Benny Binion: How An Uneducated Errand Boy Shaped Downtown Vegas

By | September 27, 2022

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Benny Binion is shown at the county jail here March 19 after his release from the federal penitentiary for tax evasion. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Lester "Benny" Binion was a sickly, uneducated kid who grew up to become a convicted murderer, yet by 1951, he had established himself in the fledgling gambling town of Las Vegas, where he opened a casino, hobnobbed with gangsters, learned the art of the gimmick, and didn't pay his taxes. His casino helped to turn Fremont Street into Glitter Gulch and set the stage for the lavish game halls to come.

Benny Binion

Born in 1904 in rural Texas, Binion was always so sick that his mother was afraid to send him to school. His father believed that his young son would regain his health if he spent time outside, so he took the boy along when he went to work as a horse trader, and as soon as he was old enough, Binion worked as his father's errand boy. At the camps in the evenings, the traders passed the time by playing card games, particularly poker, so he picked up tricks of the trade from some of the best gamblers in the region. When he was 24, Binion moved to Dallas and established himself as a horse trader but soon found bigger bucks in illegal gambling operations. When Prohibition took effect, he started a bootlegging business and made alliances with local politicians, the police, and mobsters.

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Binion's Horseshoe Casino. (Texaswebscout/Wikimedia Commons)

Leaving (For) Las Vegas

Where there's the mob, there's violence, so Binion soon got deep into violent crime. He was jailed in 1931 for killing another rumrunner (although on the bright side, he learned to read in jail), then in 1936 for killing several other competitors. In 1946, Binion tried to kill Herbert Noble, a rival gambler, and fearing retaliation, he packed up his wife and five kids and fled to Las Vegas, where he opened Binion's Horseshoe Casino. You know how casinos always offer you free drinks and cheap food in an effort to keep you inside? It all started at the Horseshoe. His gimmicks worked, and the Horseshoe became one of the most successful casinos in downtown Las Vegas and biggest draws on the now-famous Fremont Street. Its poker tournaments became the stuff of legend, so in 1970, Binion coordinated an invitation-only tournament with six players. From this event, the World Series of Poker was founded.