Benny Binion Legacy and World Series of Poker (WSOP)

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Benny Binion Horseshoe
Image: Google/Eric Ishii Eckhardt

In July, the world’s best poker players will convene in Sin City for the ultimate poker showdown: the 55th World Series of Poker Main Event.

The 2024 WSOP tournament started in May, with six weeks of 99 gold bracelet events and daily deep stack tournaments.

But the only game in town that really matters is still the $10,000 buy-in Main Event, which shuffles into action on July 3. However, there are ways to play WSOP Main Event for under $10,000 if you have limited funds.

Last year, a record-breaking 10,043 players lined up, to play for a share of the $93,399,900 prize pool. In the end, it was 36-year-old Daniel Weinman, from Atlanta, who took home the $12.1 million first prize.

With the WSOP in full swing, it’s the perfect time to take a fresh look at the man who started it all. If Las Vegas was made flesh, it would be Benny Binion: charming, cunning and brutal in equal measures; a career criminal, fearless gambler, and beloved Sin City icon.

Benny and the Bets

If Bugsy Siegel is the Father of Las Vegas, Benny Binion is the uncle; one of the founding fathers of Glitter Gulch. The man who ran the ‘only pure gambling joint in town’.

But how did an illiterate kid from Texas end up running the best casino in Las Vegas? Benny Binion net worth was more than $75 million when he died. Why did the Binion empire ultimately crash and burn?

Grab a seat and settle in. The Binion family story is one that puts the Sopranos to shame. They say ‘everything is bigger in Texas’ and – in the case of Lester Ben Binion – it’s true.

Benny Binion Early Life

In 1904, Lester Ben Binion was born in Pilot Point, Grayson County, Texas. His father was a horse trader; a drinker who squandered the family inheritance. Binion was ill with pneumonia for much of his childhood and was kept out of school.

Binion left home at 15 and spent his early years grifting and grafting around El Paso and Dallas Fort Worth; trading horses, punching cattle, bootlegging, and gambling. In Dallas, he was convicted twice for moonshining. It was here that he met up with his mentor: old-time casino racketeer, Warren Diamond.

In the 1920s, Diamond ran a no-limit craps game out of the St George Hotel, in Dallas. Binion parked cars, ran errands, and dealt the dice.

He never forgot the day a wealthy oilman, from Texarkana, stepped up to the table, dropped a sealed envelope on the line, and said: “Diamond, I’m gonna make you look.” No hint of a craps strategy on his face.

Diamond ignored him. He told the dealer to give him the dice and let him roll. He was ready – and committed – to cover whatever bet was in the envelope. The oilman was out in two rolls. The envelope contained $170,000. Binion would emulate this fearless approach.

Benny Binion’s Criminal Rise in Dallas

Benny Binion WSOP
Image: Google/Unspecified

In 1926, Binion cut Diamond out and went solo. He opened his own craps table, in room 226, at the Southland Hotel. Diamond didn’t challenge his protégé.

The Southland became the headquarters for Binion’s gang. He dug deep, fought hard, and became king of the racketeers; taking a 25 per cent cut of every other craps game in Dallas.

Binion ruled the operation with a smile and an iron fist. He was generous to employees and a great host. But anyone who robbed him, or interfered with business, would meet an untimely end. The bullet-riddled bodies piled up and Binion was charged with two murders. His motto: ‘Do your enemies before they can do you.’

By the time of the Second World War, there were 27 casinos in downtown Dallas and just as many brothels. The soldiers poured in and Binion’s betting empire boomed. These were the golden years for gaming in Dallas.

Naturally, Binion started accumulating enemies, not least Herbert ‘the Cat’ Noble; a survivor of multiple assassination attempts. Noble set up a rival craps operation and began a feud with Binion that would last for years.

In the post-war years, reform was the political mantra. It was the final nail in the coffin for the wild west era in Texas. Binion could see the writing on the wall and – in December 1946 – he packed his bags and headed to a small frontier town in Nevada, called Las Vegas, where gambling was legal.

Benny Binion Las Vegas Reign

In 1946, there were only two casinos in Las Vegas: the El Rancho and the Frontier. Bugsy Siegel would open the luxurious Flamingo, later the same year. Binion cut deals with Las Vegas casino owners but his rap sheet and public feud with Noble guaranteed he would never hold a gaming license.

It would take five years before Binion bought the Eldorado Club and Apache Hotel and converted the buildings into Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. This was an old school style venue that welcomed everyone and anyone, from professional poker players to casual rollers.

Binion’s was all about ‘good food, good whiskey, good gamble’. It was the place to go if you wanted to roll high and play big money. Binion never flinched at a bet. “The size of your limit is the size of your first bet,” he said.

Every player got free drinks. Ex-cons with discharge papers were given a pack of smokes and a steak dinner. He introduced Las Vegas-style customer service, with shuttles to and from the airport. Air conditioning was introduced. The gaming floor was carpeted. Everything was all about making the players feel at home.

Inclusivity was key. Everyone was welcome, except cheaters and thieves. They were taken into the back alley, behind the casino, where their arms and legs would be broken. The Horseshoe never bothered to trouble the police.

In the foyer at Binion’s, a glass, horseshoe-shaped cabinet contained a million dollars in ten-thousand-dollar bills. It was the most photographed location in Las Vegas. On the menu was homemade chili, from a recipe Binion had picked up in a Texas prison.

It was a classic spit and sawdust saloon-style venue – and the punters couldn’t get enough; a far cry from the glitzy, Disneyland-style, mega-resorts you see on the Strip today.

Everyone loved Binion. He never fought a turf war in Las Vegas. He had friends in high places. But behind the blue eyes was pure steel; cross him at your peril. There are a lot of unclaimed bodies in the Nevada desert that may, or may not, have been enemies or rivals of Binion.

Benny Binion Cause of Death

In 1989, on Christmas Day, Ben Binion died of heart failure. He was 86. His five children inherited more than $75 million and a dangerous legacy. In the following years, two of his children would die from a suspected drug overdose. The remaining three would go to war.

Binion’s last journey was in a stagecoach, pulled by six black horses; his casket topped with his trademark cowboy hat. The funeral procession stretched for several blocks and 800 people attended the service, including fellow casino mogul Steve Wynn, who said: “I don’t think anybody is going to see the likes of Benny Binion again.”

You can bet on that.

The Birth of the WSOP

World Series of Poker WSOP
Image: Flickr/JoeShoe

Today, poker is ubiquitous. The noughties online poker revolution introduced the game to the world. At Binion’s, it had been a staple since the venue first opened its doors. In 1970, when the inaugural World Series of Poker took place, there were fewer than 50 poker tables in the whole of Las Vegas.

Binion invited 10 of his friends for a weekend of poker cash games and – at the end of the session – they all voted for the best player. Binion realized that the format would need ‘refining’, if the WSOP was to gain any prestige. The next year the game was a freeze-out tournament, with a $5,000 buy-in. It was a format that worked.

In 1972, Amarillo Slim was the surprise winner. After the win, he hit the chat show circuit, armed with his legendary swagger and outsized cowboy hat. It created a tidal wave of publicity. In 1973, CBS Sports televised the event. It was a media coup for Benny Binion.

For the next two decades, the WSOP would grow. The casino would expand to accommodate. The Horseshoe would be swamped with hopeful poker players, for six weeks, every year. It went from 10 players to more than 10,000, in 2024; too many for Binion’s. It was a victim of its own success.

WSOP 2004 – Present

In 2004, Harrah’s Entertainment purchased Binion’s Horseshoe and relocated the WSOP to the Rio Hotel and Casino. This year, the WSOP is at the Horseshoe Las Vegas, formerly the MGM Grand.

Today, the restored Apache Hotel and Binion’s Gambling Hall are both bucket-list stops for any Las Vegas aficionado. The million-dollar display is back but the venue is far removed from the hardcore spit and sawdust venue that epitomized the early days of Las Vegas.

For 23 years, a 15-foot-tall bronze statue of Ben ‘the Cowboy’ Binion, astride a horse, stood on the corner of Casino Center Drive and Ogden, outside his hotel and casino.

Even that has now been relocated to the entrance of the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center, home to the National Finals Rodeo. An event that Binion was thrilled and proud to bring to Las Vegas.

Lastly from 2020, WSOP has advanced to being available online across several US states. Poker players can read through our complete WSOP Online guide on how to enter, as well as get a glimpse at our highly-recommended offshore poker sites to register with.

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Paul Cullen
Casino Industry Expert
Paul Cullen
Casino Industry Expert

Paul Cullen is an industry veteran, with a track record that stretches back to day one. He started his career as a copywriter and creative for the world’s very first online sportsbook: Intertops.com. There was no one else. Since then, he has seen the industry evolve and grow, working at BetonSports, BetWWTS, Absolute Poker, Ultimate Bet, InterCasino, PartyGaming, Mansion, Bodog, Casino Choice, Costa Bingo and Casumo. The evolution of Internet gaming, the arrival of the online casino, the poker revolution, and the bingo boom. He’s got the t-shirt.