Ten Years Ago Today: The Closing of Binion’s Horseshoe (Part 1)
Today is January 9th, 2014.
Ten years ago today, a Las Vegas landmark was forcibly shut down.
Binion’s Horseshoe, the crumbling ruin of a former empire and the final vestige of the Old West that had once transformed dusty Las Vegas into a neon-lit magnet of vice, shuddered its windows and padlocked its doors. The official order to close came by hand when a posse of armed U.S. Marshals barged in the front entrance, went straight to the casino cage, and presented a legal notice to confiscate all the cash inside. Gaming operations were to cease immediately.
Federal marshals and agents from the Nevada Gaming Board ended up as the Horseshoe’s last guests. It was a sad final chapter of what had been a ruinous downfall, a stunning tumble from being widely beloved as a true gambler’s paradise and the poker pinnacle of the world, topped by the crown jewel of hospitality. And this was all about to disappear. Forever.
I was there when it ended. When everything came crashing down. When many lives were wrecked temporarily, if not ruined for a long time. When tears were shed. When there was no time to say goodbyes.
The rise of Binion’s Horseshoe has been well-documented. Today, I’ll like to share some stories about the downfall.
The book of Binions still swims somewhere inside my head. Someday, I plan on writing it.
In the meantime, here’s what happened that final fateful month at the Horseshoe.
As 2003 neared a close, I was the still working as the casino’s Director of Public Relations. The months leading up to December had been a wild ride. Like working for the circus. Like being part of a freak show. There was Moneymaker and television shows and booze and brawls and the kinds of things you only see in the movies. Only it was real. I worked many 12 hour days, just about every day of the week. But I also never thought I worked a single day while I was there. That’s how fucking great my job was.
Maybe it was denial. Perhaps it was naivete. None of us had any idea that Binion’s Horseshoe, with doors that had been open non-stop for more than half a century — 53 years of epic stories and ups and downs and poker world championships and million dollar wins and movie scenes and gambling legends and stories we’ll never hear because they’ve gone to the grave — had just one month still to live. Thirty days, and thirty nights, and the clock was ticking. And we didn’t know it.
Right after Thanksgiving Day, Becky Binion-Behnen called an executive meeting. We used to have our meetings on most Thursdays. I was so tight with Nick (Becky’s gangster husband) that I didn’t necessarily have to attend the meetings. But I went most of the time anyway. Plus, I always liked Becky. A lot of people really hated her, especially the older employees who remembered what a great boss Jack was, and lots more certainly disrespected her. But at the time, I thought she deserved my respect and all the help I could offer.
The National Finals Rodeo was about into come into town. This was a huge event for the Horseshoe. I mean, monstrous. After all, the casino’s founder, the late Benny Binion had been instrumental in initially bringing the NFR to Las Vegas. It was a huge event for the entire city. Every December, normally a dead time for the casinos, cowboys flooded onto the Strip. Many stayed and gambled at the Horseshoe, which seemed the perfect campfire for all the out-of-town cowboys.
Even so, it was my opinion (and I was dead on correct about this) that the Horseshoe was grossly mismanaging its inherent advantages over the rest of the Las Vegas casinos. The cowboys loved us. We were adored. But we didn’t do anything for them. So instead, they stayed at the corporate joints, who did even less for them, except take their money faster.
But cowboys don’t care about million-dollar chandeliers and fancy water shows. I figured out cowboys like to do two things — listen to country music, drink beer, and dance. Okay, that’s three things. I also discovered that no casino in the entire city offered live country music every night of the week. The cowboys were in town for about ten nights give or take a few and wanted a place to party, and I was determined for us to give it to them. But first, I had to sell the idea of spending money to Becky.
Now, this part of the story might bore you a little, but stick with me. The Horseshoe owed everyone in town money. We were what you called deadbeats. We had lawsuits coming out of our ass. The house accountant was told to stop payment on all invoices. We used to deposit our paychecks, run to the bank, and then hold our breath. Even my group health insurance, which had been deducted from my paycheck each pay period, wasn’t funded by the company. This was a ship taking on water fast and going straight to the bottom, and everyone in town knew it. But we didn’t really know how bad things were. Like I said, it’s naivete.
So, I went into that Thursday meeting with three strikes against me already. The casino was broke. Becky didn’t want to spend a dime on anything. And no one in town would give us credit.
Fucked. Fucked. Fucked. If being fucked came on slot reels, I’d hit the jackpot.
I’ve written before about the freedom of having nothing left to lose, just like the Kris Kristopher song sung by Janis Joplin. There’s a beauty, almost a spiritual empowerment, associated with going all out on something you absolutely know is the right play. And I knew we had lightning within our grasp. We just had to unleash it. Like electricity in the palm of my hand. Like David Copperfield, or something. You ever felt that sure of something? Well, that’s the way it was with me.
So, on Thursdays the Horseshoe executives would sit around in a giant semi-circle — a horseshoe of all things. That’s how the tables were situated. That way, everyone could see and talk to each other while each department made their verbal report to the group. There would be 20 people there, ranging from some of the very best people in the business who had worked up through the ranks with Benny and Jack Binion who still managed to barely hang on, as well as complete goofs who were hired because they worked on the cheap. I guess I fell into the later category.
When it came my time to present the weekly “public relations” update, I made my bold move. I explained that we should remove a quarter of the slot machines (which were empty most of the time anyway) and install a giant dance floor right in the middle of the casino. Then, we’d construct a special stage with lights and sound system. Then, hire a live band to play two straight weeks. Then, bring in troughs of ice cold beer and sell long necks for $1 a pop. Then, bring in smoked bar-be-cue and serve it up right there next to the dance floor. Oh, and then we’d set up 60-70 tables.
I think I could have brought in a goat and screwed it right in front of them and they wouldn’t have been more shocked.
One thing you have to understand about all this is appreciating why it was so ridiculous. There’s an old-style philosophy in gambling that you never — I mean NEVER — take out gaming devices. You just don’t do it. Never mind that some department might make more money with the space, you NEVER take out a gambling device, no matter what. You might change machines around or movie tables from one place to the next. But you never remove them. That’s GAMBLING 101. And that’s precisely what I was proposing.
Every department was stunned. Some of the execs were smiling. I swear I heard a few laughs. Not good. Everyone would have to pull together to make all this work. Food and beverage would have to cook a shitload of bar-be-cue. And it had to be good bar-be-cue, because the cowboys would surely know the difference. You’re not going to fool them with shitty bar-be-cue. The bars would have to undercut the prices of the beer cost everywhere else. The slot department was furious because this would kill their department’s bottom line. Maintenance hated this because they would have to renovate the entire place and probably work overtime. Oh, and let’s do this right before the holidays. I didn’t have many friends on staff by that time, but with that bold stroke, I might as well have written my own obituary.
But I had a powerful ally. A few actually.
Nick Behnen absolutely loved my idea. He’s the heavy who allegedly killed two people (in self defense, of course) and who really ran things from his living room and a telephone three miles way (because he couldn’t get a gaming license). Poker manager Warren Schaeffer, who was from Montana, loved it too. We were pals, and Warren got it. He knew the score and understood what cowboys were after. He knew my idea was pure gold for the casino and every department in it.
So, thanks to Nick and Warren, we got the deal approved. Even Becky kinda’ liked the idea after she thought more about it. At the every least, she said, it would be fun. Binion’s Horseshoe was going to turn into a country-western bar for a few weeks for the first time ever.
“Holy shit,” I thought to myself at the time. ”We should have done this years ago!”
By the way, I know I’m right about that, too. If they had gone that route, I think the casino would have created its own niche. I’m talking year around. Who knows, they might even still be open for business. Imagine how that might have changed poker history.
Here’s where things really get interesting.
So, we were going to transform the whole place into a shit-kicker joint. I knew the cowboys would blow the doors off the place. But first, we had to hire a good country-western band.
Where are we going to find a band on such short notice?
Did anyone stop to think that hiring a country-western band might not be quite as easy as everyone thinks? Where do you go to hire a band, only a few weeks away from night one? Aren’t all the good bands in town already booked?
I presume most readers know my personal preferences and background. I love music. But picking and choosing a country-western band might as well have been going into rocket science. Like asking me to design the space shuttle or something. What does a good country band sound like? What does a bad country band sound like? I’m the one in charge of talent?
I asked around and was advised to go visit some of the local country-western dance places where they had live nightly music. So I dragged Marieta — who knows even less about country-western music than I do (she’s from Romania) — and we went out to a few country bars, looking for the best “talent.” I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more out of place. At each stop, I approached the lead singer during the break and asked, “So, are you available from December 4th to the 16th?”
Are you joking?
We’re already booked.
That was pretty much all I heard. Everywhere. The only place that was interested turned out to be a Mexican band, who turned out to be mariachi music, somewhere in North Las Vegas. I don’t think the cowboys would have gone for that. Nothing against Mexican music. But these folks were the pitchforks on anti-immigration, and they sure as shit weren’t going to dance to a bunch of trumpets played by guys dressed in black velvet.
After a week of desperation, I finally reached my end. Talk about fucked. I’d successfully sold the idea to the Horseshoe. Every department was planning this lock and step in accordance with my instructions. Becky was excited. Nick was counting on big crowds. Everyone was talking about the rodeo.
And I had no band.
COMING NEXT: More on the final month of Binion’s Horseshoe