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Hard-as-nails Texas gambler makes it big in Vegas

The Hays Free Press of Buda, Texas

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Benny Binion pleaded guilty to income tax evasion on Sept. 5,1952 and spent the next three and a half years in Leavenworth, where at last he learned to read.

"I never went to school, not even grade school because I was sick a lot as a kid," explained Binion, born in rural North Texas in 1904. On the chance fresh air might cure a chronic lung condition, he traveled with his horse-trader father. But the elder Binion did not have a head for business, and at the age of 15 the boy took his place as the breadwinner.

Young Benny was as tough as he was smart. His own son Ted recounted the time his two-fisted sire whipped 14 men with a car bumper. "That got written up in the newspaper, and that's when he actually got famous."

Binion became a bootlegger by chance after moving to El Paso in the early 1920s. While spreading gravel on a parking lot, he noticed the attendant was selling booze on the sly. So he imported a load of liquor from Oklahoma and took away the fellow's customers.

The repeal of Prohibition prompted Binion's return to North Texas, where he went into the numbers racket, the illegitimate ancestor of the current lottery. During the Texas Centennial in 1936, he hosted high-stakes craps games in Dallas hotels. After the tourists left town, he catered to rich oilmen who, according to Ted, "came because Dad would run a high limit and also because he was known to run honest games."

Binion was by necessity a walking arsenal in those dangerous days. He packed two .45 automatics and a small .38 revolver with a filed-down hammer. In his golden years, he was content to carry a .22 magnum but always kept a sawed-off shotgun handy.

In 1931 the rough-and-ready gambler got into an argument with a bootlegger sitting beside him on a log. "This guy was a real badman with a reputation for killing people by stabbing them," said Ted. "He stood up real quick and Dad felt like he was going to stab him, so he rolled back off the log, pulled his gun and shot upward from the ground."

The bullet passed through the antagonist's neck causing him to bleed to death. Binion claimed self-defense even though the victim had not pulled his knife, an apparent sticking point for the jury which convicted him of first-degree murder. Since the deceased was considered a menace, the judge let the defendant off with a suspended sentence.

Binion was strolling down a Dallas street five years later, when a rival numbers operator called him over to his car. Just as he reached the open driver's side window, the motorist raised his pistol and fired, wounding him in the armpit. Binion grabbed the cylinder of the gun, whipped out his pocket .38 and shot the would-be assassin to death.

That was Binion's last confirmed kill but not the end of the bloodshed in Big D. With fellow gamblers dropping like flies in 1946, he headed for Las Vegas with his wife Teddy Jane, their five kids and a tidy nest egg.

Binion claimed late in his colorful life to have forgotten how much money he took to Nevada, but his other son Jack remembered a mysterious piece of luggage entrusted to an older sister. "If the hotel caught fire, she was supposed to get that suitcase out."

Five years after settling in Las Vegas, Binion opened The Horseshoe on Fremont Street. His partner was a local character called Dobie Doc, whose chief qualification was an amazing ability to survive on cat naps. For many years, he presided over the count at the end of the three daily shifts.

To pay the legal fees from his fight against racketeering charges in Dallas and the losing battle with the IRS, Binion sold his controlling interest in the casino. He was denied a gambling license after his stretch in Leavenworth, but that was an annoying technicality that did not prevent the family from regaining control of The Horseshoe in 1964.

The Binion Philosophy boiled down to three of his favorite sayings: "If you want to get rich, make little people feel like big people." "Good food cheap, good whiskey cheap and a good gamble." "I don't know what everybody's got against inflation and corruption. If you got those things, there's always plenty of money around."

A friend called on the aged gambler in the hospital shordy before his death from congestive heart failure on Christmas Day 1989. The visitor was aware of the patient's recent near-death experience, when he swore he saw Jesus Christ.

"Well, I guess you'll see him again," commented the friend. "From what I've been told," Binion drawled, "I'm supposed to go the other way."

"It doesn't matter what you've done so long as you repent," the other man said trying to boost his spirits.

"That's the problem," the gambler sighed. "There's some of it I can't repent. I've tried, and I just can't!"

In the latest chapter of the Binion family saga, the drug overdose death in 1998 of son Ted was ruled a staged homicide. His girlfriend and her secret lover were tried, found guilty and sentenced to long prison terms but the convictions were overturned on appeal.

At their retrial, the likely killers walked because, as several jurors admitted, the forensic evidence did not measure up to what they watched each week on a popular television show.

Old Benny would have been fit to be tied!

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at haile@pdq. net or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549. Come by www.twith. com for a visit and follow Bar-tee on Facebook!

Original Publication Date: August 31, 2011

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