Before Hsieh, Binion defined downtown Las Vegas


The image of downtown Las Vegas has shifted so dramatically in recent months that it might be hard for newcomers to imagine a time before the spreading influence of Tony Hsieh and his friends.

Before downtown became the canvas for Hsieh’s creative business marketing and real estate vision, Benny Binion defined the Fremont Street experience. Jackie Gaughan owned more casinos, and Steve Wynn used a Fremont Street address to the best advantage, but it was Binion whose image as the cowboy gambler dominated Glitter Gulch for half a century.

The fact he was a killer and a corruptor of round-heeled politicians and cops only made him more colorful to a generation of Las Vegas visitors and locals alike. Plain-spoken, known for the occasional aphorism, Binion was a Dallas gambling racketeer reborn after World War II as a friendly wrangler and the founding father of the World Series of Poker.

And if his security guards were notoriously thuggish, well, that was just the Binion way. And if the wayward Binion kids got into more than their share of trouble, well, they did have a reputation to live up to. And so it went until Binion’s death of natural causes in 1989.

Cowboy Benny’s remarkable roll is depicted in bruising detail in Doug J. Swanson’s new book, “Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker.” Swanson, a longtime investigative reporter with the Dallas Morning News and the author of several entertaining crime novels, is at home with his facts and sources in his first work of nonfiction.

I suspect the keepers of the old Vegas flame, the ones charmed by homicide and intrigued by the casino life, won’t like it much. Nor will some surviving members of the Binion clan, a few members of the Foley legal family and former Gov. Bob Miller.

Diehard poker bums will be disappointed the book doesn’t include more actual poker stories, but the truth is most actual poker stories are pretty boring. For the rest of us, “Blood Aces” offers a hard-edged history lesson about a Las Vegas casino man and his family in the days before our corporate media marketing went into overdrive.

“Blood Aces” takes us through a series of murder, beating and corruption cases linked to Binion, almost all of which ended up going nowhere.

From the bombing of former FBI man and casino landlord William Coulthard to the brutal beating at the Horseshoe of blackjack players Barry Finn and Allan Brown, Swanson doesn’t miss much. The fact the Coulthard bombing never resulted in an indictment, much less a conviction, is a moral stain on this community. Swanson senses the outrage.

The difficult and often tragic lives of members of the Binion family are also depicted. Of those, the reckless run and drug-related death of wayward son Ted Binion is the best-known story and continues to intrigue Hollywood moviemakers.

“Blood Aces” also courts controversy when it reveals Binion as a sometime informant for the FBI. Swanson uses solid documentation, includes outraged refutations of the idea that such a diehard gangster could also be a snitch. The author is savvy enough to suggest Binion’s communication with federal folks he perceived as the enemy might have been as much a business strategy as a passing of information.

After slipping an “almost daily” series of tips to the FBI, Swanson writes, “His efforts finally paid off. On March 2, 1960, Binion’s FBI status officially changed. ‘This case is being closed as to the Anti-Racketeering, Top Hoodlum investigation,’ (Special Agent Leo) Kuykendall wrote, ‘and Binion is being converted to a Criminal Informant.’ ”

Although it’s unclear whether anything Binion provided served the government’s interests, it’s arguable that his protected status served him very well as he continued to practice the gambling racket in his decidedly old-school style.

Late in his life, his failure to buy a presidential pardon for a tax conviction in the 1950s provided one of Binion’s greatest disappointments. His money was accepted by Democrats and Republicans alike, but even enthusiastic character references from Sen. Paul Laxalt and then-Rep. Harry Reid couldn’t quite buy him a ticket to legitimacy with President Ronald Reagan.

In the end, a tax conviction might have been the least of his crimes.

One of the most telling Binion stories is about the time, following a heart-related medical emergency, that he reported briefly seeing Jesus. During an interview, Binion was reminded of the odds against his own ascension.

“From what I’ve been told, I’m supposed to go the other way,” he said.

His problem was repentance. It wasn’t much in him.

“There’s some of it I can’t repent,” he said. “I’ve tried, and I just can’t.”

That wild life might not have been suited for a pair of wings in the hereafter, but it sure secured Benny Binion’s legend in downtown Las Vegas.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.