Benny Binion was many things: a cowboy, a pioneering casino owner, a gangster, a killer, and founder of the hugely successful World Series of Poker.
Blood Aces tells the story of Binion’s crucial role in shaping modern Las Vegas. From a Texas backwater, Binion rose to prominence on a combination of vision, determination, and brutal expediency. His formula was simple: run a good business, cultivate the big boys, kill your enemies, and own the cops.
Through a mix of cold-bloodedness, native intelligence, folksiness, and philanthropy, Binion became one of the most revered figures in the history of gambling, and his showmanship, shrewdness, and violence would come to dominate the Vegas scene.
Veteran journalist Doug J. Swanson uses once-secret government documents and dogged reporting to show how Binion destroyed his rivals and outsmarted his adversaries—including J. Edgar Hoover.
As fast paced as any thriller, Blood Aces tells a story that is unmatched in the annals of American criminal justice, a vital yet untold piece of this country’s history.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||13 MB|
|Note:||This product may take a few minutes to download.|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
SNIDES AND DINKS:
We was all grifters in those days. All we had was grift sense.
He came from nothing, or the nearest thing to it. The son of Alma Willie and Lonnie Lee Binion, he was born in Pilot Grove, Texas, on November 20, 1904. The Binions lived in a drafty clapboard house, where they sweated through the furnace heat of rainless North Texas summers and shivered in the winter as the north wind whipped over the Red River. They weren’t the poorest people around, but hardly the richest, and the family took in boarders when money was tight. At night, in shadowed rooms lit by candles and flickering oil lamps, the paying guests could hear endless coughing through the walls: young Lester Ben Binion, a round-faced boy with blond girlish curls, had pneumonia five times before he was five. As he lay in his bed, gripped by fever and chills, he sometimes crept perilously close to death. His sickliness may have been his first great stroke of luck.
Like dozens of small towns scattered across the rolling blackland prairie, this one was destined to vanish. Originally called Lick Skillet, it was a place of bloodshed, hard living, and ill fortune from its founding. Even after being christened with a more pastoral name, Pilot Grove scratched by as a cotton and cattle town, as close to Oklahoma as to Dallas, and a long way from anywhere. Its main street, part of an old stagecoach route, was a dirt road that gave up clouds of gray dust or bogged carriage wheels in mud, depending on the misery of the season.
Many of the town’s early settlers—the Binions among them—had arrived on wagons after the Civil War, and some brought the war’s vestigial agonies with them. Thick woods nearby, which had been a perfect hideout for war deserters and other fugitives, now teemed with unreconstructed Confederates nursing their bitterness. Newcomers tended to be Union sympathizers, and it made for a deadly mix. There were raids and ambushes from both sides, and gunfights in broad daylight. The town doctor treated one of the wounded rebels, an act of mercy that so enraged one of the unionists that he murdered the doctor. One frosty morning in 1871, the leader of the Union League stepped from his house to retrieve some firewood when two rebels, who had been hiding in trees all night, shot him dead.
A few good, relatively peaceful years boosted the town’s population to about two hundred, then came the withering. Pilot Grove’s post office was shuttered the year Ben was born. When he was four, on a May evening, a line of boiling storms rolled in from the west with a blast of wind and cascades of thunder that shook the walls. Just after dark, a lightning bolt struck Sloan’s general store, and the wooden building caught fire. Flames, whipped by the gales of the storm, leaped to the barbershop, the drugstore, the blacksmith’s barn, and another general store. Townspeople could do little more than watch in escalating desperation, with firelight dancing over horrified faces. Pilot Grove had no fire department, no fire wagon, no way even to spray water on the flames. At sunrise the town’s commercial district lay in char and ashes, with only the hotel and one store standing.
Disaster was heaped upon catastrophe as drought and plunging prices destroyed the cotton market. Still, a farmer who had a mule and a plow could coax a living from the land around Pilot Grove, but not much of one. The Binions were not exactly noble sons of the earth, which worked to their advantage. One of Ben’s grandfathers had operated a saloon. The other also owned some land, but he rented it out. One summer day, hot enough to force a retreat to a canopy of oak trees, young Ben crouched in the shade and watched as his grandfather leased acreage to a man named Kato. When their business was done, as Kato walked away, Ben’s grandfather decided it was time for a lesson. “That’s the best farmer I know,” he said.
The boy stared. His grandfather pointed to the worn patches on the seat of the farmer’s ragged overalls. “You see where his so-and-so’s been sticking out there?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Ben answered.
“Don’t ever stick a plow in the ground.”
End of lesson, and one that had apparently taken hold much earlier with Ben’s father, who did not favor tending crops or any other kind of steady work. Lonnie Lee Binion listed his occupation as stockman, which meant he spent most of his time as a wandering horse trader. When he did come home, he hit the bottle. “Kind of a wild man,” his son recalled. “Kind of a drunk.” Such qualities did not make for a father given to softheaded sentiment, even when considering a sick child. One day Lonnie Lee looked at the boy, turned to his wife, and said, “Well, he going to die anyhow. So I’m just going to take him with me.”
Off they rode on two mounts, he and his father, out of Pilot Grove and the drudgery of its cotton and sorghum fields, and into a world of renegades, grifters, hustlers, and highwaymen. Ben, at the age of ten, had spent little time in any classroom; after four years he was still in the second grade. This would be a different sort of school, and it gave him his life.
“There’s more than one kind of education,” Binion said decades later, “and maybe I prefer the one I got.”
• • •
In much of America, the early 1900s marked the Progressive Era, a time of economic growth, social gains, industrial expansion, and technological leaps. But not so much in Texas. With a few notable urban exceptions, the state remained remote, parochial, and in parts lawless. Barely a generation had passed since the Indian wars had ceased. A hurricane wiped away the state’s most cosmopolitan city, Galveston, in 1900. In all its great sweep, Texas had little in the way of heavy industry, and its only semblance of intellectual life was sequestered at a university or two, where it was regarded with suspicion, if not hostility. By even the most generous of estimates, Texas at the dawn of the twentieth century remained a full fifty years behind mainstream American development. Although patches of it had been conquered and settled in the previous decades, the vast land remained essentially unchanged. So, for the most part, did its people.
The roaders, as roving livestock merchants were called, had likewise failed to evolve much from the frontier days. Young Ben Binion—sometimes in the company of his father, sometimes not—became one of them. The traders with their strings of horses made their way over the rough trails and dirt roads of the Lone Star outback in clouds of dust and flies. They carried guns and lived out of wagons. In Europe, the Great War had started. The Panama Canal opened, and commercial air traffic began in this country. In the cities—even those in Texas—buildings were lit with electricity. But the roaders cooked their meals over open fires, bathed in shallow brown creeks, and moved from camp to camp, from settlement to farm to town, in search of more horseflesh deals.
Small hardscrabble farms of this time and place had little in the way of mechanization; mules or horses pulled the plows and wagons. Rare was the farmer who owned a tractor, rarer still one who had a truck or car. The horse trader, therefore, peddled an essential element of the farmer’s survival. At times the stock was swapped straight up, horse for horse. Usually, though, the farmer had to throw in “boot”—food, tobacco, or occasionally cash—to make the trade.
Young Ben Binion watched and learned. He proved especially adept at gauging a horse’s age by inspecting its teeth. “I was real good at it,” he said decades later, talking to a historian. “All them old guys I worked for, they let me do the mouthing of the mules, and horses, and everything, you see, while they was trading and talking.” When not mouthing the mules, Ben absorbed the primary lesson of this marketplace: how to deal, how to cheat, and how to avoid being cheated. The assumption was that if someone wanted to trade away a horse, that horse was defective. Everyone was out for the swindle, and he who swindled best, won.
“They had heaves in them days. They were wind-broke horses, and balkies,” Binion said, referring to equine respiratory disease. “They called them snides and dinks. So you’d have to give ’em medicine to shut the heaves down.” This medicine provided no cure; it merely masked the symptoms long enough to close a trade. There were other tried-and-true ways to hide infirmities. Wads of cotton, soaked in chloroform and stuffed in the nostrils of dangerously excitable horses, made them temporarily docile. Pebbles in the ear of a sluggard would transform it, for a while, into a frisky and energetic creature, prancing and shaking its head as if it were raring to go. A “sweeney” horse—one that had been so overworked that its muscles under the harness had collapsed—could be made to look instantly vibrant if the trader punctured the skin over the sagging parts and blew in air through a goose quill. “Some men were smart enough to detect it,” Binion said, “and some weren’t.”
A ditty of the era, “The Horse Trader’s Song,” captured the attitude of those on the tactics’ receiving end:
It’s do you know those horse traders,
It’s do you know their plan?
Their plan is for to snide you
And git whatever they can.
Sometimes the deception could be achieved simply through strategic staging. “Get a horse up on a kind of a high place, and get the man down on a low place, you know,” Binion said. “And if he had anything wrong with him, try to keep that turned away from the guy.” Not all valuable knowledge imparted to the boy had strictly to do with animals. “I learned a lot about people.”
He became the man of the family, returning home now and then, a twelve-year-old grown-up. “He was an adult his whole life,” his sister, Dorothy, once said. Trading balky livestock was no way to become wealthy, but it did pay for the family’s groceries. When not hustling horses, he sometimes hauled fuel for an uncle’s syrup mill in Pilot Grove. Then, back on the road, he found an even better way to make money.
• • •
In those years, nearly every county seat hosted monthly events known as trades days. Named for their spot on the calendar—First Monday, First Tuesday, and so on—trades days usually coincided with the arrival of the circuit-riding judge. They served as a combination of county fair, open-air market, and gathering of the rural tribes. For farmers and others in the hinterlands, they provided a monthly relief from lives of privation and isolation. The sodbusters and their families streamed in from the countryside, wagons loaded with the crops they intended to barter for dry goods and assorted services. Itinerant merchants brought everything from axle grease to snake oil. There were evangelists, buskers, blacksmiths, and rainmakers. On a typical First Monday in Dallas, the streets adjacent to the courthouse were nearly impassable with the crush of horses, wagons, and people. The air smelled of hay, manure, and sweat.
And down Houston Street, C. D. Tatum’s Bar beckoned to men in overalls and felt hats. Trades days offered opportunities for recreation not available back on the farm. One might buy whiskey, smokes, or a woman, and watch dogfights, cockfights, or human fights. Into this licentious mix came the traveling gamblers, who moved from town to town, hunting suckers at trades days like predators stalking a herd. Men could be found in the alleys and side streets, or in the wagon yards at night, rolling dice on a blanket spread over the dirt, or playing cards by lanterns and firelight. Teenage Ben Binion was right there with them.
“I kind of got in with the more of a gambling type of guy, you know, the—you might say the road gamblers,” he said. “And then I’d go around with them, you know, and I’d do little things for them. And they’d give me a little money, kind of kept me going . . . They was all pretty good men.”
Here he served his apprenticeship. “First, I learned to play poker,” Binion recalled. “And everybody had his little way of doing something to the cards, and all this, that and the other.” Marking cards and crimping them were among the most popular ways to gain an advantage. “So I wasn’t too long on wising up to that . . . All this time I’m kind of learning about gambling from these guys.”
Soon he became a “steer man,” a recruiter who wandered the trades-day towns after dark, hooking customers for the big game around the corner. “I just hustled, never did work,” he said. He stayed on the lookout for someone with money to lose, but also searched for something more. Binion described his mark: “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.”
Even as a young man, Binion didn’t gamble much. “I was never able to play anything, dice or cards or anything, myself. I was never a real good poker player,” he said. Instead, he was a partner—however junior—to the game’s operators. “Fact of business, from a early age, I was always kind of in, and just kind of on the top end of it.” Here he received his most valuable of lessons: that hot streaks come and go, that one good roll could feed a man for weeks and a bad one could destroy him. But the properly run house always turns a profit.
• • •
The youthful Ben became known more rakishly as Benny Binion about the time he headed for El Paso, in far West Texas, around the age of eighteen. He went to El Paso because he had cousins there, but he soon discovered he had landed in a place well suited to his abilities and instincts. This was one of the country’s great snake pits of smuggling.
Under Prohibition, liquor was then illegal in El Paso, as in the rest of the country. But bootleg booze—and drugs—proved far easier to obtain along the border than many other places. All the Texas importer had to do was cross the muddy, shallow Rio Grande into rollicking Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, load his wagon with whiskey, and bring it back home to sell. In the process he had to evade bands of Mexican thieves on one side of the river, and roving hijackers and American agents on the other. A fevered newspaper dispatch from El Paso described the face-off: “The brains of Texas Rangers and an army of federal customs officials and narcotic and liquor agents” were “pitted against the endless ingenuity of international smugglers in as thrilling a battle for supremacy as the romantic and adventurous days of a half century ago ever knew.” The story added that “this battle of wits” makes “the plots of red-blooded fictionists seem dull and old fashioned.” Trains of pack mules bearing contraband champagne had been captured. A young man “disguised as a cripple” was caught hiding cocaine in his hollowed-out crutches. Other smugglers used the chest cavities of corpses, en route to their own funerals, to transport caches of morphine and opium.
The Texas Rangers, assigned by the governor to patrol the border, routinely fired on bands of so-called rumrunners, and the runners fired back. Many of the gunfights took place on or around Cordova Island, near Juárez. This was not an island at all, but a brushy 385-acre finger of Mexico poking into the American side of the Rio Grande, where the two sides took turns ambushing each other. A news report told of a typical encounter—a “pitched battle”—along the river: “Descending upon the rum-runners in speeding automobiles, the patrolmen mounted a fence near the Rio Grande. They were met with a fusillade of bullets from the rum-runners’ rifles. The fire was returned and two of the smugglers were seen to fall to the ground.”
Binion tried lawful work in El Paso, but—in this atmosphere—it didn’t stick. “He had a gravel wagon and some mules, and was spreading gravel on this parking lot for Model T Fords,” his son Jack recounted. “He figured out they were bootlegging out of the booth where you paid for your parking.” He procured his own stock of contraband whiskey. “And he’d come down and go to work about five in the evening. Some guy would come up and say he was looking for Joe, and Benny Binion would say, ‘I’ll take care of you,’ and sell them his own liquor.”
Binion was arrested for bootlegging at least once in El Paso and put in jail. “They made him a trusty,” Jack said. “One day they told him to go get judge so-and-so some liquor out of the evidence vault . . . Benny Binion went and made an imprint of the key. Sent it out and had a key made. Then he got the jailer drunk, and when the jailer went to sleep, he called up a friend with a truck, got some of the other trusties to help load it, and stole a truckload of liquor right out of the jail.”
Like many Binion family stories, this one has a deceptively winking, comical aspect to it. County records are gone, and all that remains are family recollections, which tend to paint Binion as an enterprising scamp with a heart of gold. “My dad was a happy, jolly man,” recalled his daughter Brenda Binion Michael. But Benny Binion roamed El Paso as a young gun in a violent place, launching a professional career of brutal strategies and heartless expediency. He once summed up this life with the declaration “I wasn’t to be fucked with.” When asked many years later about his El Paso days, Binion turned alternately boastful and reticent. “Hell, I didn’t need a bodyguard or a chaperone or guide or nothing,” he said. “I got to be known pretty fast.”
Known doing what? “Well,” he answered, “I’d just as soon not tell it.”
Teenage Ben Binion in a family photo.
THE BUMPER BEATER
I try to keep anybody from doing anything to me where it’ll cause any trouble. But if anybody does anything to me, he’s got trouble.
For reasons now lost, Binion felt a sudden urge to leave El Paso. He turned up six hundred miles away, in Dallas, at the age of nineteen. As he rolled into town, he no longer looked like a yokel who spent days on a horse, riding the range. This Benny Binion wore a dark suit, shiny cap-toed shoes, and a snap-brim fedora with a striped hatband. He stood a shade under six feet, and had a hustler’s glimmer in his eye. As he was to learn soon, the city offered wondrous opportunity for a young man with a spirit of larceny underpinned by a mind for business. “Dallas,” he said, “is one of the best towns that I ever seen.”
It is perhaps unfair to say that the city where Binion had come to make his bones was founded by a lunatic gunslinger. The man who first settled Dallas was, when he arrived in North Texas, still a few decades away from shooting someone or going crazy. Nor is it accurate to note that the pioneers who ran Dallas knew instantly how to make money from vice. That took them at least five years to figure out.
The city was born in 1841, when Texas was still a republic. It began as a simple trading post on a low, windy bluff along the narrow, murky, and sluggish Trinity River. John Neely Bryan, a Tennessee lawyer and occasional Indian trader, made camp on the bluff with a tent, a shaggy dog named Tubby, and pipe dreams of a thriving river port. Someone—maybe Bryan, maybe a settler who trickled in behind him—decided to call it Dallas. To this day, nobody knows why.
Bryan soon married and built a log cabin for his bride. Others homesteaded too, and within a few years a town had risen, with Bryan as its first postmaster. By 1846, Dallas had impaneled its first grand jury, which promptly indicted fifty-one men for gambling at the local saloon. They had been betting on, among other things, rat and badger fights. When it came time for trial, there weren’t enough unindicted citizens to fill a jury. At the courthouse—a ten-by-ten log structure—the solution was quickly engineered: After the first gambler was found guilty, he took his turn on the jury, and the juror he replaced stepped down to be tried. Next gambler, same story. Eventually all fifty-one convicted each other and fined themselves $10 apiece.
The Trinity River proved to be too full of snags and sandbars for boats to travel three hundred miles north to Dallas from the Gulf of Mexico. One paddle wheeler eventually made it all the way from Galveston, but the journey took a year and four days. So much for Bryan’s vision of a port. Nonetheless, by 1850, Dallas boasted a population approaching five hundred. Within a few more years, it had a hotel, a sawmill, and a carriage factory. Soon a high school was established, and the first circus—featuring one live elephant—came to town in 1859. A city was taking shape.
The great founder Bryan did not fare so well. He suffered from the effects of cholera, heavy drinking, and an erratic disposition, and wandered away from the town he founded. After a year of prospecting for gold in California failed to yield a fortune, Bryan returned to Dallas and shot a man who insulted his wife. Poor health and mental turbulence ended a brief stretch in the Confederate army. In 1877 he was admitted to the State Lunatic Asylum in Austin. He died there seven months later, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
A few decades after Bryan’s death, Dallas considered itself the commercial capital of Texas, “a city of skyscrapers, resounding with the roar of trade,” in one booster’s assessment. Its population exceeded 150,000 by the mid-1920s, and the twenty-nine-story Magnolia Building, the tallest in the South, had been finished downtown. Already a banking center, Dallas had a growing university, a branch of the Federal Reserve, and a major Ford plant. Conservative and insistently religious from the outset, the city presented itself as a prosperous, upright metropolis of unforgiving rectitude, the type of place where a man who stole a pearl necklace, a watch, and $21 in cash was sentenced to death. Yet for many years it also had—and openly tolerated—a place called Frogtown.
Also known as the Reservation, Frogtown looked like any other collection of hardware stores and barbershops on the edge of the central business district, but for the nearly naked young women draped in the doorways, calling to customers. Frogtown functioned as a freely accepted and legally sanctioned zone—via an ordinance by the city commission—for whorehouses. There were, by some estimates, four hundred women working there, though it was by no means the only place to find a prostitute in Dallas. One successful brothel operated out of a city-owned skating rink in Fair Park.
Police patrolled the Reservation; they simply didn’t arrest prostitutes, although one chief ordered the brothels to place screens over their doors so that activities inside weren’t visible from the street. The district attracted the notice of, among others, the appropriately named J. T. Upchurch, a preacher who had founded the Berachah Rescue Home for Fallen Girls, and who recorded his outrage in his periodical, the Purity Journal. “Some hundreds of girls are kept in this district as Slaves; Slaves to Lust, Licentiousness and Debauchery,” he wrote. “They are there to gratify the unbridled passion of beastly men and to produce a few grimy, bloody dollars for the lords of the underworld.” Upchurch may have been right about unbridled passion, but he misfired with his attack on the lords of the underworld. Even an outsider in town for a week could see the error in that.
In 1911 a Presbyterian minister from New York, Charles Stelzle, came to Dallas for a speaking engagement. A follower of the Social Gospel movement, which applied Christian ethics to social problems, Stelzle spent a few days wandering the city and taking notes. Then, before an audience of fifteen hundred at the Dallas downtown opera house—an ornate forum meant to replicate the great theatrical palaces of Europe—Stelzle condemned not just the fleshpots of Frogtown, but their landlords too. “What about the men who rent those houses?” Stelzle asked. “Do you know who owns them?” The crowd began to stir. “I have made investigation. Some are owned by some of your first citizens.” He thundered, “I have their names!”
The audience urged him on, but Stelzle refused to divulge his list. “Not on your life,” he demurred, and changed the subject. It was an open secret anyway. Chief among the brothel property owners was Dr. W. W. Samuell, a prominent physician and civic benefactor for whom a street, a park, and a high school in Dallas would come to be named.
Many people knew about this, but relatively few of them cared. After all, a Reservation landowner could easily net $50,000 a year on his investment. For Dallas, it was a matter of vigorous free enterprise trumping moral concerns. The city took much the same approach to whiskey.
• • •
July 12, 1929, was another day of hard summer heat in downtown Dallas: the midday sun like a blister in the washed blue sky, the air fouled with fumes from rattling Fords and Packards. Pedestrians cast small, hard shadows as they moved past the movie theater marquees. The Palace was showing the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts. And at the Melba—its slogan was “Always Healthfully Cool”—Dolores Costello “and a cast of 10,000” appeared in Noah’s Ark, a forgettable love story at sea. Matinee admission, 35 cents.
Streetcar bells clanged, and the Manhattan Café on Main Street was packed at lunchtime. The clock hanging over the sidewalk at the Dallas Trust and Savings Bank showed straight-up noon. Down the block, on the steps of the county courthouse, a crowd had gathered. A celebratory air prevailed as Sheriff Hal Hood prepared to order the destruction of five thousand gallons of forbidden whiskey. Hood, the latest in a considerable line of hapless county lawmen, had been humiliated into the act.
Prohibition had long been the law of the land, even longer in Dallas, which voted to ban liquor three years before the Eighteenth Amendment took effect. The local dry forces took pride in declaring they had shuttered more than 200 saloons and 150 stills. Yet whiskey flowed freely in many parts of the city, where drinks were as easy to acquire as whores had been in Frogtown. Police conducted the occasional crackdown, and sometimes made arrests, but such actions usually served merely to generate publicity and payoffs. So lax was enforcement that Collier’s magazine, a national publication out of New York, dispatched a writer to investigate. He found six places in a two-block stretch of downtown Dallas where he could buy liquor. “Regardless of its registered attitude in favor of strict enforcement of dry laws,” he wrote, “I know of no town more bold in its violation of them.”
Pretending to be outraged, Sheriff Hood immediately ordered his deputies to commence a series of raids. Like drinkers and magazine writers, his men had no trouble finding saloons. The basements of any number of downtown buildings had them—bare-bones affairs in many cases, with hand-lettered signs and hard chairs. Men drank from unlabeled amber bottles and rolled dice on the concrete floor between tiny, dark pools of tobacco spittle. Hood’s deputies moved in and seized hundreds of barrels of bootleg liquor.
Now the contraband would be dumped and order restored as the city cheered. By noon, the spectators overflowed the courthouse steps. Deputies removed their coats, revealing their galluses and holstered sidearms. Ladies from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, wearing long skirts and carrying Bibles, fanned themselves, watched, and prayed. Some sang hymns and gave thanks to God for this glorious occasion.
The deputies tapped the first barrel, then another. The kegs were turned on their sides and tilted at the edge of the curb, and the whiskey gurgled out. As bystanders pitched in, even more liquor splashed into the gutter. Vapors rose in the heat, the scent of sin ascending heavenward.
This was proving to be a beautiful and triumphant moment for Sheriff Hood, at least until someone lit a match and tossed it into the gutter. First came a great whoosh, then an eruption of blue flames. In seconds, downtown Dallas had a river of fire rolling down Main Street. There were screams and scrambles. The fire extended for several blocks, “a long blue blaze of intense heat,” in the words of one witness. The flames spread to the lot of the Fishburn Motor Company, and when at last the fire department arrived, more than twenty cars had been damaged or destroyed. Next time, vowed the embarrassed Hood, his men would pour sufficient water into the gutter along with the liquor.
Few believed there would be a next time. By the following week, the illegal saloons were back in business and as crowded as usual. Any man stepping off a streetcar in downtown Dallas could buy liquor on the corner. In fact, he could buy it from someone working for or with Benny Binion, who was just beginning the process of making himself into a racketeer.
• • •
For someone without an education, and not inclined to steady labor, bootlegging offered one of the best paths to riches. A 1925 study had shown the annual earnings of a Dallas bootlegger to be about $36,000, far surpassing that of many doctors and bank presidents. The bootlegger may have exceeded those men in prestige as well. To a legion of drinkers, who believed the government and the bluenoses had conspired against them, the whiskey man represented a blend of public servant and folk hero.
Binion, using an ever-expanding network of friends and family, quickly established himself as a middleman in the liquor trade, the modern-day equivalent of an importer-distributor. He staked out a commercial terrain between the hidden still in the country and the undercover saloon in town. Binion’s crew arranged for, transported, and protected the inventory, while tacking on a sizable markup.
In this endeavor he declared himself a failure. “I never did make no money bootlegging,” he said. “Every time I got ahold of any money, something’d happen, and I’d lose a bunch of whiskey or something, and just kept me poor as a church mouse, all the time.”
That’s not what the moonshiners believed. Most of Binion’s bootlegged corn liquor came from a network of stills hidden in the hardwood bottomlands of the Trinity River near Fairfield, ninety miles southeast of Dallas. Produced by Roger Young and his family, this whiskey even had a name: Freestone County Moonshine. The Youngs’ liquor was prized by drinkers for its potency and relative purity. It lacked adulterants such as lye, which caused a drinker’s lips to swell in terrible pain, and lead, which brought on the partial paralysis known as jake leg.
Though an average still could produce up to sixty gallons a week, the Youngs struggled to keep up with Binion’s growing business. On rare occasions when production ran ahead of demand, the Youngs wrapped gallon jugs of whiskey in burlap and buried them in a nearby cow pasture, a process they jokingly referred to as “aging.” With Binion as their primary cash customer, the Youngs became one of the wealthiest families in Freestone County. “They had more money down there than anybody,” a relative recalled. “They were rolling in money.”
Federal revenue agents generally did not present a problem, because the moonshiners bought off the county sheriff, who tipped them to impending raids. Bad weather, however, could shut down deliveries. Heavy rain turned the dirt roads of the bottomlands into impassable bogs, so the Youngs couldn’t get their liquor to the town of Corsicana, the usual rendezvous spot with Binion’s driver.
When the Youngs’ liquor wasn’t available, Binion bought Oklahoma hooch. “But the Oklahoma whiskey didn’t seem to be as good as the Freestone County whiskey,” Binion remembered. Other times, he trafficked in product smuggled from a real distillery, manufactured before Prohibition. “They had bonded whiskey, which cost more money to handle, and everything, and I never did too much of that. Just once in a while, I’d fool with a little bonded whiskey. But the bootlegging, to me, was never no good.”
Despite his disclaimers, Binion’s reputation among the illegal distilleries was that of a man of force and will. “Binion began to muscle in on whiskey operations,” a Dallas police report said, “and reportedly had gone into illegal whiskey plants and stated, ‘Everything that comes in between now and midnight is mine.’”
Raids and arrests happened infrequently, but they still presented a risk to Binion’s business. “Me and a guy by the name of Fat Harper, we got ahold of about $20,000 together, so we bought a lot of whiskey,” Binion recalled. They decided to keep some off the market in a warehouse owned by a man named Ward. “So we stored all this whiskey up in the warehouse when the weather was good to make a killing when the weather got bad and the whiskey’d go up.” But Ward fired an employee who got revenge by ratting to the police. “They came down there and arrested old man Ward and about thirteen people,” Binion said. “Didn’t get me and Fat, but we had to put up all the money to get them out. That whacked us out for sure.”
Even with the police mustering only occasional interest, Binion himself could not avoid arrest. “I got 60 days one time, and four months another time,” he said, though his record shows a $200 fine and a thirty-day sentence for violation of liquor laws.
After one collar for bootlegging, Binion faced up to five years in prison. But the judge was a friend of sorts. “I knew him and he knew me,” Binion said. “And he says, ‘You know, you’re supposed to go to the penitentiary.’ And I says, ‘Your honor,’ I said, ‘don’t sent me to the penitentiary,’ something to that effect. And he says, ‘Why?’ ‘Well,’ I says, ‘I’m not going to bootleg anymore.’” That wasn’t true, but it kept him out of the pen.
Beyond his bootlegging problems, Binion was in and out of other trouble in Dallas, but of minor consequence. In 1924 he was charged with tire theft, but not prosecuted. Later he was no-billed after a minor gambling arrest. A 1927 arrest for burglary and felony theft went unprosecuted. And a 1929 charge of aggravated assault was also dropped. That arrest appears to have stemmed from his reaction to a traffic accident in Dallas. As one of his sons told it much later, an unarmed Binion was attacked just after the wreck by more than a dozen men and—in a gladiatorial feat—ripped the bumper from his car and used it to defeat them one and all. “They kept coming,” son Ted said, “till there was fourteen of them with broken bones.” But the legend doesn’t quite match the facts, according to local newspaper reports, which said Binion used the damaged bumper from his car to strike just one person: the other driver, a middle-aged woman. For this, he became known to police as the Bumper Beater.
Because a large car part wasn’t always available, Binion usually employed more conventional protection. Dallas police twice arrested him as a young man for carrying concealed firearms—a pistol in one case, a sawed-off shotgun in another. The pistol got him sixty days.
• • •
The jail time didn’t stop him from carrying a gun. Having a piece in his pocket was an occupational necessity for a bootlegger, as Binion demonstrated on a warm, breezy October evening in 1931. He believed that another whiskey seller, a black man named Frank Bolding, had been stealing some of his liquor. The two of them met in the backyard of one of Binion’s safe houses, on Pocahontas Street in South Dallas, to talk the matter over.
“Me and him was sitting down on two boxes,” Binion recalled. “He was a bad bastard. So he done something I didn’t like and we was talking about it, and he jumped up right quick with a knife in his hand.”
The instinctive move for Binion would have been to jump up too. “Then he’d cut the shit out of me,” Binion said. “But I was a little smarter than that. I just fell backward off of that box and shot the sumbitch right there.”
Binion, in his later years, related other versions of the story. His son Ted told this one: “The guy hadn’t pulled the knife yet, even though he did have one . . . Dad felt like he was going to stab him.”
Whether or not the man brandished a blade, the result was indisputable: Bolding was shot in the throat. He fell to the ground, where he writhed and groaned. Binion stood over him and continued their discussion with, “I fooled you, didn’t I, you black son a bitch.” Neither Binion nor his crew sought a doctor for the wounded man, and within minutes he was dead.
Binion surrendered to authorities, claiming, “He come at me with a knife.” Even if that were false, a dead black bootlegger couldn’t excite much interest from the police, and it barely made the papers. Binion didn’t spend so much as a night in jail for the killing. Ultimately he pleaded guilty to murder, and received a two-year suspended sentence, allowing him to walk free. He probably could have escaped completely untouched by the courts had he pressed the matter. But the suspended sentence was a better bit of backscratching.
“I’ll tell you why,” he later said of his benign trip through the courthouse. “Bill McCraw was the district attorney. Me and him was goddamn good friends. He was gonna run for governor as DA. It looked kind of maybe bad if he’d just turned me loose . . . But I just—we just—decided I’d take a two-year suspended sentence to kind of make him look a little better, don’t you see, which we did.”
Not only was he a free man, Binion had a new nickname, thanks to his quick-draw dispatch of Bolding. Now everyone called him the Cowboy.
Benny Binion, an up-and-comer of Dallas vice, 1934.
PANCHO AND THE KLAN
Tough times make tough people.
Drinkers demanded a finished product, but suckers would pay for nothing but a chance. That’s why Binion considered liquor a mere stepping-stone. Soon he saw something that offered more promise than traffic in forbidden whiskey. He saw lucky numbers. “In about 1928 I opened up what they call a ‘policy,’” he said. This propelled him into a wider and more adventurous criminal world. And the profits were sensational.
The policy games were nothing more than simple lotteries in which players tried to pick three lucky digits. Each operator employed a team of runners, known as policy writers, who fanned out across town with sheets of numbers printed daily in red, green, and black. Players could bet a dime for a chance to win as much as $10. Winners were selected twice a day by the turning of the policy wheels. Some of the devices were actual spinning wheels, while others were small, rotating barrels from which the winning numbers were plucked. Operators set the odds and controlled the payouts, and applied the fix as necessary. It was a common practice for them to survey the bets, determine which numbers would make the house the most money, and maneuver to select those. With no oversight, they ensured their own handsome returns.
Policy operations stayed mobile to avoid raids and robberies. Not much equipment was needed—the wheel, a mimeograph to print tickets, and an adding machine to tally the proceeds. A game might spend time under bare lightbulbs in a sweltering room of a fleabag hotel before decamping to the smoky rear parlors of a side-street tavern. If operators got a tip that a raid was coming, they could pack up and be gone in minutes.
Though Binion had entered the policy business with some apprehension, it didn’t take long—about twelve hours—to see that he had strolled into a gold mine. “I started with fifty-six dollars,” he recalled. “The first day I made eight hundred dollars.” Even at its best, bootlegging never offered margins like that. A career was born.
• • •
Policy games operated under a strict racial structure: the owners were white and the customers were not. This represented a sizable base of potential gamblers; more than thirty thousand blacks now lived in Dallas. Some of them were descendants of the slaves brought to Texas to work the cotton fields before the Civil War. Others had fled the exhausted timberlands and spent farms of East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. They generally filled the low end of the employment scale, as porters, maids, elevator operators, dishwashers, and other common laborers. They took, in other words, jobs that whites would not do.
The white citizenry of Dallas tended to view the policy business with condescension and ridicule. “The policy game is mainly supported by Negroes to whom a $10.50 return on a 10-cent investment is big money,” the Dallas Morning News offered. The Daily Times Herald took it further in a front-page story that began this way: “‘Cullud folks jus’ gotta gamble—if’n they ain’t nothin’ else to bet on, they gonna bet on which way a bird fly when he leave off sittin’, so there you is.’ This, with a sheepish grin, constituted the most lucid answer the shambling Negro could give to a question which was asked ten of his race as they walked past city hall.”
The same story allowed the head of the Dallas police vice squad to offer his own theory. “Negroes just have to bet,” Captain Max Doughty said. “Their gambling instincts seem to be much more thoroughly developed than those of whites.” This ignored the fact that within a one-mile radius of the police station there were at least a dozen illegal dice rooms patronized by whites.
The captain’s attitude was hardly unusual. From its earliest days, Dallas had looked north in its moneyed aspirations and west in its frontier temperament. But in its race relations, it turned to the Old South. The town recorded its first lynchings in 1860, when three slaves were hanged after a raging fire destroyed most of the business district. It didn’t matter that no credible evidence linked the three men to the blaze. As one member of the Dallas “vigilance committee” explained, they were probably innocent but “somebody had to hang.” It could have been worse. Some of the vigilantes favored killing every black person in the county.
After the Civil War, and for the next nine decades, Dallas imposed stark segregation, with separate schools, health clinics, and parks. Municipal ordinances designated some neighborhoods white or Negro. At one point a city councilman proposed a law restricting Negro pedestrians to certain streets.
For the most part, blacks lived in the southern half of town, a squalid and—in low sections—flood-prone expanse of shanties lining unpaved roads. There were several handsome and well-tended neighborhoods of strivers and black professionals in southern Dallas, but they represented the exception. More than three-fourths of the dwellings in that part of the city were considered substandard. Most of those substandard houses had no running water. Half lacked gas or electricity. Fully one-fourth, a 1925 housing survey found, were “unfit for human habitation.” Segregation did allow one loophole: a few thousand Dallas blacks were permitted to live in wealthy white neighborhoods. They were the domestics who occupied the servants’ quarters of the well-to-do.
As was the case in many American cities, the Ku Klux Klan had a stranglehold on Dallas and its officials for much of the 1920s. A traveler stepping off a train at downtown’s Union Station might, if he timed it right, be greeted by the Klan’s fifty-member drum corps in white hoods and robes. For a time, the State Fair of Texas, which was held in Dallas, observed an annual Klan Day. Many of the most powerful men in the city, from the police commissioner to influential clergy, were KKK members or supporters, which allowed the Klan to operate as it pleased. And it pleased the Klan to terrorize black people.
In 1921, a group of Klansmen grabbed a young black man from his home, put a rope around his neck, and drove him to a secluded spot south of town. The Klansmen did not lynch him. Instead, they whipped the man—twenty-five bloody lashes across his back with a bullwhip—and burned the letters KKK into his forehead with acid. Despite a detailed account of the attack published in the Times Herald, with the reporter as an eyewitness, authorities refused to investigate. “As I understand the case,” county sheriff Dan Harston, a Klansman, said, “the Negro was guilty of doing something which he had no right to do . . . He no doubt deserved it.” The man’s offense: a consensual liaison at the Adolphus Hotel with a white woman.
Nothing could incite the city’s passions like blacks killing whites, as seen when Lorenzo and Frank Noel were arrested in 1925 for a series of murders and rapes. The brothers were accused of attacking white couples parked in a lovers’ lane. Headlines called them the “Black Terrors.” As news of the Noels’ arrest spread, a crowd gathered outside the Dallas County Jail. By midnight, it had grown to a mob of five thousand. They threw bricks and rocks, and some tried to break through police lines and into the jail. Firemen blasted the rioters with water. When that didn’t work, deputies fired into the crowd, fatally wounding an eighteen-year-old white bystander. The mob was repulsed, and the brothers were later able to stand trial. A jury—all white—took two minutes to find them guilty, and they were executed about six weeks later.
Someone like Binion—a poorly educated man with country roots and no great aversion to violence—might have been expected to embrace the KKK. But instead, the budding policy-wheel titan distanced himself from the Klan. “I don’t believe,” he explained, “in hanging my customers.”
• • •
The sweet spot for Binion and his policy bagmen was Deep Ellum, a teeming black neighborhood of two- and three-story brick storefronts and narrow sidewalks east of downtown. Offering all manner of temptations, the district had inspired the song “Deep Ellum Blues,” which included the lyrics “Once I knew a preacher, preached the Bible through and through / He went down in Deep Ellum, now his preaching days are through.”
Deep Ellum had the Cotton Club, the Harlem movie house, and the Gypsy Tea Room. Hotel rooms went for 25 cents a night. The Wish-I-Wish Company on Central Avenue sold lucky mojo bags and mystic oils for aid in commerce or love. “Down on ‘Deep Ellum’ in Dallas, where Central Avenue empties into Elm Street is where Ethiopia stretches forth her hands,” J. H. Owens, a columnist for the Dallas Gazette, wrote in the 1930s. “It is the one spot in the city that needs no daylight saving time because there is no bedtime, and working hours have no limits. The only place recorded on earth where business, religion, hoodooism, gambling and stealing goes on at the same time without friction.” That was the African American version. A white writer of the day put it this way: “Under the veneer of civilization and custom there runs in Deep Ellum the undercurrent of jungle law.”
Binion’s operations were headquartered at the Green&White Café, 2400 Elm Street, owned by one of his lieutenants, Ivy Miller. Like Binion, Miller tended to pull his gun at the first sign of trouble. Miller, who was white, once ended a scuffle among black patrons at his café by shooting one of the fighters—a woman—in the stomach, an action for which police declined to charge him. “It’s not his way,” a glowing newspaper account observed, “to allow negroes to pull off scraps on his premises.”
Binion’s second-in-command was Harry Urban, a fellow operative from his bootlegging network. “Urban was at that time generally regarded by the local police department as a pimp, and his wife, Billie Urban, was his prostitute,” a law enforcement report said. They made an odd pair—the perpetually disheveled Binion alongside the habitually dapper Urban, a cosmopolite by Dallas standards who would later in his criminal career own a pair of Cadillacs that had custom-made holsters next to the driver’s seat.
The policy games bore enticing names: Hi-Noon, Grand Prize, Gold Mine, Silver Dollar. From the Green&White, Binion’s captains—white men with monickers like Jelly and Fivecoat—dispatched black runners to find customers, and return with betting slips and bags bulging with coins. The bagmen also sold “dream books” to bettors. If a gambler dreamed of thunderstorms, for example, these guides would tell him which numbers to pick. A dream of zebras meant different numbers. Binion’s runners collected a 25 percent commission on their sales, which was considered generous. But when one bagman tried to pocket some extra cash, Binion dealt with him—and sent a hard message to his other runners—by putting a pencil through the man’s eye.
Here was the paradox that marked Benny Binion, now and for the rest of his years. He was brutal when he had to be and beneficent when the opportunity arose. He also understood that love engendered loyalty, while fear instilled discipline, but together they conveyed a singular power that could elevate and enshrine. Binion’s policy operations fleeced the blacks of Dallas without mercy, and he employed mayhem as he saw fit. Yet years later, a prominent black Dallas physician, Emerson Emory, recalled his father’s work as a runner for the Cowboy with deep affection. “I remember the pride that my father showed whenever he collected his small earnings, the result of miles of walking in the community,” Emory said. “I remember the trucks, laden with apples and oranges that Mr. Binion had parked next to the policy shack behind the old State Theater during the Christmas season. Sometimes the fruit was the only gift the neighborhoods would receive from Santa.”
• • •
Even as his policy business thrived, Binion remained a relatively small player in the hierarchy of Dallas vice. Police regarded him and his peers as little more than second tier, but he aspired to something greater. He wanted to be like Warren Diamond.
Originally a pharmacist, Diamond had matured into a felonious patrician, known as a sportsman in polite circles. Binion remembered him as “the first big dice fader I ever knew.” A fader was someone who covered other dice rollers’ bets.
Diamond had begun his gambling business in a wagon yard on Camp Street, near downtown Dallas. It was a primitive setup, with the wagering made among the dirt and the horses. A wooden stockade fence surrounded the yard, keeping the police out until some deputies sneaked in by hiding inside a covered wagon. They shut the operation down and arrested Diamond.
Convicted of “keeping premises for the purpose of gaming,” Diamond got two years in state prison. When released, he upgraded his business, setting up shop in the St. George Hotel, a workingman’s lodging—a single room with a bath was $8.75 a week—near the Dallas County courthouse. Now he had moneyed partners, employed sufficient muscle to keep the peace, and controlled an operation that generated enough cash to make payoffs. Diamond soon owned a mansion in the town’s finest neighborhood.
Binion spent much of his time hanging around the St. George operation, picking up odd jobs, parking cars, and catching a few stray pieces of the action. What he was really doing was watching and learning. “Warren Diamond was as fine a man as I ever knew,” Binion said—a generous patron, always a soft touch for the down-and-out or the sick, especially the sick. “He was a big giver like that,” Binion said.
Diamond also established a policy of taking any bet, no matter how big. “He opened up a Do and Don’t dice game with no limit,” Binion said, speaking of a common craps game. “A fellow came in there and threw an envelope on the line and said, ‘Diamond, I’m going to make you look.’” But Diamond didn’t flinch, and he didn’t look. He just said, “Pass him the dice.”
With all eyes on him, the man rolled. “He shot the dice, and caught a point and missed it,” Binion said. “And they opened the envelope and there’s a hundred and seventy-two one-thousand-dollar bills in it. That was the biggest shot I ever heard of. And I know it to be true because I was in the hotel lobby at the time it happened.”
Binion never forgot this strategy of accepting bets of all sizes. In addition, Diamond—with his style, daring, and business acumen—presented Binion with the closest thing to a father figure he ever knew. “I guess a kid just wants to kind of pattern after some guy like that, you know,” Binion said. “I admired him very much.” That understated the case. “Warren Diamond was Dad’s idol,” said Binion’s daughter Brenda.
By the early 1930s, however, Diamond often absented himself from the games at the St. George. He was fifty-five and had prostate cancer, so he spent much of his time seeking treatment at retreats and at medical clinics. When not in bed, he supervised the construction of his tomb. Diamond had seen a granite, columned mausoleum that he admired in Connecticut; he commissioned one like it for himself back home. With an interior of bronze, brass, and Italian marble, it cost $65,000, far more than most houses.
And soon he was ready for it. Diamond lay in bed at St. Paul’s Sanitarium in Dallas. He had been told he had no hope of recovery, and his pain had become unbearable. He asked the nurse for his clothes and called a cab from his room. Diamond left the hospital, struggled into the taxi, and told the driver to take him home. The ride to 4224 Armstrong Parkway took no more than fifteen minutes.
His wife met him at the door. He walked past her and made a slow climb of the stairs. Then he shuffled into the second-floor bathroom, put an automatic pistol to his head, and shot himself dead.
Binion grieved the loss of his mentor, but he put his sadness away and thought of the opportunity now in front of him. “I don’t miss nothing after I leave it,” he said much later. “Make the best out of every situation.”
• • •
Such resilience marked Binion’s character throughout his life, yet there were some hard breaks from which he couldn’t walk away blithely and unbent.
One of his partners in those days was another young man who had fled the fields of Pilot Grove—his younger brother, Jack. While Benny had his boisterous moments—he liked to blow off steam by stepping into the street and firing his pistol into the air—Jack took the free-spirited approach even higher. Benny liked horses, but Jack preferred motorcycles. “He’d laugh about how his little brother could whip him,” Benny’s daughter Brenda remembered. This didn’t spring from Jack’s brute strength so much as pure wildness.
Benny tended to pursue his criminal interests with at least some deliberation and planning. When Jack needed money, he grabbed it, with abandon, wherever possible. At one point he and a like-minded criminal stormed an East Dallas house in which they believed four men had a stash of bootlegging proceeds. The two failed to tie down, or shoot, one of the witnesses, who escaped and called the police. Jack and his friend robbed the occupants, ransacked the house, and fled the scene as officers arrived. Police fired a shotgun at their car, hitting Jack in the head. He lived, but he lost an eye. That was the extent of his punishment, for charges against him were later dropped. After all, the men he had robbed were black.
Months later, on a crisp winter afternoon, a single-engine Stinson Detroiter took off from Love Field with three men aboard. The Stinson banked to the southeast and headed toward White Rock Lake, the city’s main reservoir. For several miles the stunting pilot kept the plane no more than twenty feet above the ground, dropping it even lower in clearings, buzzing cars and trucks, then barely clearing rooftops and power lines. A watchman at the White Rock Lake pump station stared in amazement as the plane emerged from between the trees lining the reservoir. Over the open water, it seemed almost to be skimming the sun-dappled surface. No more than a hundred feet from shore, as the pilot executed a series of sharp turns, a wing clipped the water and tore from the fuselage. The rest of the plane tumbled upside down, plunged into the shallow lake, and plowed into the muddy bottom. All three men aboard were killed. One of them was twenty-three-year-old Jack Binion.
He was buried a few days later in the family cemetery in Pilot Grove. The loss consumed his mother, and she would be dead of a stroke in seven months at the age of forty-nine. “She grieved herself to death,” Binion said.
Binion, too, deeply mourned Jack’s death, and then the heartbreak compounded: Jack’s wife was pregnant when he died, but “she decided not to have the baby,” Brenda Binion Michael said. After the abortion, “Dad never spoke to her again.”
He took his brother’s clothes and carefully folded them into a trunk. Binion kept them with his own possessions for the next thirty years. And when his first son was born, Binion named him for his brother.
• • •
As he returned to Dallas from his brother’s funeral, Binion faced a shifting landscape. Diamond’s death had created chances for expansion, and Binion’s head was full of plans. He also had a pressing personal concern, and it arose from the whiskey trade. Hilliard Henderson, who ran a downtown Dallas pharmacy, operated a bootlegging business on the side. Some of his stash had been stolen, and Henderson asked Binion to track down the thieves.
Binion never found them, but he discovered something else: the bootlegging druggist had a beautiful daughter. Teddy Jane Henderson was a tiny ballerina, barely five feet tall, with long brown hair. She was only sixteen, but she and Binion fell in love and talked of marriage. If you marry Benny Binion, Teddy Jane’s mother told her, you’ll spend the rest of your life living in hotels above some kind of gambling game. That didn’t stop her. On October 2, 1933, Teddy Jane hopped in a car with Binion and drove 110 miles north, across the Red River to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where a sixteen-year-old girl could marry a twenty-eight-year-old man with no waiting and few questions asked. Back in Dallas, they settled into an apartment on Cedar Springs Boulevard. Within four months, Teddy Jane was pregnant.
Their daughter Barbara was born on October 23, 1934, and if Binion was not an ever-present father, he proved himself sufficiently protective. Baby Barbara contracted whooping cough, and spent many sleepless nights in endless fits of coughing and crying. The upstairs neighbors complained to the landlord about the noise. When Binion learned of his neighbors’ distress, he told the landlord not to worry, that he would address the problem himself. That evening Binion waited in his apartment until he heard the neighbors’ footfalls upstairs. He pulled his handgun and began firing into the ceiling. When they fled to the next room, he moved under them and fired some more.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The Happy Racketeer 1
Part 1 The Roll of the Dice: 1904-1946 5
1 Snides and Dinks: An Education 7
2 The Bumper Beater 17
3 Pancho and the Klan 27
4 Good Friends and a Dead Rival 39
5 The Thug Club 49
6 Shoot-Outs and Payoffs 61
7 The Mob War Is Joined 71
8 "Lit Out Running" 81
Part 2 Death and Taxes: 1947-1953 91
9 Mobbed-Up Pilgrims 93
10 Texas Vs. Vegas 105
11 "A Kill-Crazy Man" 119
12 "Tears Rolling Down the Man's Eyes" 135
13 The Benny Brand Goes National 147
14 The Cat's Last Days 159
15 "They Was on the Take" 175
16 "No Way to Duck" 187
17 The Great Bonanza Stakeout 197
18 "Whacked Around Pretty Good" 213
Part 3 The Ride Back Home: 1954-1989 221
19 The Fireman Gets Religion 223
20 Strippers and Stooges 233
21 Charlie, Elvis, and the Revolution 243
22 Another One Blows Up 255
23 Heroin and the Hit Man 267
24 U-Turn at the Gates of Heaven 277
25 "They Do Things Like That" 289
26 Happy Birthday, Dear Benny 299
Epilogue: Back in the Saddle 307
Selected Bibliography 335
What People are Saying About This
“Technically, a biography, but it reads like the best kind of crime drama—where you find yourself rooting for the bad guy.”—The Daily Beast
“[A] slam-bang thrill ride of a biography.... Mr. Swanson, an ace investigative reporter who writes with a pulp-fiction swagger just right for his story’s cuttroat anti-hero, is above all a historian who fixes Benny Binion in the context of his times.... The World Series of Poker now takes place not at the Horseshoe but in the impersonal and cavernous convention halls of the Rio Hotel.... It is somehow reassuring to know ‘Blood Aces’ will keep alive the story of how the great spectacle came to be, and of the violent man who dreamed it up.”—Peter Alson, The Wall Street Journal
“If Binion had shuffled the deck himself, the beneficent, sometimes brutal gangster with the cocky grin and country twang couldn’t have been dealt a more winning hand than born storyteller Swanson as biographer.... Swanson, who got interested in Binion while covering the gambler’s World Series of Poker, presents an especially well-crafted, fastidiously vetted and fun-to-read account complete with Benny-isms.... For a book with a high body count, it’s full of history, humor and little-known facts.”—Austin American-Statesman
“A hard-edged history lesson about a Las Vegas casino man and his family in the days before our corporate media marketing when into overdrive.”—Las Vegas Review Journal
“A book that’s practically crying out to become a feature film. Binion would be quite memorable in it as a cowboy-hat-wearing version of Don Vito Corleone or Tony ‘Scarface’ Montana.”—Fort Worth Star Telegram
“Laugh-out-loud funny—odd, since it’s about a semi-illiterate gangster who left a trail of dead bodies from Dallas to Las Vegas. But Benny Binion was in many ways a true visionary, even if his methods and materials were far from ethical.... [Swanson] does a bang-up job with this book.... Names of famous people who knew and liked Benny Binion pop up like weeds on the pages of this highly readable biography. He wasn’t a nice guy at all, but he remains a legend.”—Fort Worth Weekly
“Fascinating, not only as a biography of a Las Vegas business icon but as a look at how the city operated in its golden era of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s... Blood Aces has a true-crime feel, but to describe it as such gives it short shrift. It’s deeper than that.... In a way, it’s like Binion himself. The small-town Texan spoke and acted like a hick, with rumpled shirts and too-short ties. But the persona hid a complex, intelligent and, yes, infamous man.”—Las Vegas Sun Review
“Binion’s name has floated around the edge of the history of Texas, Las Vegas and organized crime for decades, but Swanson is the first to put all the pieces together.... A cracking good biography, courtesy of a writer who writes the way Binion lived: fast and on the money.”—Allan Barra, The Dallas Morning News
“Swanson captures his subject in all his antiheroical glory, uncovering sordid tales of fast living, corruption, and even murder.”—Charleston City Paper
“If the late Benny Binion’s life was ever to be made into a movie, now with Sam Peckinpah long gone, the rightful heir to what amounts to a biographical gold mine should fall to Quentin Tarentino. If and when that movie does get made, let’s hope the masterful film director bases his first script on the new book written by Doug J. Swanson.... Where author Swanson excels is in the juicy narrative, which is not only a page-turner filled with anticipation, but an often wickedly funny guilt trip for the reader. Explosions, shotgun blasts, and cold-blooded murders become moments of belletristic beauty.”—Nolan Dalla
“[A] rollicking biography... A great piece of narrative nonfiction that reads like, well, a great crime novel. When Las Vegas gets its faux Mt. Rushmore (and can that day be far off?), Benny’s mug will be there, right alongside Bugsy’s.”—Booklist, starred review
“Armchair detectives and other aficionados of the history of thug culture in America will feel a warm glow of assurance at the first few paragraphs of Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker....[Swanson] brings new credibility to the subject without trying too hard to mythologize him and, wisely, without trying to make him seem likable. No one ever said you have to be likable to be interesting.”—The Austin Chronicle
“Fans of other gangster histories will likely be intrigued by Binion’s arc.... The later sections of the book will be of interest to poker fans, as Binion retreats to Sin City to buy casinos and accidentally creates a legacy when he founds the World Series of Poker as a promotional stunt.... An entertaining and provocative portrait of a man whose dichotomies were largely a product of the violent times in which he thrived.”—Kirkus
“Prepare to meet one of the great unknown crime kingpins in American history: Benny Binion, a semi-literate, grammar-murderin’, Stetson-and-boots-wearin’ Texas hick who presided over an underworld of cowboy gangsters every bit as unique, lethal, and compelling as the Cosa Nostra. In Blood Aces, Doug J. Swanson has written a terrific, propulsive account of a man and a subculture I can virtually guarantee you know little or nothing about. This is dazzlingly original stuff, and it’s entertaining as hell.”—S.C. Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon
“What happens in Vegas... starts in Dallas? Welcome to the world of Benny Binion, the cowboy with a second-grade education who helped create Sin City and laid the groundwork for modern-day spectator poker. Steeped in lore and backed by meticulous research, Doug Swanson’s Blood Aces gives readers an intimate and in-depth look at a key era in the history of American capitalism. You may have heard of Bugsy, Lansky and Cohen, but welcome to the Wild West of gambling populated by folks like Ice Pick, Horse Face and The Human Clay Pigeon. Prepare to be Binionized.”—Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City
“Doug Swanson is one terrific reporter and writer. In Blood Aces, he delivers not just the facts, ma'am, but an appalling yet wickedly humorous portrait of the Godfather of Glitter Gulch, a warm-hearted family man and cold-blooded killer who pioneered Vegas odds-making and launched the World Series of Poker.”—James McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street and Cowboys Full
“Blood Aces shines a rare spotlight into the American city that is singularly emblematic of unfettered political corruption. Swanson captures the hidden history of Las Vegas, whose outsize culture of greed draws unmistakable parallels with the nation at large. A compelling narrative full of outlandish characters, Blood Aces is a fast-paced read as enlightening as it is shocking.”—Sally Denton, author of The Money and the Power
“Blood Aces delivers the best of everything—a tale of two cities (Dallas and Las Vegas), a primer on the history and nuances of gambling (poker and dice, especially) and, above all, the many adventures of the one and only Benny Binion, who could charm or kill with equal ease. It’s a fascinating slice of colorful Americana delivered with insight and sly humor by Doug J. Swanson, one of the best historian/storytellers around. Unlike Binion’s crooked cons, Blood Aces is a sure thing for every reader.”—Jeff Guinn, author of the New York Times bestseller Manson
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Blood Aces is Too Good to Not Be a Novel But it is all too true. I have believed for for more than a few years that Doug Swanson and the late Howard Swindle have been the best writers working in Dallas in recent times. I had tended to give Howard a slight edge until this book came out last week. Doug has surpassed the accomplishments of our late colleague Howard and his own previous work with Blood Aces. The writing is more than outstanding and the story of Benny Binion is astonishing and exceptionally well told. I expect it to soon be a New York Times bestseller, because its that good.