– General Information –
Lester Ben “Benny” Binion was an American poker player and casino executive. He’d also been convicted for murder and had a long history with organized crime. He was born on November 20th, 1904. He passed away on December 5th, 1989.
One of the most iconic casinos in Las Vegas, Binion’s Horseshoe, used to bear his name. It opened in 1951 and was in operation until 2004. Now it operates under the name Hotel Apache. The WSOP events were held there from the inaugural year of 1970 until 2004.
Benny Binion himself doesn’t have a patinated poker resume with loads of tournament scores, WSOP bracelets and millions won in high rollers. In fact, he doesn’t even have a Hendon page. However, he managed to make an indelible mark on poker as a casino manager and promoter.
Binion’s greatest achievement is bringing the World Series of Poker to life in 1970. He was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1990.
– Key Career Dates –
- 1922: He starts moonshining in El Paso, TX at the age of 18.
- 1946: He moves to Las Vegas and establishes himself in the gambling scene there as a casino executive.
- 1949: Allegedly, he hosts a marathon series of heads-up cash game matches between Johnny Moss and Nick “the Greek” Dandolos. Many doubt this event ever actually took place, even Binion himself never confirmed it to be true.
- 1951: He opens his casino, Binion’s Horseshoe, in Las Vegas.
- 1970: The first ever World Series of Poker is held, organized by him at his casino.
- 1990: He gets posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
– Benny Binion’s Career –
→ Beginnings ←
Benny Binion never had any formal education. His parents kept him home and taught him themselves due to their son’s poor health. He worked with his father who was a horse trader.
He started making his money from organized crime at a very young age. At 18, he moved to El Paso, TX and started moonshining – meaning he sold alcohol illegally during the prohibition of alcohol in the US (1920-1933).
He also got involved with illegal gambling while still in his home state of Texas. He had a network of illegal dice games running in Dallas hotels and ran illegal lotteries as well.
By the 1940’s, Binion became the most powerful mob boss in the Dallas area. All other maffia leaders in the country were aware of him.
In 1946, he was forced to relocate to Las Vegas, NV. That year, Sheriff Steve Gutherie was elected Dallas County Sheriff. With that, Binion lost his men inside the local government and now had to fear the law. Therefore he decided to move.
He got his first job at the Las Vegas Club casino. In 1951, when they left town, he purchased their building and opened his very own Vegas casino – the iconic Binion’s Horseshoe.
→ Live Tournaments ←
Benny Binion wasn’t an avid poker player. He didn’t consider himself very good at the game either.
None of his tournament results were recorded. The man doesn’t even have a Hendon page. There is a Hendon profile for another player named Benny Binion, with a single cash from 2003, 14 years after the death of the hero of this piece.
Evidently, that doesn’t take anything away from the lasting impression Binion had on poker history.
→ World Series Of Poker ←
The first ever World Series of Poker was held at Binion’s Horseshoe in 1970.
Prior to that, Benny Binion would often arrange high stakes cash game matches between the world’s best poker players at the time. That, and attending the Texas Gamblers Reunion in 1969, gave him the idea of the WSOP – a way of settling who’s best “once and for all”.
The format of the inaugural World Series very much differed from the succeeding years’. Seven top poker players played a series of cash games in 6 different game types. The games were 5-Card Stud, 7-Card Stud, 2-7 Lowball, Razz, Low-Ball Draw and, evidently, No Limit Texas Hold’em. In the end, they voted for the best player – thus the first WSOP champion became Johnny Moss.
The next year, in 1971, they replaced the format with 5 traditional freezeout poker tournaments.
The Main Event’s game type was No Limit Hold’em from the beginning. The first ME buy-in was $5,000. The following year, in 1972, it was switched to $10,000 – the buy-in remained so until 2020, was the coronavirus pandemic forced all WSOP events online. That year, the Main Event had a $5,000 buy-in again.
The first WSOP Main Event in 1971 had 6 entries and was won by Johnny Moss.
Binion never imagined the WSOP would grow to the size it has today. In 1973, he wishfully speculated that one day the $10,000 Main Event would have 50 entries. As of now, the record field is from 2006, the year Jaime Gold won – no less than 8,773 players entered.
It’s also only prudent to mention once more the event that many consider the predecessor of the WSOP, the 1969 Texas Gambling Reunion. Counterintuitively, it was held at the Holiday Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada.
→ Live Cash Games ←
As we wrote in the chapter above, Benny Binion often organized cash games for the very top poker players at the time. He often arranged games for his friend Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss and other poker legends. Binion himself liked to play, but was never considered a phenomenal cardplayer.
In 2016, Brunson had this to say about him on Twitter:
Benny Binion wasn't much of a poker player but how could you possibly not have him in it?#justsaying
— Doyle Brunson (@TexDolly) September 14, 2016
The “it” in that tweet is referring to the Poker Hall of Fame, to which Binion was inducted posthumously in 1990.
The most famous cash game arranged by Binion is the 1949 series of heads-up matches between Johnny Moss and Nick “the Greek” Dandolos. The duel went on for five months and Moss ended up winning at least $2 million.
However, many details are unknown about this match. The game type, the stakes and specific hands were never recorded. And we may never know these facts since there’s a great chance this legendary heads-up match never actually took place.
There aren’t any contemporary records of it. All the information about it is from Johnny Moss’ and his friends’ tellings from decades after it allegedly went down. Furthermore, this event is supposed to have happened at Binion’s Vegas casino in 1949. However, Binion hadn’t opened his first casino in town until 1951.
When he was asked about Moss’ grandiose claims, Binion never confirmed it either, he simply said: “Well, my memory ain’t what it used to be”.
→ Scandals ←
In the early 20th Century, poker and crime were always closely associated with each other. Fortunately, that has changed over the years. However, despite poker’s “dirty” roots, it is rare to have a prominent figure in the game’s history who is a convicted murderer.
In 1931, back in his home state of Texas, Binion shot and killed an African-American rum-runner named Frank Bolding. A rum-runner was a person who smuggled illegal alcohol during the prohibition years. Binion was found guilty, however, he only got 2 years probation since his victim was also a criminal with a knife on him and a bad reputation. Thus the judge considered the possibility of self-defense.
His second murder case is from 1936. He shot and killed another man, his competitor in the illegal gambling scene in Dallas named Ben Frieden. Allegedly, Binion shot himself in the shoulder after he fired his gun at Frieden. That way he was able to claim self-defense once again, and this time, it worked even better. Although he was indicted on murder charges again, those charges were later dropped.