Lester Ben Binion (November 20, 1904 - December 25, 1989) was an American gambling legend, career criminal, and convicted assassin who set up illegal gambling operations in the Texas city of Dallas-Fort Worth. He would later move to Nevada, where gambling was legal, and in downtown Las Vegas open the popular Binion's Horseshoe casino.
He was a racketeer, a family man, a thief, a philanthropist, a comrade to the downtrodden and a fear-fearing enemy. His rise to power, and his ability to stay there, in the American underworld is unmatched. Binion, though barely able to read or write, used natural intellect, personal charisma and inherent ruthlessness to create a gambling empire. He left Texas a step ahead of the sheriff after a gruesome criminal career in Depression-era Dallas. Binion left for Vegas with a million dollars in cash and a few machine guns in his Cadillac 's trunk.
Binion had three pistols in those days - two .45 automatics and a small .38 revolver. Binion believed fellow bootlegger Frank Bolding had stolen some liquor in 1931, and argued in a backyard with him. "This guy was a real bad man, and he had a reputation for murdering people by stabbing them," Binion 's friend, the late Lonnie "Ted" Binion, related after Benny died.
“He stood up very quickly and Dad felt like he was going to stab him, and rolled back from the log, pulled his pistol, and shot from the ground upwards. Hit him in the heart, and killed him.”
This competitive marksmanship was the basis of Binion's "The Cowboy" nickname, which also gained him a conviction for murder. Bolding had a knife on him, but did not pull it. But Binion just received a suspended sentence of two years, Ted said, because the name of the deceased was too bad.
Five years later, Binion shot and killed Ben Frieden, a rival numbers operator. Wounded, Binion had been cleared for self-defense purposes.
No other killings were ever formally attributed to Binion, while some of his rivals - and a number of his associates - died in a 1938 gang war.
Herbert Noble was nicknamed "The Cat," since he was believed to have nine lives. He was shot in the back in 1946, his car was riddled with bullets in 1948, he discovered dynamite wired into his car's starter in 1949, and was then shot in another high-speed pursuit. But when someone blew his car, killing his wife instead of him, Binion was blamed and he spent the rest of his life trying to get even the score.
Noble was a city boy raised in West Dallas, spawning infamous outlaws like Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker, and Raymond Hamilton as well. In the late thirties he had been Sam Murray's bodyguard. Noble hired one of Benny's most trusted men after Murray was murdered, Ray Laudermilk - he was the "steerman" of Binion, the person who steered the street clients and up to room 226. The two of them took over service from Murray. Noble and Laudermilk put together some lucrative policy wheels and a downtown craps game at a joint called the Airmen's Club, near the Pacific and Ervay intersection. This has been a betrayal that can not go unchallenged. Bob Minyard (Benny 's daily pistol-maker) killed Laudermilk later.
Herbert Noble, of course, was a problem still to be resolved. Benny posted a reward of $10,000 for Noble's scalp, then bumped it to $25,000, and then to $50,000, with a craps game thrown in as added incentive. A lot of gunsels sniffed at that proposition, and a lot of them ended up dead. Noble was no patsy.
The Airmen's Club was doing so well that in January 1946, Benny decided he deserved 40% of the action. Noble refused, in effect challenging Benny's rule, and a day later the cops closed Noble down.
Noble went a bit mad after the death of his wife, spending hours alone staring at a snapshot of her flower-covered coffin.
Rightly or wrongly, he believed that Benny Binion 's gang planted the bomb which killed his child, and revenge became his lonely obsession. Less than a month after Mildred Noble 's death on Christmas Eve, 31-year-old Lois Green, the depraved gunman who liked to bury his victims alive, walked out of the West Dallas Sky-Vue Club and was ripped apart by a shotgun blast. All thought that Noble's number one hitter, a gunsel known as the Groceryman, was doing Green in. A day or so after Green was killed, the Groceryman arrived in Las Vegas to assassinate Benny but was captured instead by some of Benny's gangsters, taken to the desert for rehabilitation, and returned to Dallas - ostensibly with a mission. On New Year's Eve, exactly a week after Lois Green was cut down, Noble walked out onto his front porch and into the beam of a spotlight and the hail of automatic rifle fire. Again the Cat escaped with his life, but his odds were diminishing fast. As he recovered at Methodist Hospital, a bullet shattered the window glass of his fourth-floor room and lodged-in the ceiling. After his release from the hospital, Noble moved from his house in Oak Cliff and moved to the ranch, where a floodlit yard and six vicious dogs offered some security. Attempt number eight came in June 1950, when an assailant hiding in a duck blind opened fire with a machine gun. This time Noble was saved by the armored plating of his bulletproof car. Paradoxically, during all the blood-letting, there was no organized crime in Texas, not in the sense of the Mafia or a Capone-style operation. Our gangs were strictly homegrown. But Benny Bin-ion was now part of the Las Vegas establishment, which meant that his feud with Noble - and particularly the publicity generated by the brutal murder of Mildred Noble - put a lot ofheat on national crime organizations. New York crime boss Frank Costello reportedly canceled plans to move into oil-rich South Texas.
By 1951 the Kefauver Senate Crime Committee was holding hearings in Los Angeles, and Benny was on the committee's list of witnesses "wanted but not (yet) found." Meanwhile, back in Dallas, Benny had been charged with operating a policy wheel and income tax evasion and was fighting extradition. In an effort to negotiate a peace treaty between Binion and Noble, Flamingo Hotel
president Dave Berman, a front man for the Eastern syndicate, sent a scumball named Harold Shimley to Dallas for a secret rendezvous with Noble. Meeting at a tourist court near Love Field (and speaking into a hidden microphone planted by the Dallas police) Shimley assured the Cat that no one was more grief-stricken by his wife's death than Benny Binion, that Benny had sworn on the lives of his own wife and five children that he had nothing to do with the bombing. Noble didn't buy Shimley's story. If anything, the meeting only escalated the violence. In February 1951, Noble at-tacked an associate of the late Lois Green outside a West Dallas grocery store and got his earlobe bitten off. Five days later somebody threw a bomb through the front door of the Airmen's Club. The Cat was away that night. Two months after that, a nitro bomb exploded in the engine of one of Noble's airplanes, but he was saved by a steel-plated instrument panel. A few days later Noble found another bomb in another airplane. Like all the previous attempts, number eleven failed; but the Cat must have known he was living on borrowed time. Hell, the attempts themselves were lolling him. Once thickset and muscular, Noble had lost at least fifty pounds and looked like a piece of overcooked bacon. His silver-blond hair, once thick and wavy, was now limp and snow white. Though he was only 42, Noble could have passed for 60. He slept - or at least he tried to sleep - with a shotgun next to his bed and carried a carbine everywhere he went. His mind was slipping too, and he had started drinking heavily and taking pills. And yet in the Cat's grief-twisted brain a fantastic plot was fomenting. He was planning an air raid on Benny's borne in Las Vegas - kill 'em all, Benny, his wife, his five kids, his dog, his cat. Noble had bought a stagger-wing Beechcraft with extra wing tanks, a bomb rack, and two large bombs, one an incendiary and the other a high-explosive. He even had an airmen's map of Las Vegas, pinpointing the Binion home on Bonanza Road. Noble might have pulled it off except that Dallas police lieutenant George Butler, who was on temporary assignment to the Kefauver committee, happened to drive up to the ranch just as Noble was doing his final checkout. Noble made a grab for his carbine, but Butler beat him to the draw.
Noble avoided or survived 11 recorded attempts to kill him-including rockets, automatic weapons and machine-gun fire-until he was picked up in 1951 by a bomb planted in front of his mailbox.
Binion denied responsibility for Noble's eventful final years , and particularly for Noble's wife's death. At that time Binion had been persuaded by a new administration to leave Dallas, and he settled in Las Vegas.
In 1951, he opened his own location, calling it Binion's Horseshoe, setting the craps limit at $500 ten times the cap at other casinos.
The majority of gamblers use some form of system. When a gambler makes a bet of $10, he will usually bet the original $10, plus the $10 payout. Both gamblers dream of turning a lucky streak and a machine into real money ... but casino owners have nightmares about the same case.
The house-limit made it more difficult to do. A person wagering $10 and doubling it every time he wins would be blocked by the $50 limit on the fourth bet. Under Binion's limit of $500, he could continue to double until the seventh bet. If the doubler wins all seven bets he might win $1,130 at Binion's against $270 elsewhere.
The new limits quickly rendered Binion popular, and other casinos were forced to raise their own limits accordingly.
Others in the industry did not voluntarily go along. "He 'd increase the keno-limit to $500. Dave Berman said he would kill him if he lifted it, " Ted Binion tells, a few years before the death of the younger Binion in 1998. It was one of the few times Benny has backed up on record. He had no doubt that Berman would attempt to rectify his threat, and Binion did not want any more gang war. The discrepancy had been sorted out in some manner unknown to him, Ted said, and the cap was increased without incident a few months later.
William Lee Bergstrom
The Binions have moved the limits ever upward to $10,000 over 40 years. This could be done by gamblers who felt like going higher as long as they did so on the first Bet. A player named William Lee Bergstrom asked back in 1980 if he could invest $1 million in real money. He didn't have the money at the time but he was informed by the Binions.
A few months later he turned up with $777,000, apologizing for not being able to collect an entire million. They never tried to turn the money into coins, but put the whole cash suitcase on the "don't move" side, and the woman with the dice in three rolls was seven out. Binions' reckoned Bergstrom with another $770,000 and Ted Binion escorted him to his car.
Over the next few years Bergstrom returned. He is investing $590,000 and he has won. Bet 190,000 dollars, and win. Bet $90,000 and they won.
Instead he took in a whole million, in November 1984. He deposited it in the cage of the casino and Ted told him that he could bet on any game.Ted recalled,
“He run a few feet ahead, up to a crap table, put his finger on the table and said ‘$1 million on the don’t pass. It was the comeout roll so the shooter wanted a seven, and they come ace-six. It was all over in one roll.I felt like electricity run through me. And Bergstrom pulled his finger off that table like it was on fire!”
Three months later Bergstrom committed suicide.
“But you know, he was still $400,000 winner”
- pointed out Ted. He knew Bergstrom by then, and believed he died not for money, but for love.
Although Binion's second generation transformed into modern businessmen and businesswomen, Benny remained an eclectic-looking Texas tough guy. Benny used to wear gold coins on his cowboy shirts for buttons but was never seen in the neckties. He wasn't shaving every single day. Despite felony convictions that usually forbid weapon possession, he carried at least one handgun all his life and held a handy sawed-off shotgun.
In the 1970s, if the police wanted lots of money to launch a cocaine sting operation on short notice, they might get it from Binion 's casino cage. And he did not ask the police to arrest a slot cheater or pickpocket found on the premises for these ordinary facilities. These were treated by burly, surly security officers, and once their casts were removed, the offenders never sinned again.
Binion owned what was considered to be the most lucrative casino in Las Vegas (privately held, it never had to disclose earnings publicly) but he didn't have an office, he did business from a booth in the downstairs restaurant. No one wanted an appointment to meet with him; they begged him for his ear directly, and generally got it. The guest was always a senator or federal judge when he invited one to sit down and have a bowl of the popular Horseshoe chili. And just as often, it was some old Texan spread out of a one-windmill, trading rodeo stories and crap games.
“He was a guy you could shake hands with, and feel you had met a real American character,”
- said Howard Schwartz, who has documented the development of Las Vegas as an editor at Gambler’s Book Club.
“That was what made the place. It wasn’t the classiest joint in town, but it was an authentic and unique experience. When you met Benny Binion, you felt you’d been part of history.”
Binion poured confidence into an industry too tentative to take a big risk after some 40 years of running Las Vegas casinos. He forced the change from sawdust joints to luxury, carpeted casinos. He and his sons turned poker into an significant casino game from being a kitchen table pastime. He was one of the promoters who made Las Vegas the host of the National Rodeo Finals.