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Benny Binion's Horseshoe Casino

By Paul McGuire

Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas is one of the most famous casinos in the world. It is the cumulative work of Benny Binion. He took chances that his peers were afraid to make and with his Texas grit and eager vision, he helped shape the way Las Vegas is run to this day.

Binions Horseshoe
Binions Horseshoe - Source: Las Vegas & Poker
Born in Texas in 1904, Benny Binion spent most of his life around gambling circles. In his twenties, he ran a numbers racket in Dallas. He also engaged in bootlegging and had several run ins with the law. In the 1930s he started illegal craps games and soon after, Benny Binion’s outlaw reputation grew. Although he was illiterate, Benny used mostly his brawn to muscle people around. At one time in his life, he would become a suspect in seven murders in Texas. Although convicted for shooting a man in 1931, he never served any time behind bars.

In the mid 1940s, the sheriff who Benny Binion supported lost a local election. Without any political protection, he had to skip town. He relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada and became partners in the Las Vegas Club. After clashing with the other partners on the casino’s betting limits, he left and purchased the El Dorado Casino which he later renamed “The Horseshoe.” The infamous Apache Hotel that sat on top of the casino was also acquired and became a part of The Horseshoe.

The Horsehoe quickly became popular because it was the only place in Las Vegas where players could place big bets. Eventually the other casinos gave in and raised their betting limits in order to compete with The Horseshoe.

Benny was also an innovator. Most of his ideas, which were frowned upon at the time by his competitors, have become the standard practices today in running casinos all over the world. Benny understood people very well. He knew that if he made gamblers feel happy, then they would keep coming back regardless of how much money they lost. Binion’s was the first casino to install carpeting and give out free drinks to players. He started the tradition of picking up guests in limousines at the airport. He began comping low limit players and made the nickel slots players feel as important as the high rollers. He also had one million dollars on display in the lobby for everyone to see. That became a hit and an instant tourist attraction.

Benny ran into some tax problems with the government and spent three years in federal prison. He was forced to sell his stake in The Horseshoe. His family eventually reclaimed full ownership in the 1960s. In 1964 Benny renovated The Horseshoe, which included adding the now recognizable neon façade.

Poker had always been a major part of The Horseshoe’s history. In 1949, Benny hosted the big game between Nick "The Greek" Dandalos and Johnny Moss. The two played Five-card Stud, heads up everyday for five months in the lobby in front of the public. After winning close to $4 million, Nick the Greek uttered his most famous words, "Mr. Moss, I must let you go."

In 1970, Benny Binion started the World Series of Poker. There were only eight players in the inaugural event that was won by Amarillo Slim. Every year thereafter, the field would grow. Little did Benny know that in the upcoming decades, The Horseshoe would host the world’s most famous poker tournament. In 2004, first place paid over $5 million with over 2,500 players from around the world participating.

Although part of the charm of The Horseshoe is its intimate feel, it had a difficult time competing with the bigger casinos. In the 1980s, the newer casinos on the Las Vegas Strip took away a lot of business from The Horseshoe and other downtown Fremont Street casinos. In order to expand, Benny acquired the Mint Casino next door, which also included a luxury tower hotel.

Benny died on Christmas Day in 1989. The Horseshoe was a family-run operation and his children quickly took over. Benny had introduced his sons Jack and Ted into the business years prior. His wife also kept an eye on the books. His daughter Becky Behnen took control after his death. His oldest son Jack moved out to Mississippi to work on casinos in the East. His other son, Ted, was involved in a bizarre murder. The trial became a media circus and was chronicled in the book Positively Fifth Street by James McManus.

By 2004, Becky Behnen had allowed The Horseshoe to fall deeply into debt. The IRS closed the doors in early 2004. Harrah’s Entertainment purchased the bankrupt Binion’s Horseshoe and acquired the rights to the World Series of Poker. The doors reopened in April of 2004 a few weeks before the largest poker tournament in history would begin.

The Las Vegas we know today is due to the vision and hard work of Benny Binion. With the heart of a true Texas gambler, he took risks and chances that a lot of other businessmen would never consider. One has to wonder that if Benny had never left Texas perhaps Las Vegas never would have evolved into what it has become, and we might never have heard of the World Series of Poker.

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