Book Review Article By Investigative Crime Journalist Clarence Walker
Texas outlaw Benny Binion was a true-life character more captivating and mesmerizing than a fictional hero on a silver screen: Binion was a Texas Cowboy, Famous Casino Owner, a Poker Pioneer, Gambler, a Smooth-Talking Businessman, a Ruthless Gangster with Organized Crime connections, a Killer, and Founder of the World’s Poker Series, a series held each year in Las Vegas that showcase the best poker players from around the globe.
Binion’s poker games became a big hit when Binion and close friends played a few rounds in 1970. A shrewd money maker, Binion figured out that poker games could make money at his Horseshoe Casino in Vegas.
Affectionately immersed into gangster lore, the chameleon Benny Binion, the man known as “Cowboy” once hired an airplane pilot in 1934 – to drop a floral wreath at the grave site of outlaw Clyde Barrow (the second half of Bonnie Parker; the deadly duo were known throughout the world as Bonnie & Clyde).
Folksy stories about Benny Binion’s relentless violence during his crime career elevated his reputation to a modern day “Billy the Kid.”
Binion’s Legendary Remarks
As a killer, one of Binion’s common remarks was, “I ain’t killed nobody that didn’t deserve it.”
“My friends can do no wrong….and my enemies can do no right. Do your enemies before they do you.”
When FBI agents pursued Binion for his involvement in the murder of Bill Coulter, a former FBI agent, including his role in the murder of a Russian guy named Louie Strauss; Binion, in a moment of rage, told a reporter. “Tell them FBIs’ … I am still capable of doing my own killing!”
The life story of Benny Binion had to be told in all its splendid glory and spellbinding details.
Douglas Swanson has written a highly remarkable book about the life of Benny Binion titled: Blood Aces: The Wild Ride Of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker. (Vikings: Penguin Group)
Blood Aces is the definitive biography of a Texas Outlaw who played an important role in making Las Vegas the world’s most famous gambling empire. Blood Aces may sound like a fiction novel, but it is a true life book, that comes compellingly alive.
Binion’s determination to kill rivals and competitors in the gambling and bootlegging business is unrivaled like no other.
A Dallas, Texas “big time” gambler, ironically named Herbert “the cat” Noble, was one man with enough guts to challenge Binion’s extortations and “the Cat” with the nine lives further sought to undermine Binion’s goal to maintain dominance over the gambling rackets in the Dallas area.
When Herbert “the cat” Noble refused to give Binion 40 percent of his gambling operation, Binion tried to kill Noble an incredible eleven times! This feat is a true life testament that this “Cat” had more than just nine lives.
Binion’s crew finally succeeded in killing Noble – on the eleventh try.
Previous attempts to kill “Cat Noble” included bombs that didn’t go off, shots that hit Noble (but he survived) or multiple shots that missed Noble. On one attempt, the killers blew up Noble’s car, then they went back to Binion to claim a $25,000.00, reward, but Binion, broke the sad news, that they killed Noble’s wife, not Noble, the intended target.
It took eleven attempts, but the money hungry, blood-thirsty bounty hunters hired by old Cowboy Benny finally killed “the Cat.”
All it took was a man to check his mailbox.
The mailbox bombing death of Herbert “the Cat” Noble is described by the author in gory detail: “A hunk of Noble’s leg went arcing toward the killers’ hideaway.”
“If he had wanted,” Swanson writes, “one of the men could have stepped from behind the brush and caught it like a football.”
“Dangerous as a rattlesnake,” and unlike many gangsters and outlaws that never became wealthy, Benny Binion was a “super rich” gangster, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Inside Binion’s Horsehoe Casino, he allowed regular customers and tourists to take pictures standing outside a glass-plated showcase filled up with a million dollars.
Americans are fascinated by the Sopranos, Mafia dons, hit men, drug kingpins and flashy criminals.
But meet Benny “Cowboy” Binion, a real-life Texas Gangster.
“As much as anyone,” says Swanson, “Binion made Vegas a meca for high rollers.”
Binion’s wealth influence and power connections led him into the circle of some of America’s most notorious and prominent people in America – and abroad. Blood Aces retraces Binion’s footsteps all the way from the back woods of Texas – to the West Coast, where he settled in Las Vegas.
During the 1940s following the civil war, Benny Binion arrived in Las Vegas from Texas as a southern-style gambling boss. But Binion had fierce competition from the Mafia. So he cleverly forged close relationships with Mafia players like Meyer Lanksy, Bugsy Siegel, Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, and Mickey Cohen. He even managed to establish an association with prominent billionaire Howard Hughes, including a host of well-connected people with political power, people capable of making things happen. Or stop things from happening.
Gifted with a razor-sharp intelligence, boldness, folksy charm, and having the heart of a cold-blooded killer, Benny Binion opened Las Vegas Horseshoe Casino & Hotel on Freemont street in 1951 – to become the most revered figure in the history of Las Vegas gambling.
Benny Binion was a true pioneer who understood the makings of running a successful gambling casino by offering visitors and gamblers a better deal for their money: good food, fine whisky, lovely-looking women, private rooms, and beautiful central air suites to sleep in. If customers so desired, Binion had limousine service to drive customers “to-and-from” the airport.
Binion’s formula for running a business was simple: cultivate the big boys, own the cops, and kill your enemies.
Blood Aces is a page-turner. It’s hard to put it down without going back to it.
For decades, Benny Binion’s name and hellish reputation has echoed throughout Texas and Las Vegas history like old ghost stories and never-ending gangster lore, but journalist Douglas Swanson may be the first writer to cobble together all the nitty-gritty exclusive details together to create an accurate account of this anti-hero
Swanson, a Dallas Morning News Investigative Project Editor, writes in Blood Aces. “The nation’s history is packed with legendary outlaws. But none of them can match Binion’s wild, bloody American journey.”
Blood Aces captures the essence of Benny Binion’s dirt-poor childhood life growing up in Texas – all the way to his gigantic rise as boss of the “numbers rackets” in and around Dallas Texas.
“He came from nothing,” writes Swanson, “or the nearest thing to it.”
Lester Benny Binion – Background History
Fondly known as “the cowboy” – Lester Benny Binion was born November 20th 1904 in in Grayson County Texas, “a cotton and cattle town as close to Oklahoma as to Dallas and a long way from anywhere,” Blood Aces paints a vivid picture of the era in which Binion grew up. Considered illiterate with a deep Texas drawl, Swanson writes that Binion was a “rube savant” who combined “naive intelligence, shrewd calculation and cold-blooded application.”
Around the Dallas area, Binion learned how to run the “numbers game” and shoot dice with the skill of a genius, particularly in the hellish West Dallas section of the roaring 1920s and 1930s, where Binion eventually earned a nice fortun (for that time) by running one of Dallas’ most successful bootlegging and gambling operations.
His vice games eventually drew the attention of law enforcement officers to investigate “this old” Benny Binion character.
Swanson writes about Binion’s criminal history stretching back to 1924 that showed convictions for theft, concealed weapons, and two murders.
Around 1931, according to Swanson’s book, Binion was convicted in the cold-blooded murder of a black man identified as Frank Bolding, a “rum runner.” Bolding’s moonshine business competed with Binion for customers. Stories about the incident changed over the years. One story indicated Binion accused the “black fella” of stealing his whiskey. Both men met at Binion’s safehouse on Pocahontas street in South Dallas, to discuss the situation.
Author Swanson Captured This Version
“He was a bad bastard,” Binion is quoted as saying. “He jumped up quick with a knife in his hand … I just felled backwards.” In a moment of fear mixed with rage, Binion killed Bolding by shooting him in the throat.
“I fooled you, didn’t I, you black sumbitch,” Binion told his son Ted, according to Swanson’s reporting.
Binion claimed self-defense, and the Sheriff did not conduct a thorough investigation to corroborate Binion’s claims. Bolding, “the black fella” did work for a prominent white businessman who protested the killing.
Bolding’s murder earned Binion the nickname “Cowboy,” a testament of Binion’s brutality in shooting down the black bootlegger in Cowboy style fashion. Binion later claimed he copped to a 2-year suspended sentence to keep the sheriff, a friend of Binion, from looking bad due to the sheriff, at that time, running for re-election.
“You had to have political help in them days,” Binion is quoted as saying in the book.
Binion later killed Ben Friedman, a numbers operator competing with Binion’s “numbers scheme.” Binion went free.
“No one in his right mind,” said an associate, “messed with Benny Binion.”
Texas Cowboy Goes To Vegas
After rising swiftly into gambling and the organized crime ranks by utilizing a textbook combination of vision, street-smart, determination, intimidation and brutal handiwork, Binion’s operation in Dallas Texas area took a nosedive in 1946 – when a new Sheriff arrived in town, a man that Binion admitted that he couldn’t buy. This new Sheriff, according to Binion, threatened to take down his gambling empire.
Documented FBI investigative reports showed Binion was not only concerned about the new strict law-and-order Sheriff, but Binion also expressed deep concern about the notorious Chicago Outfit run by the nation’s most feared gangster, Al Capone. Capone’s group had gradually muscled their way inside Dallas’ lucrative illegal gambling. This action took place after World War Two.
With FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover sniffing his trail, together with the Sheriff’s staunch opposition, and Al Capone’s murderous crew, Cowboy Gangster Benny Binion, faced with serious odds, rode off into the sunset to Las Vegas.
A Dallas Morning Newspaper review of Blood Aces written by Allen Barra, describes Binion’s arrival into Las Vegas this way:
“Las Vegas and Binion were a match made in Gomorrah. Look magazine called Vegas “the most sensationally cock-eyed and self-consciously wicked place on earth.” Swanson is really in his element here and zeroes in on the golden age of the golden city.”
It was a town that, in Swanson’s words, “didn’t just tolerate the mob. The city desperately needed the mob. These gangsters brought not only expertise but access to capital as well. It might have been capital obtained by loan-sharking, prostitution, narcotics and extortion, but it spent like any other money.”
Binion was dazzled by one of the town’s first celebrity gangsters, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who Binion thought was the “most accommodating, most likeable fellow, had the best personality you ever seen.” Binion gazed in “hickish amazement” at the opening night ceremony at Siegel’s Flamingo hotel, at which Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat performed. It was “the biggest whoop-de-do I ever seen.”
In the midst of the most powerful Jewish and Italian racketeers, Binion “functioned as a sort of Will Rogers of mobsters.” He quickly found his own niche: “The way to get rich … was to treat little people like big people.” As Swanson puts it, “If you craved chorus lines and magicians, the Stardust and the Sands could give you that and more. But if you wanted to gamble like a cracker sultan, you went to the Horseshoe.” Some thought it the most profitable casino in Vegas.
Before long, Binion put his own stamp on the city with his high-stakes poker games, which brought him enormous publicity and made “Amarillo Slim” Preston famous. (In the early 1970s he and Binion both appeared on The Merv Griffin Show; “Binion had come a long way from the grimy back alleys of West Dallas.”
Blood Aces, in part, is based on thousands of newly released government (once secret) documents, decades ago newspaper articles, interwoven with interviews from Binion’s relatives, close friends and former workers, author Doug Swanson compellingly chronicles the life of one of the country’s least known yet vital antiheroes – one whose story is ultimately that of gambling in America.
Blood Aces does not fully explore Binion’s psyche for readers to determine what really made the Texan tick. Overall, based on Binion’s upbringing in poverty and his quest to earn the distinction as being the kingpin of Dallas gambling rackets and rule the bootlegging business, the inescapable conclusion is clear: greed for money and craving power to control will motivate the human spirit every time.
As fast paced as any thriller, Blood Aces tells a story that is one of the best to ever be told – in the annals of American Criminal Justice.
Benny Binion’s life suddenly ended after suffering a fatal heart attack on Christmas day in 1989. He was 86 years old.
Across the street from the Las Vegas Horseshoe Casino once owned by Binion, there stands a bronze statue of Binion, astride a horse, wearing a Stetson cowboy hat “cocked” to the side, that pays tribute to a once dirt-poor lad who learned gambling and became a millionaire, a man known as the Texas Cowboy who helped to shape Las Vegas.
If you you like reading about the Mafia, gambling history, gangsters, murder-for-hire, including the gangster named Benny Binion who paid respect to Bonnie & Clyde, and muscled his way among those that ruled Las Vegas gambling; this is a book you must read.