Book Review — Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster who Created Vegas Poker
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 about the often comical and always curious life of the legendary casino patriarch who was loathed and feared by a few, but also widely respected and loved by far more.
Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster who Created Vegas Poker doesn’t necessarily cover much new territory, especially to those who already know of Binion’s shady past. It simply tells the story far better and in much greater detail than any other available source. Moreover, it places Binion into proper context among his peers, consisting mostly of gangsters and Mafia dons. However, instead of a fedora, Binion always wore a cowboy hat.
Indeed, Binion was always a curious contradiction of idiocy and genius. Illiterate for his entire life, he nevertheless built a gambling empire in two cities which not only transformed the entire casino business but also became the model operation for customer satisfaction. Allegedly, multiple people were murdered upon his instructions, yet he was arguably the kindest and most generous casino mogul who’s ever lived. A traditionalist with old fashioned attitudes and values, he was also able to adapt to inevitable changes and new challenges, perhaps best illustrated by his role in creating what became known as the World Series of Poker.
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. A head gets blown off and flies across a vast cornfield “like a football.” Legs and body parts sail over tall oak trees and land in ditches. When one Binion rival sticks his hand into a mail box one hot summer afternoon, we all know what’s coming next. But the syrupy narrative squeezes every ounce of theatrics out of the moment like a sour lemon, leaving us shocked and exasperated, punctuated with fits of laughter. Death has rarely been described so wonderfully or humorously.
As I said, think of Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained.
Thankfully, Swanson is in quite familiar territory here with his subject matter. He’s a longtime writer and contributor to The Dallas Morning News. The author’s rich knowledge of Dallas and understanding of the frequent clash of cultures comes in handy. What very likely would have been neglected or airbrushed over by a non-Dallas based author gets flaunted and flogged in print for the first time in Swanson’s in-depth description of the Dallas underworld during the 1920’s through the post-World War II mid-1940’s era when Binion was finally forced to flee the city and begin empire building anew in Las Vegas.
Swanson succeeds in painting a portrait of time and place that’s previously unknown, amounting to a notoriously dangerous illegal vice trade that was so utterly violent the Sicilian-infused Mafia is alleged to have bypassed much of the city when expanding its stranglehold on the rest of America’s urban zones during Prohibition. From Swanson’s intense research, we learn every important step of Binion’s role in solidifying his control of the Deep Ellum rackets on the outskirts of downtown. Power building was done by consistently making payoffs, offering the best illegal products on the market, and if threats and intimidation failed, eventually killing off the competition.
No rival was more troublesome to Binion for so long than a small-time gambling joint operator named Herbert Noble, a fellow outlaw who somehow miraculously survived no less than 10 attempts on his life. While Binion’s hand wasn’t necessarily on the trigger, his fingerprints were all over each one of the attempts. Noble became so astute at avoiding death, often just through sheer luck, he became known as “the cat.” Trust me when I say, if the movie doesn’t get made about Binion, then Noble deserves a serious script treatment. The possibilities of richly dark humor are endless. Here, I’m leaning to the Coen Brothers. READ MORE ABOUT THE NINE LIVES OF HERBERT NOBLE HERE.
Of course, we all know that Benny Binion ends up in Las Vegas, where he created the iconic Horseshoe Casino. If the ending of his days in Dallas was covered somewhat already in other books and investigative features that have been published over the years, then Swanson’s best work as a journalist shines through in describing the remarkable period in between Binion’s initial arrival in what was then a small desert city, accompanied by the purchase of a small hotel on Fremont Street bookended later by his “guilty” plea for tax evasion, which lands him a stint in Leavenworth Prison. Binion gets portrayed as a pawn in the federal crackdown on organized crime and ends up getting convicted of the felony which became the downfall of Al Capone.
Yet while Capone and others never bounced back after being targeted by the Feds, Binion not only survived and eventually recovered — he later thrived. He was never convicted of anything more than financial wrongdoing, this in a city and a trade where lawbreaking was considered a diploma on someone’s resume. And so, Binion’s legendary status skyrocketed upon his return to the casino where he became celebrated for his hands-on approach to gambling. He often stood in the pit and watched the games. Sometimes, he strolled though the casino handing out rolls of quarters to the guests, $1,000 at a time. When out-of-towners stepped inside Binion’s Horseshoe, everyone wanted to shake hands with Benny.
Some of the Horseshoe story, especially during the 1970’s and 1980’s remains extraordinary, even to some of us who already knew about it. Consider Swanson’s passages of text where he essentially says the Horseshoe was pretty much it’s own sovereign territory — with it’s own law enforcement, and sheriff in charge. Even the Las Vegas Police Department didn’t step into the Horseshoe. Ever. They never had to. Benny and family handled all of their own problems with their own brand of justice.
If Blood Aces has flaws, two that stood out were as follows. First, we never quite get the full portrait of Binion and who he was. Was he a loving father? Was he faithful? What did he do for fun? Perhaps acquiring more information is next to impossible, since he died in 1988 — long before the author could have interviewed him or known more of those who knew Binion up close and personal. Obstacles were heightened no doubt, by the surviving family members’ refusal to cooperate. While just about everyone who remembers the late Benny Binion speaks about him in glowing terms (with some justification, I might add), surely there are those who witnessed a more comprehensive view and saw a bad side. Then again, maybe not. Binion played most all of his hands close to the vest.
The other shortcoming of the book comes in failing to discover, or at least speculate on, how Binion’s children (all heirs to the empire) could have turned out so absurdly different from each other. There was Teddy, often described as the smartest member of the family who ended up as a dead dope fiend, likely a murder victim. There was Becky, who reluctantly entered the family business and has largely been branded as the major reason for the Horseshoe’s bankruptcy and failure. Then, there’s Jack — who went on to build another casino empire in other states, far more lucrative than anything ever seen in Las Vegas, while now rightfully basking in the glow of the past and a lifetime of lessons learned from his own father.
Alas, we know how it all ends. Benny dies. The family fights, and then splits apart. The Horseshoe eventually closes. The mystery isn’t so much in what happens, as how it happened.
Are there any life lessons for us in the tale? Not really.
What matters most was the ride. And what a wonderfully wild ride it was, for so long, the likes of which we shall not see again. Not unless Tarentino or the Coen Brothers take my advice and get working on a movie script that desperately demands to be written.