Lester “Benny” Binion was born in 1904 in Pilot Grove, Texas.
In 1928 he started a “numbers game” (illegal lottery) in Dallas. He was also a bootlegger during the prohibition years and a suspect in 7 murders in Texas. Beginning in 1936, he ran illegal craps games in Dallas, but was forced out of Dallas in 1946.
He went to the next logical place to run a gambling business: Las Vegas, Nevada, where he acquired part ownership of the Las Vegas Club. He went on to build the Westerner casino, and in 1951 bought the Eldorado Club, which he renamed the Horseshoe and carpeted it. (The Horseshoe was the first downtown casino with carpeting, as well as the first to offer complementary drinks to slot machine players and the first with airport limousine service). The casino was managed by Benny and his family; his two sons, Ted and Jack, managed the gaming, his wife Teddy Jane looked after the accounts.
That same year, a man named Herbert Noble was arrested rigging a small plane with bombs. He planned to bomb the Binions' Las Vegas home in retaliation for the car-bombing murder of his wife years before in Dallas. Released on bail, Noble was killed by a bomb planted next to his mailbox.
In 1953 Benny was sent to prison for tax evasion. He arranged to “sell” the casino to fellow gambler Joe W. Brown, though this was really just an arrangement to have the Horseshoe looked after until Binion’s release from prison in 1953, when he re-acquired ownership.
In 1970 Binion began hosting The World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe. At first, it was a tournament of the elite of the world’s poker players; in later years it was to become a “freeze-out” competition with entry open to anyone willing to put up a $10,000 stake; each player remains in the running until they have lost their entire initial stake, and the final winner takes all.
In addition to the World Series, the Horseshoe also got publicity by being the first casino to have a million dollars in cash on display (later imitated at Bob Stupak’s Vegas World on the strip)
The Horseshoe has always had a reputation for setting precedents of high limits on all of its games. At the time it was opened, no other casino accepted a bet on craps of over $50. Binion’s limit on craps was $500. The other casino owners were so angered by this they threatened his life in retaliation. Gamblers would see his higher limits as a chance to make a fortune on a “hot streak.” Ultimately, the other casinos had to follow Binion’s lead, probably making all of them more profitable in the long run. Casino owner and Vegas historian Bill Friedman wrote, “Benny Binion was the man who put gamble into Las Vegas. From the day they arrived the Binions pushed the limits up, and they still do.”
The Horseshoe has also always been famous for accepting the highest-stakes bets in Vegas. Historically, the casino has a policy of accepting a bet of any size on any game, provided it is no greater than the patron’s first bet of their visit. Obviously, this policy depended on the judgment of casino management; if it were rigorously adhered to, anyone with sufficient financial backing could bankrupt the casino by using a Martingale scheme over numerous visits. (This policy has been discontinued by current management).
In perhaps the most famous of these high-stakes bets, a player named William Lee Bergstrom bet $777,000 on one roll of the dice at the craps table in 1980. He won that bet, and continued to win large bets over the next few years. In 1984 his luck ended with a $1,000,000 loss at the table. Three months later he committed suicide. It is likely that his story spawned the urban legend of the man who wins and loses a million dollars in the course of a few days and then commits suicide. The casino never did completely recover their losses to Bergstrom. At the time of his death he was still ahead $400,000.
In 1988, the Horseshoe acquired its neighbor, The Mint, enlarging the casino as well as obtaining more space for hotel rooms in the Mint’s highrise tower.
On Christmas day, 1989, Benny Binion died. He is remembered with a modest glass case in the casino with his photograph and two of his favourite handguns.
The Binion family has had a troubled history, to say the least. Benny's daughter Barbara died of a drug overdose in 1983. There have been numerous threats on the lives of the Binions, some from within the family. In 1997 Ted Binion was allegedly threatened by his sister Becky and her husband, Nick Behnen, who were feuding with him over control of the casino. Ted named Becky's son Benny Binion Behnen as the shooter in a drive-by shooting at his house. The following year, Ted died of an apparent heroin overdose. It was later discovered that the actual cause of death was suffocation. His stripper girlfriend Sandy Murphy and her boyfriend Rick Tabish were convicted for the murder, after being arrested in the process of digging up Ted Binion's silver from under his basement floor. There are still some who suspect Becky's involvement.
Becky Behnen took control of the Horseshoe in 1998, lowering limits on the craps tables as well as eliminating the casino policy of letting gamblers set their own limits with their first bet. Since then the casino has shown signs of financial trouble, getting deeply in debt to The Fremont Street Experience, the company responsible for the light-show canopy over downtown Vegas; reportedly the casino owes them $2,000,000 currently.
Also in 1998 the Horseshoe’s reputation was tarnished by the news of their bizarre refusal to cash $5,000-value chips for Bob Stupak, former owner of the Vegas World and Stratosphere casinos. They claimed that a $500,000 rack of $5,000-value chips had been stolen and that they suspected Stupak’s involvement. Stupak then initiated a class-action suit to force the Binions to cash his chips. In a bid for publicity, he donated one $5,000 chip to anti-gambling crusader Reverend Tom Grey. Ultimately, the Nevada Gaming Commission did order the casino to make good, and Stupak was able to collect his $250,000 in redemption of his chips as well as $100,000 belonging to him that the casino had been holding in their casino cage.
At present, the future of the Horseshoe seems to be in doubt. They are apparently in very serious financial trouble, and they have had numerous scandals involving accusations of violence against their patrons (including several assaults on Bob Stupak by Becky Behnen and her associates). It seems to me likely that the Binion dynasty's days are numbered.
Update! koreykruse informs me that Binion's Horseshoe Casino was closed Jan. 9, 2004 when federal marshals raided the cages and seized all the cash to pay outstanding liens on the casino.
Addendum: koreykruse has a writeup under Horseshoe that is a nice complement to mine.
Thanks, koreykruse for much of the up-to-date information in the above writeup.