A Lot More Blood than Aces

Posted by Ellis Shuman, August 20, 2014

blood aces benny binionThe story of American gambling icon Lester Ben "Benny" Binion is related in the biography Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker by Doug J. Swanson (Viking Adult, August 2014). There is a lot more blood than aces in this tale of the man who not only put Las Vegas on the gambling map, but also created the World Series of Poker.

Binion, born in Texas in 1904, is lovingly described at one point as a "moonfaced portly middle-aged casino owner in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, with a couple of loaded handguns in his pockets and another in his boot." As one of his friends stated, "You couldn't keep from liking him."

But the Binion who comes alive on these pages is not exactly a likeable character. He is also described as a "rube savant who fueled his rise by manipulating, charming, intimidating, and murdering as needed, with more than a few pauses for self-mythologizing."

As the great poker player Doyle Brunson once said, "No one in his right mind messed with Benny Binion."

Blood Aces follows Binion's career as he rose to become the king of the Dallas gambling scene. There was always someone on Binion's tail, whether it was opposing gangsters, the local police, the FBI, or the Internal Revenue Service. Binion, who did serve time in prison on lesser charges, was apparently behind a string of murders, but a 1931 conviction only led to a two-year suspended sentence. Binion was a target of investigations his entire life; one of them was ongoing at the time of his death in Las Vegas at age 85 in December, 1989.

Many people, including Bugsy Siegel, can be credited for bringing gambling to Las Vegas, but Binion certainly played a major role. In 1951 he opened Binion's Horseshoe casino, which became quite popular among high roller gamblers. "With the Horseshoe's opening, Binion had shaken his Texas refugee status and secured a place of triumph. Years later he would routinely be referred to as the king of gambling in Vegas."

Photo credit: Binions Horseshoe, VasenkaPhotography, CC BY 2.0,

As Binion once said, "I'm just a gambler. I'm not a businessman."

But Binion certainly had a keen business sense when he led a hand to the creation of the great Horseshoe poker battle between Nick "the Greek" Dandalos" and Johnny Moss. This 1949 matchup lasted five months. "Back and forth went Moss and the Greek, for days, weeks, like two great armies seizing then ceding territory."

The crazy match may not even have actually occurred, Swanson writes. "No definite proof exists, one way or the other." Yet, it definitely created a buzz and Vegas came alive with "talk of the big poker game at the Horseshoe."


The creation of the World Series of Poker

Poker fans will be eager to read how that legendary match, as well as the Texas Gamblers Reunion in 1969, led to the creation of the World Series of Poker. People probably thought Binion was crazy, as "poker contests generally didn't offer much as a spectator experience." The Binion's Horseshoe casino didn't even have a poker room at the time.

The first World Series of Poker in 1970, organized according to Binion's vision, was a gathering of poker superstars, including Moss, Brunson, and Amarillo Slim Preston. After that year's champion was decided by a player vote, the next year the World Series was changed to a winner-take-all tournament.

Photo credit: University of Nevada, CC BY 3.0 Unported, / Outside of Binion's Horseshoe in 1974. Left to right: Johnny Moss, Chill Wills, Amarillo Slim, Jack Binion, and Puggy Pearson

Media coverage followed. "For tournament players the Horseshoe was home, and Binion received them as if they were showcase acts." As Brunson said, Binion "understood gamblers". Brunson said Binion was successful in business because "he gave the public what they wanted."

The World Series of Poker certainly changed Las Vegas. As Swanson writes, "the poker tournament gave tired, tattered downtown Vegas new life in the form of a spectacle unmatched anywhere in the world."

Binion, and his Horseshoe casino, became one of Las Vegas's leading attractions. People flocked to see the "approachable racketeer, the affable killer, the conversational kingpin." As his casino manager noted, "He knew how to treat people."

Blood Aces is not really a history of poker, but rather the tale, often bloody, of the man who set poker on its track to greatness. Binion, whether he was guilty or not of the crimes attributed to him, had become, as the author notes, the "most beloved gangster of them all."

more blood than aces

Doug J. Swanson is the investigative projects editor at The Dallas Morning News. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and is the author of five crime novels, for which he was a finalist for the Edgar Award. Blood Aces is based on extensive research into the files of the Dallas Police Department, the FBI, and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Previous poker book reviews in this series include The Moneymaker Effect; Poker Tilt; Fading Hearts on the River; How to Be a Poker Player; and Alligator Blood.


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Further Reading:  

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Texas Hold'em Poker Guide

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Previous articles by Ellis Shuman:

The Moneymaker Effect and How It Changed Poker

Dutch Boyd Goes on Poker Tilt with His New Book

Poker Success of the Poet's Son

Poker and Philosophy: Thinking Your Way to Better Poker

The Wolf of Online Processing

The Greatest Poker Songs of All Time

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