Throughout his life, Benny Binion portrayed himself as an uneducated Texas yokel, full of cornpone and clabber pie.
In reality, like other Las Vegas illusions, he was a calculating and cold-bloodied killer, capable of blowing up an opponent's car with enough explosives to shred a Sherman tank.
Doug J. Swanson's book, Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, The Texas Gambler Who Created Vegas Poker, is a thoroughly researched book on the life of one of America's top gangsters who forged Las Vegas into the gambling mecca of the world. So much has been written about the New York and Chicago mobsters that changed the Nevada dessert into their own private piggy banks and yet at the same time, Benny Binion has largely been forgotten in the swirl of short-term history. Swanson paints a portrait of a criminal mastermind that far out distanced Al Capone, "Lucky" Luciano, Bugsey Siegel, Sam Giancana, and the other gangsters that became the notorious icons of American criminals. He outlived them all and died of natural causes at 85.
Relying heavily on the very few interviews Binion gave during his later years, police records, court proceedings, FBI notes, and testimonies given at congressional hearings, Swanson does a masterful job of providing a detailed account of Binion life in a fast moving and engaging story that stacks one corpse on top of another throughout the book.
The book chronicles Binion's life that began as a sickly child in the hard scrabble farming country of North Texas. The year was 1904 and with still some lingering remnants of the Old West in play, Benny grew into a teenager riding with his father who was a roving horse trader. Along the way, he met a number of traveling gamblers that taught him his early craft. He quickly learned that the money was not in being a gambler but rather running the games and taking a cut of the action.
He ran bootleg whiskey in El Paso and Dallas while learning the ropes of operating illegal gambling joints. Part of his education involved paying off police, politicians, and judges—and he became a master at it. He learned that it was a necessary business expense to be doled out regularly. Those that he could not buy were usefully removed at the next election.
Binion killed his first man in 1931 when he murdered a fellow whiskey runner. As expected, the judge gave him a two-year suspended sentence. Then on regular basis, gambling competitors turned up riddled with bullets or blasted to pieces with dynamite. Several simply disappeared. By the early 1940's Binion was the top gambling boss of Dallas, operating out of the Southland Hotel; his gang was called the "Southland Syndicate."
Paramount among his gambling enemies was a man named Herbert Noble. Swanson does a superb job of giving a vivid account of their gun battles extending from 1946 until 1951. During that time, Binion was ambushed several times but managed to avoid being killed by assailants. Noble on the other hand, was shot up on multiple occasions and was severely wounded in several attacks on him while driving to or from his ranch outside of Dallas. One time, while being treated for gunshot wounds, a sniper tried to kill him in his hospital room.
Then in 1946, Binion lost his control of the local law and had to make a quick exodus to Las Vegas with Noble's men hot on his trail. He piled over $1 million in cash into his Cadillac trunk and left at midnight. The driver was a black man called "Gold Dollar" and riding shotgun were two Tommy-gun toting bodyguards.
As Binion started his Las Vegas casino business, he switched tactics and started using explosives. He had Noble's private plane wired with a bomb but it was discovered and defused. Three months later Binion's men tried again and this time their bomb blew up the engine but Noble escaped uninjured. Later, his wife was blown to pieces by a bomb planted in her husband's car.
The event of his wife having been "smithereened" by Binion's henchmen sent Noble over the edge. He was caught fitting army-surplus napalm bombs to the wings of his private plane with the intent of flying to Las Vegas and bombing Binion's home. After that, he became a ranting recluse at his Denton County ranch.
Finally, on August 7, 1951 Noble took his daily drive out to his mailbox. As he reached for his mail from inside his car, a massive amount of explosives blew a four-foot crater in the dirt road beneath his car. Parts of Noble and his car landed hundreds of yards away. No one was ever arrested for his murder.
Surprisingly enough, for all the dead bodies that littered Binion's past, he was never convicted for any of the killings. Instead, like Al Capone, he was sent to prison for tax evasion. Through it all, he managed to continue building his gambling operations.
The pinnacle of his casino enterprises was the Horseshoe on Fremont Street where he shunned the frills of the Strip casinos, offering instead fast and high-limits gambling. All of the big names in gambling flocked to Binion's Horseshoe as well as the low rollers who dreamed of being a high rollers like the super stars playing at Binion's tables. The Horseshoe was the first casino to offer high stakes poker tournaments, which later became known as "The World Series of Poker."
Swanson's Blood Aces is a true-crime tour de force masterpiece, told with just the right touch of gallows humor.
Full Title: Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, The Texas Gambler Who Created Vegas Poker
Date Published: August 14, 2014
Retail Price: $27.95