They say it was hard for anyone to dislike Benny Binion, unless, of course, Benny had his gun in that person’s ear and was in the process of blowing that person’s brains into
West Dallas, which Benny was known to do when displeased. Even then it was nothing personal, just business. The man had thousands of friends, a fair number of enemies, and the good sense to tell the difference.
Benny Binion lived the first half of his life in Texas and the last half in
Las Vegas and became a legend in both places. They called his the Cowboy, for reasons that had to do with guns, not horses. He was maybe the most popular gambler in
America and certainly one of the few ever cast in bronze. There is a larger-than-life statue of the Cowboy near the rear entrance of Binion’s Horseshow Hotel and Casino, the no-limit, no-frills gambling joint in downtown
Las Vegas that Benny opened in 1951 and his family still owns.
The Cowboy was a generous with friends as he was malevolent with enemies. Politicians, judges, cops, entertainers, rodeo cowboys, robbers, and pistoleros from
Dallas to Vegas owed him debts of gratitude, and sometimes debts of hard cash, which Benny was inclined to forget, rationalizing that if somebody owed him money it was his own damn fault. For Benny’s eight-third birthday party, in November 1987, 18,000 friends and admirers showed up. The crowd included Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Jr., Gene Autry, Dale Robertson, and other celebrities and underworld characters.
Though Benny claimed that he never went to school a day in his life, never learned to read or write, to multiply or subtract, he knew about numbers. He wasn’t much of a gambler himself, but he became, in the idiom of the trade, “a square craps fader,” square meaning honest and fader being the one who covers the crapshooter’s bet. He learned his lesson early, from an old-time Dallas racketeer named Warren Diamond, who operated a no-limits craps game in the twenties in a room at the St.GeorgeHotel, near the
County courthouse. Benny worked for Diamond, parking cars and running errands, and he never forgot the day that an oilman from
Texarkana threw an envelope on the line and said, “Diamond, I’m gonna make you look.” Diamond gave the oilman a glance and said, “Pass him the dice,” meaning that he didn’t need to look, that he was ready to cover whatever amount was in the envelope. The oilman crapped out in two rolls, and Warren Diamond opened the envelope and counted out 170 one thousand-dollar bills. The margin favoring a craps fader is small, something like 1.4 percent, but in the long run that fractional edge can make a fellow rich. By the time Benny died in December 1989, he was worth at least $100 million.
Benny had a talent for knowing exactly who and where he was and for sensing when it was time to fold his hand and go home. If his son and grandson had inherited this talent, they wouldn’t be facing federal racketeering charges today.
Benny was a product of turn-of-the-century
Texas, when gambling was an accepted occupation and killing was a proper way of settling things, Old West style. It was an era that placed enormous value on individual initiative. The moral collapse that started with Prohibition and accelerated into the Great Depression made criminals out of people who were not otherwise inclined, fostering a disdain for law, an obsession with betrayal, a willingness to do almost anything to get by. The mind-set of the times was compressed in a saying that Benny repeated all of his life: “Never holler whoa or look back in a bad place.” When Benny thought of the Depression, he thought of what his pal Red Nose Kelly said one Thanksgiving Day when the bartender at the C&W poolroom asked him what he was thankful for. “Chili’s a dime and I still like it,” Red Nose replied straight off.
Born in Pilot Point in Grayson County in 1904, the son of a layabout who drank up the family inheritance, Benny left home at fifteen, bumming around El Paso and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, punching cattle, trading horses, gambling, bootlegging, getting in a little trouble but nothing he couldn’t handle. Toward the end of World War I, Benny settled in
Dallas, apprenticing himself to Warren Diamond. Seldom had ambition and opportunity been better matched.
Despite the smug, pious, self-righteous image that
Dallas had courted for the past half-century, there has always been a lascivious twinkle in the old girl’s eye. For most of her history, in fact,
Dallas was a wide-open town. Her power daddies in the thirties and forties, particularly downtown bankers Bob Thornton and Fred Florence, not only tolerated vice, they competed with
Fort Worth publisher Amon Carter to see which town could be the most wicked.
Dallas landed the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration because of its reputation as a swinging town.
Though gambling was technically illegal, the systematic revenues it generated helped sustain city government and, in a curious way, helped forestall corruption. Bribes in
Dallas during Binion’s reign were infrequent, usually in the form of personal loans to cops whose families had fallen on bad times. The true unit of exchange wasn’t money but information and influence. Benny wanted a rival shut down, he called Sheriff R. A. “Smoot” Schmid or deputy sheriff Bill Decker, his longtime friend and the lawman who really ran
Dallas for most of three decades. Decker wanted some character run out of town, he called Benny. Rather than bribing individual cops, Binion and other gamblers cheerfully paid regular fines. Two times each week, an officer from the vice squad visited all the gambling houses and did a head count of customers. The next morning the gambling-house operators, or their attorneys, marched down to city hall, pleaded guilty, and paid fines of $10 a head. The charade was basically a taxing and licensing procedure, the perfect compromise