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WSOP Retrospective
Benny Binion in his own words

Benny Binion was a Texas gambler who operated Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. In this page, learn a little about Binion's life and career as related in his own words.

In May 1973, Binion was interviewed by Nevada historian Mary Ellen Glass for an oral history. Below are several notable excerpts from the interview that shed light on Binion the man, his casino, and the World Series of Poker.

All content on this page is from:

Lester Ben "Benny" Binion. Some Recollections of a Texas and Las Vegas Gambling Operator. Mary Ellen Glass, Collector. Reno: University of Nevada Oral History Program, 1973.

Legndary horseman
The famous horseman at a quarterhorse sale in front of his casino.

To see photos of Benny Binion, family, and friends, visit the Binion photo page.

Mule dealing and gambling

First, I learned to play poker. And everybody had his little way of doing somethin' to the cards, and all this, that, and the other, so I wasn't too long on wisin' up to that. Some of 'em had different ways of markin' lem, crimpin' 'em, and--. So then I kinda got in with more of a gamblin' type of guy, you know, the--you might say road gamblers. And then I'd go around with them, you know, and I'd do little things for 'em, and they'd give me a little money, kinda kept me goin'. Then maybe I'd drift back to the horse traders, maybe stop somewhere and punch cows, or do somethin' a little bit, you know. Always had me a saddle and bed with me.

And then about World War I time--you see, I'm gettin' these things as I think of it. World War I time, I worked for some big mule dealers, you know, and sold mules to the army. And I learned how to tell horses', mules' age real good by lookin' in their mouth. And fact of business, I was real good at it, and all them old guys that I worked for, they'd let me do the mouthin' of the mules, and horses, and everything, you see, while they was tradin' and talkin'.

I went to Bonham, Texas with a bunch of mules, was workin' for Clarence McMillan. He hadn't got there yet. He was kind of a wild man, and had these mules in this wagon yard, where he kept 'em in them days. A guy by the name of Bryant come in there, and said he wanted to buy the mules, but Clarence hadn't got there yet, and he was real hot to buy these mules, and he had a order to go on to Tennessee, or somewhere, with them--what they call cotton mules. So he said he was anxious to buy 'em. "Well," I says, "I'll price 'em to you."

So--"Well," he said, "well, you--I'm just a little guy." He said, "You can't price 'em and sell 'em." So them old traders around there said, "If he prices mules and sell lem to you, it'll be all right." And when Clarence McMillan got there, I'd sold him out. He was out of business. [laughs) gamblin'. That was before 1928. That was in 1924, 1926. I was just a kid.

What makes a good gambler?

Oh, yeah, yeah, them poker players, and this, that, and the other. Well, I'd kinda learnt this--. All the time, I'm kinda learnin' about the gamblin' from these guys, you know. But then, I never was able to play anything, dice or cards, or anything, myself. I never was a real good poker player, and never did learn how to do any of these tricks like cheatin' people, or anything--which I'm kinda proud. of now. But I was always pretty capable about keepin' from gettin' cheated.

[MEG: Your bit was to get people to come and play the games? Was that it?]
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I was always a pretty good what they called a "steer man" in them days.

[MEG: What kinds of people made the best players?]
Oh, trading type people. In the early days, in the oil business down there, the oil guys, and, you know, somebody that handled money all the time, and traded, moved around. What I think makes a player is somebody with a lot of energy. Like if one of them kind of fellows come to town at night, you know, he's kind of a nervous type, and he had to have some outlet, you know, couldn't just go to bed like a ordinary person.

That's what I really think about 'em. They're not--a lot of people describe lem as suckers. But to me, they're far from bein' a sucker. There ain't nobody in the world that can produce money like they can. And most of 'em, if there's any possible chance, if he owes a debt, he'll pay it, because he's that type of a guy. He's got to pay his debts to stay in the type of business he stays in to get that kind of money.

See, I know my way of describin' things is a little bit off base, because I'm not educated and don't use good English.

I know that much, too, you know.

Well, you just got to kinda judge honesty, and--just like the.guy that comes in to cash a check, or somethin', now. I can just almost tell about him. I don't know how I do it, but there's just a kind of a tell on people. I don't really know what it is.

Well, there's all kinds of cheaters in them days. Fact of business, 'most everybody cheated. And today, people're smarter, and it's more or less absolutely on the honor, he's on the square.

First operations

In about 1928, 1 opened up what they call a "policy"-it's kind of a numbers business--in Dallas, Texas. I star ted with fifty-six dollars that day. The first day, I made eight hundred dollars. And, of course, that was a kind of a fluke thing. It didn't make that much money, for sure, for a long time. So I ran 'till my brother got up a little size. He was six years younger than me. So he went in with me, and we ran that 'till 1945. And my brother got killed in a airplane accident when he was twenty-three.

In 1936, the city of Dallas kinda opened up gambling. So I went into the dice business there. You know, it was mostly all dice. And I stayed in that dice business from '36 'till '45. And then in '46--the last of '46, things was rocky there, no good, so a deal came up here in Las Vegas. Kell Housells and Chick Fernoy and Fred Merrill had this deal out here.

I didn't fool with dice 'till--. I knew a lot about it. I been around a lot of guys, and all, but I never really fooled with dice until 136. But there was fellows before that, that I knew, and knew about, that had what they call "daub," them days, they put on dice. And you could roll the dice on a layout, and this daub caused the dice to hesitate, slow down, and turn up on their number. It wouldn't do it every time, but you give 'em a little percentage. The most famous with this was a man named Van Swofford, and another fellow by the name of Williams--called him "Slim" Williams. Ile was a tall, skinny man. And Slim Williams was the first man that I ever seen that put loads in dice.

The dice was all one-just the "come" line. There was no back line. There's been a lot of talk about who star ted to "do" and "don't," but I think, from what I've heard that it was a fellow by the name of Chicken Smart from Chickasha, Oklahoma. And where he got the name "Chicken Smart," I hear, he was a fightin' chicken [gamecocks] man.

And this numbers business I was in, the way I hear it, it started out in Memphis, Tennessee. There was a lawyer went to Memphis, Tennessee (and I've forgotten his name; I used to know it, too), and he went and opened him up a law office, and he didn't do any business, so he figured out the odds on this policy racket, and opened up. And I think the next time, somebody opened up in New Orleans, and then the next was in Dallas.

It was a fellow by the name of Warren Diamorld opened it in Dallas, many, many years ago.. And Warren Diamond was the first big dice fader T ever knew. He opened up in this Camp Street wagon yard. Those wagon yards had big, high fences around 'em, where nobody couldn't slip in there and steal nothin', just kind of a--looked like a stockade. So

Warren Diamond had a gamblin' house in the Camp Street wagon yard, and they had this gate barred, you know, and they had a gate man on there. But one time it came a big storm, and some deputies got in a covered wagon, come a-trottin' down the street, and the man thought it was somebody comin' into the wagon yard, you know, from the country. And he opened the gate, and it's full of deputies. And they sent Warren Diamond to the penitentiary. And there's a fellow by the name of George Pootes got him out. So from then on,they was partners.

Leaving Dallas

[MEG: Well, in 1946, then, some of your people lost the election in Dallas?]
Yes, [I] couldn't operate. Yeah, had to go.

[MEG: This was just right at the end of the war. The war must have been kind of a profitable time for you.]
It was, very profitable. So then I came--like I told you, Chick Fernoy and Fred Merrill, they'd been a-comin' out here, and Pred Merrill. had got well acquainted in this state, and there was some fel- lows had a gamblin' house in Reno. Fred Merrill went up there, and got to gamblin' high, and won $160,000, which, I guess at that time, was the biggest winnin' that there was in the state. So he got pretty well known, so him and Chick Fernoy, they never did have no damn money, but they was good fellows. So they come and they had this deal here [in Las Vegas] with Kell Houssels for me to put up the bankroll. And I said, "I'll go out there and try it a little while."

So we came out here, and we was very successful. So I kept thinkin' I'd leave, you know. I didn't think this town was ever goin' to be anything like it is. I just couldn't believe that. I just thought--bein' that I'd been where they close up, and do this, that, and the other all the time, I thought this just had to go. But it didn't.

Thank God for that.

And, then we quit up there, and Kell sold the place (he owned it). And in that same old building, I leased it, and built the place called the Westerner. Then I sold that after awhile, and then I decided. I might leave. Then this place, here, the Horseshoe, was called the El Dorado Club. It had a corporation loss. So I bought the thing and opened up here, and here I am, stuck forever now. [laughs]

Las Vegas, circa 1946

Well, wasn't but somethin' like 18,000 people here, and the most enjoyabZe place that you can imagine. Everybody was friendly, and there wasn't none of this high jackin', there wasn't no stealin', wasn't nothin', Justhell, you couldn't get robbed, if you hollered, "Come rob me!" I just don't understand why it was like that. To me, ever since I've been here, they've had the best law enforcement, the most honest law enforcement that I've ever seen.

A officer don't have to be anyLhing else here. You know, they don't get the best pay in the world. But it's always been customary here, when they went in anywhere here, there's comp for their food, and this, that, and the other, and no strings attached. And as you know, a bad guy, or anything, lights here, there's just--there ain't one out of a hundred ever gets out of here without gettin' caught. Still that way.

[MEG: In '46, the Strip wasn't there.]
Well, the El Rancho and the Last Frontier was there, two hotels. And they had the best damn food you ever seen in your life! And the food was cheap, and they was very liberal, didn't cost you nothin' to go see the second show. Of course, the transportation was bad. There wasn't much of a airlines comin' in here then. A lot of people even came on train. A lot of people'd ride a train from here to New York, Chicago, and Washington in them days in the wintertime when the weather was bad, and all. And the automobile traffic wasn't too much.

Cheating in the 1940s

Oh, there was a lot in them days--you don't see too much of it any more--guys that could hold out the cards on the "Twenty-one", and come back in with 'em, this, that, and the other, and make 'em a hand, this, that, and the other. And they crimped the cards on the "Twenty-One", and didn't have that counter bunch to--. The counter is gettin' smarter. They've got to where they donft tyy to win Do big amount of money. They jus' go around and kinda nibble you. You know, you never feel gettin' nibbled on 'til they bite you. So they's a certain amount of that counters around, now, that gets by without bein' detected.

Then the slot cheaters, which I don't know a thing about--I never did care nothin' about slot machines, and I never was one to--. A lot of people regard 'em as being money-makers, but I would never want to depend on a slot machine to make a livin'. I depend on the dice to make a livin'. And I can go anywhere in the United States, almost, and make a livin' with the dice, if I had to, 'cause I could hustle up some players, and get in a room, and play with 'em. All you got to have is some square dice and a big bankroll, and some men that can deal. And I got two sons can do that, if we had to.

[MEG: Did they try to bring dice in on you in the early 1940s?]
Yeah, but I've always had some guys around that was good dice men. And I know a good dice man. You know, I know enough about that. I know a good dice man. They ain't a livin' human on earth that can't be cheated on the cards, over and over again. There's always somebody comin' up with somethin'.on cards.

[MEG: But not on dice?]
Oh, dice--if you keep your eyes on them dice, and you know 'em by the way they act, and all this, that, and the other, dice is damn hard to cheat. But I think, eventually, they'll come up wit1h some new ways, all this electronics, and all this stuff. They may come up with some ways someday to give you some trouble with the dice. But as long as you watch them dice, and see that they don't get out of--you know, that they don't switch 'em on you---.

[MEG: Did they try doing that in the Las Vegas Club?]
No, I don't think we ever had any dice troub1e, in the Las Vegas Club.

[MEG: Any other kind of-?]
Not -too much, not too much. Just that instance there. Naturally, some of your dealers steal a little once in awhile, you know. It's to be expected.
You know what keeps the people honest?

[MEG: Fear of getting caught?]

No. The biggest coward on earth would steal.. His own self-respect. If a man don't have respect for himself, he'll steal, the way I believe it. And there's more people got respect for theirself than don't. If they didn't have, you couldn't operate, I don't think.

Fear will not keep 'em from stealin'. I've caught 'em, seen 'em, have 'em lay down on the floor, say "Kill me! I'm a dog. I'm no good." Damn near killed some of 'em, too (laughs]. Just kick hell out of 'em, just for bein' a dog.

Earning the player's trust

There's a fellow came in [the Westerner] one time, and he wanted to gamble high. And he said, "How do I know I'm goin' to get paid?" "Well," I says, "I'll take you back there and show you how you're goin' to get paid."

I took him back there and showed him a lot of money. And he lost $90,000. But he was a man that played a lot, went up and down. He won a lot of times, and he lost a lot of times. But I don't know how he came out overall. He was from Los Angeles. I wouldn't care to mention his name without his permission. I don't like to mention nobody's name without permission, or somebody that I know personally, they don't care.

The carefree life
Well, I never took no part in no civic affairs, never did belong to no organizations, anything like that. I just ain't that type of guy. Just like I was late on you this mornin . I want to live a kind of a carefree life. I don't like too many appointments, and I don't like to be nowhere at a certain time. But culture, I don't know what that means, really.
Las Vegas characters

Well, Nick the Greek, he was the strangest character I ever seen. Nobody never knew where he got that money. And after he ran out of money, he used to come down here off the Strip. The Dunes give him a room. And he'd come down here to eat, and he'd ride the bus. Well, he didn't want nobody to know he's rode the bus. So when I know he'd be gettin' about ready to go back, I'd say, "Say, Nick." I says, "So and-so's goin' out on the Strip to pick up some money, or somethin'. You want a ride?"

"Yeah."

I'd send him out there, don't you see. So now, his sister died. And he came in here, and I never seen him even show no remorse at all, and he set, and he cried, tellin' me. And he said that he had wasted his life, and just, "Yah, yah, yah." So now, while I got him "Nick," I said, "for Christ sake, tell me where you got that money. And," I says, "if I outlive you, I'll tell it, but if I don't outlive you, it won't never go no further. I'll never tell it," and he got to laughin'. He never did tell. me. And there don't nobody know.

But he was a kinky ol' guy. He'd put a snake in your pocket and ask you for a match. He was hard to stay even it with. One day a guy beat him out of a five hundred and somethin' thousand dollars playin' poker. So he was give out, and I went with him to get the money to take back to give to the guy. And I said, "My God, this is a lot of money to give to a man!"

He said, "My life don't go with it," and he was pullin' his clothes off to go to bed.

And he had that money in a old chest in his room, and it wasn't even locked, down under some clothes.

Let me see. Who else might've been around here? But he was the most outstanding one of all times. And there was another heck of a character around here named Joe Bernstein, that's been a gambler all his life, never done nothin' else. And he won a lot of money, about $800,000, here, a year or two ago, and he blowed it all back, and his health was gettin' bad. I been up at Duke University, and I knew that doctor up there was doin' some good, and he had $6,000. And I told him, I says, "For Christ sake, why don't you go up there to that doctor and get yourself straightened out?" He was gettin' some age on him, seventy-somethin'.

He says, "I don't have the money. The money's only for gamblin'."

well, when he had all that money, he's buy some clothes every day, dress up. He was a dressy kind of ol' guy. So he came down here one night. He had a nice-lookin' sport coat on. He says, "You like this coat?"

I says, "It looks very nice on you." He says, "That's the first time I've wore any." I said, "My God, you don't wear lem twice, do you?" And he got a big kick out of that.


And then, like Willie Alderman, you know. They had that "Ice Pick Willie" named on him, you know, don't you see, but I don't believe all that stuff. He was the nicest, kind-

est-hearted man--I don't know anything about his past. From the time I knew him when he was here, I never knew a kinder-hearted man than him.

Then there's another one, Dave Berman, that they said did this, that, and the other, and he was another high-class guy. And actually, when I walked in the Riviera after he died, I just always been used to seein' him, and liked him, and tears came into my eyes. I just kinda choked up.

And there's another one got killed down there at Phoenix, Gus Greenbaum, that I never heard of him ever turnin' anybody down for any charitable thing, or anything like that. Good man.

I have no idea why he was killed. But he was, in my way of thinkin', he was just a heck of a good man. Oh, hell, he was the best guy! He just was--just was no foolin' about it,you know, just--anything is all right. He was there.

[MEG: How about Ben Siegel? He came the same year you did.]
I barely knew him. But, actually, he was another one, most accommodating, most likable fellow, had the best personality you ever seen. And if he was a bad guy, he damn sure didn't show it from the outside.

[MEG: You haven't mentioned Doby Doc (Robert Caudill).]
Oh, Doby Doc! My God, don't let him go! Well, Doby Doc's just the damnedest character you ever seen. He came to Nevada in 1906, and just picked up junk, you might say, and run it into a fortune, just a hobby with him. Just a-- he's a kind of a pack rat.

One time, at--Elko had the first entertainment in Nevada, was the way Doby told me. Oll man Crumley did it. You see, Elko used to get more publicity than any place in Nevada., through old man Crumley. And he was just a kind of a--come here as a kind of a saddle blanket gambler. He was a cowboy. And one time, Sophie Tucker was up there. She went out there to Doby Doc's to see all of his junk, and don't let him hear I call it junk. So Sophie Tucker says, "Doby, give me a souvenir."

He says, "There's a eighty-pound anvil you can have. Just pick it up."

Doby Doc worked for Mr. Moffat, I was tall-in' you about early. He was a bookkeeper. He was a very smart man; Doby Doc'd been to college, and all this, that, and the other, before he came here. So he got to be a damn old man. He come here in 1906, and done been to college; I don't know how old he is. So one time ol' man Moffat lost $10,000,000 on the wool market. He cornered the wool market. So the telegram came, he'd lost $10,000,000. Well, Doby Doc's openin' the mail--they was settin' across the desk from each other, and Doby Doc just kinda froze up. Oll man Moffat says, "What the hell's the matter, Doby?" He's scared to tell him, 'fraid. he'd have a heart attack, or somethin'. Pitched him the telegram, he raised himself, "Hell," says, "I thought some friend had died!" That's a absolute true story.

[MEG: Mr. Moffat must've been quite a character, himself.]
Oh, my God, what a character he was! They can't too much be said about him that he was just great. Smarter In a whip. After he got to be a old man, after I came here, all these cattle that come from Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and he shipped 'em a killin' plant out there, and everything-and he worked a hundred and eight cars of cattle in Reno.

Buying the Horseshoe

Well, yeah, yeah, all right. When I took the Horseshoe, I wouldn't've took it, but I really didn't know what I wanted to do at that time. I didn't care whether I did anything right then or not. So now, the Eldorado Club had a $870,000 tax loss, which was very attractive. So I took it, and I built the thing here. And I put the first carpet on the floor here in. the Horseshoe that was ever downtown. Everybody said that wasn't no good, but it was. Everybody's got 'em now. So I just did it through accident, I guess. So the carpet cost $18,000. And the fellow that put the carpet in, well, he was a player, and the first night he played, I won $18,000, exactly. So I win the carpet [laughs].

So I put my oldest son in (he was about twenty-one then), runnin' the darn thing, you might say. Well, I had 'em to deal all the games, them boys, Jack and Ted. They learned to deal all the games so they'd know what it was all about. And each one of 'em when they become twenty-one, I put 'em in as a boss. They just as well learn early as late, you know. And they've done very damn good. They still mind me just like they was six-year-olds. Now that the kids got bigger, and nothin' for my wife to stay at home for, well, she come in here. She's pretty good with figures. She looks after books, and the money, and all this, that, and the other. Everybody has to work nowadays to make a livin'. So the Horseshoe has been a very good place for me.

The Horseshoe's design

Well, my wife did that. My wife designed this Horseshoe. And I think she did a very good job, and it's had a lot of comment on it. I don't know nothin' about designin' nothin' like that. Hell, all I want's four walls and crap tables, and a roof -to keep the rain off, and the air condition to keep people comfortable. Got to have that, you know. And I like good food and a clean kitchen. My kitchens get dirty, I'd call the health department. They'll straighten 'em up pretty quick.

Read more...

...about the Horseshoe, Joe W. Brown, and running and casino.

Go to page two of "Binion in his own words"

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