BENNY BINION MIGHT NOT RECOGNIZE HIS OLD JOINT. His name still flashes in gold lights above Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, but the atmosphere at Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and Casino is distinctly sanitized, as if someone has given a bubble bath to a wild boar. A pedestrian mall stretches in front of the Horseshoe, the Golden Nugget, and the remaining gambling houses of Glitter Gulch, and a roof with laser lights blocks the sun and stars. Potted palms rigged to spray a mist on passersby have been positioned between kiosks that sell T-shirts and cheap souvenirs. You won’t find fountains, topless chorus girls, roller coasters, pyramids, or cheesy replicas of New York, Paris, or Venice downtown, as you do along the far more fashionable Strip—and forget about a string quartet in tuxedos playing Bach, like the one in a lobby bar at the Bellagio—but an acoustic guitar player named Buzz Evans entertains the lucky souls who venture there after dark, mostly Asian tourists with cameras and young couples who look like they’ve just jumped off a boxcar. All this refinement is part of what the chamber of commerce calls the “Fremont Street Experience,” a misguided attempt to make Glitter Gulch seem hip to the times. It misses the point. In the words of Oscar Goodman, the former mob lawyer who was elected mayor of Las Vegas earlier this year: “People don’t come here looking for Disneyland; they come looking for Bugsy Siegel.”
When Benny, a gambler and racketeer with few peers in Texas or anyplace else, left Dallas in 1946 for the more forgiving atmosphere of Sin City, he couldn’t have envisioned the multi-million-dollar legacy he would one day leave his children. And he couldn’t have imagined what a mess they’d make of it. Two of Benny’s five kids have died of a drug overdose—one an apparent suicide, the other a victim of foul play. In his day mobsters didn’t use drugs; they just sold them. Greed, betrayal, and cold-blooded murder are traditions in this company town, but the current generation seems to have forgotten that it’s only business. Following the death of Benny in 1989 and of his wife, Teddy Jane, in 1994, an all-out war erupted among the Binion siblings for control of the Horseshoe. Jack Binion squared off against his sisters, Brenda Michael and Becky Behnen, while little brother Lonnie “Ted” Binion was forced to watch from the sidelines. Ted’s gambling license had been suspended…for hanging out with mobsters! Who was he supposed to hang with, the Moral Majority? Ted’s suspension was merely another symbol of change in the nature of families, crime and otherwise. He carried a pistol, just like his daddy, only to him it was an ornament. The battle of the Binions was fought with court pleadings and depositions instead of machine guns, but in some respects it was dirtier and less honorable than the bloodlettings of yore. You don’t have to be Tony Soprano’s shrink to understand what happened here: The Binions had met the enemy, and it was them.
The battle concluded, at least temporarily, in the summer of 1998, when an out-of-court settlement was reached. It followed, and was no doubt hastened by, an order from the Nevada Gaming Commission that forced Ted to sell his 20 percent interest in the casino. Nearly all of it was bought by Becky, the youngest of Benny’s kids. A month later, Ted was found dead of an overdose of heroin, a drug he had used since high school. At first police officers thought the 55-year-old had either killed himself or accidentally overdosed, but the evidence now suggests that he was the victim of a bizarre, almost comically inept plot by the paramour of his live-in girlfriend to murder him and steal his fortune. Ted’s demise was a final crushing blow to the Binions. He’d been Benny’s favorite—his carbon copy, only without the edge and tempering that made the old man a natural survivor. In the wake of Ted’s death, one of Las Vegas’ last family-owned casinos is a shadow of its former self. So is the family.
BEFORE THERE WAS a Strip, and long before gaming mogul Steve Wynn began replicating the Seven Wonders of the World and installing slot machines in their every nook, Binion’s Horseshoe was a haven for hard-eyed, no-nonsense gamblers. It was the cornerstone of Glitter Gulch—the noisiest, rowdiest, most wide-open casino in downtown Las Vegas. The doors never closed and the action never stopped. Benny boasted that he offered the world’s best odds, and he never flinched from covering a bet. Texas high rollers, in particular, were attracted by his steadfast policy of no limits and no frills. “The size of your limit is the size of your first bet,” Benny pledged. The story of the man who walked into the Horseshoe with $1 million in a satchel and lost it on the pass line at the craps table is now part of Vegas folklore. Binion’s Horseshoe didn’t merely win a million dollars that night, it won a permanent reputation as the only pure gambling joint in town.
There was no health spa at the Horseshoe, no Swedish masseuse, no barbershop, no entertainment. “I don’t want to see my money blown out the end of some guy’s trumpet,” Benny explained. The drinks were generous—Benny pioneered the tradition that players drink free—and the food was cheap and utilitarian. His late-night $2 steak became a classic casino come-on. There was no fancy dining room or French chef, just a man in a stained apron who stirred up pots of greasy, fiery chili using an old Dallas jailhouse recipe. For years the Horseshoe didn’t even include a hotel. When Steve Wynn told Benny about his plan to build an extravagant two-thousand-room hotel and casino called the Golden Nugget across the street, Benny wrapped a fatherly arm around his shoulder and said, “Great, they can sleep in your place and gamble in mine.”
Benny learned the business in the twenties from Warren Diamond, an old-time Dallas