohibition, liquor was then illegal in El Paso, as in the rest of the country. But bootleg booze—and drugs—proved far easier to obtain along the border than many other places. All the Texas importer had to do was cross the muddy, shallow Rio Grande into rollicking Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, load his wagon with whiskey, and bring it back home to sell. In the process he had to evade bands of Mexican thieves on one side of the river, and roving hijackers and American agents on the other. A fevered newspaper dispatch from El Paso described the face-off: “The brains of Texas Rangers and an army of federal customs officials and narcotic and liquor agents” were “pitted against the endless ingenuity of international smugglers in as thrilling a battle for supremacy as the romantic and adventurous days of a half century ago ever knew.” The story added that “this battle of wits” makes “the plots of red-blooded fictionists seem dull and old fashioned.” Trains of pack mules bearing contraband champagne had been captured. A young man “disguised as a cripple” was caught hiding cocaine in his hollowed-out crutches. Other smugglers used the chest cavities of corpses, en route to their own funerals, to transport caches of morphine and opium.
The Texas Rangers, assigned by the governor to patrol the border, routinely fired on bands of so-called rumrunners, and the runners fired back. Many of the gunfights took place on or around Cordova Island, near Juárez. This was not an island at all, but a brushy 385-acre finger of Mexico poking into the American side of the Rio Grande, where the two sides took turns ambushing each other. A news report told of a typical encounter—a “pitched battle”—along the river: “Descending upon the rum-runners in speeding automobiles, the patrolmen mounted a fence near the Rio Grande. They were met with a fusillade of bullets from the rum-runners’ rifles...
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