The Closing of Binion’s Horseshoe (Part 2)
Note: Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of the closing of Binion’s Horseshoe. Read Part 1 HERE.
It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.
Everyone in Las Vegas had a hard-on for the Horseshoe. A raging hard-on with razor blades. We had a virtual enemies list as long and wide as The Strip. In fact, it would be easier to list those who didn’t want the Behnen’s completely out of casino business.
Ever since the carnival that was the Ted Binion murder trial some four years earlier, local media enjoyed a field day airing out the dirty secrets within the crumbling building at 128 E. Fremont Street. During that period you couldn’t open up the city’s two newspapers, the Las Vegas Review-Journal or the Las Vegas Sun, without reading yet another embarrassing story about the casino and its epic degree of dysfunction. Mind you, this was from a local press that was generally friendly towards the casino industry.
Naturally, as troubles mounted towards the end, the phone calls came straight to me. It got the point where I got so tired of telling reporters, “no comment,” that I stopped answering the phone. I figured a line in the next day’s newspaper like, “Horseshoe management could not be reached for comment,” came out a hell of a lot better than the ever self-incriminating “no comment,” which is kind of like taking the 5th Amendment.
The Nevada Gaming Board was also constantly crawling up our asses. Suspected violations were everywhere. The race and sportsbook manager got busted for (I’ll stick the in the word allegedly here, just to be safe) booking bets and laying off action from out of state, which is a big no-no. Moreover, they suspected the Horseshoe didn’t keep enough cash on hand inside the casino cage to settle all the outstanding chips and markers, so that was a constant tussle with auditing. Then, there was my “unofficial” boss Nick Behnen, who was the invisible wizard behind the scenes. Trouble was, Nick couldn’t get a gaming license and therefore wasn’t supposed to be making any management decisions.
I’ll reiterate again as I did earlier in my previous writings about the Horseshoe. Nick was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in the casino business. Had he been able to get licensed somehow, I’m convinced the casino might have had a different fate. But Nick also had a brutal mean streak. Like from the old days. Casino employees were absolutely terrified of Nick. When he was around, their hands would shake. That was because Nick was a constant stickler for perfection. I saw him in action all the time. If he witnessed poor technique, he’s let the dealer know about out it right there out on the casino floor. To some of the old timers, he was just a firm taskmaster protecting his business. To others, he came across as a bully.
Nick spent a lot of time the final few months playing poker inside the poker room and was a constant presence there. He played against everyone, and specialized in heads-up freeze outs — usually for $500 to $1,000 a game. However, I saw Nick play many times for $10,000 a game. I’d sit right there at the table drinking scotch along with Nick, thinking to myself how bizarre this must have all appeared to an outsider — to have the casino owner playing against his own customers. Still, I’ll say this on the square and that’s the games were on the level. Nick just liked the competition, and the tougher the better. He loved played against the very best.
Just about every poker dealer at some point was subject to Nick’s wrath. It got to the point where no one wanted to deal to him. I can only imagine the stories that were whispered inside the break room. I witnessed moments when Nick had the dealer crying, tears streaming down their faces, while cards continued being pitched. One time, Nick got so angry at a dealer that he fired a half-eaten hot dog like a torpedo that bounced off the back of the employee’s head, a story that was eventually leaked to the Review-Journal.
By the way, if you suspect that I’m holding back some things here, you’d be correct. Some stories will go to the grave. They aren’t meant to be told.
Binion’s Horseshoe posed a serious dilemma for the other casinos.
The big corporate-run joints wanted us shut down. We were a black sheep. Some rogue, independently-owned downtown casino mimicking a circus atmosphere that still tried its very best to be a real gambling hall instead of pure numbers game packed with micro-chipped machines and managed by bean counters was an annoyance. And, given the sheer size and numbers of us versus them, we were ripe for acquisition — at a fire sale price.
Meanwhile, the downtown merchants had a vested interest in making sure we remained open. The lights turned on inside, simply because of our legendary name and prime location. I mean, how bad would it look to see a dark, boarded-up building in the middle of downtown Las Vegas? Even though we owed millions to the Fremont Street Experience in unpaid dues, had tax liens against us, and were considered outlaws among the other casino operators, the unthinkable alternative was closing the doors and going dark, which would have been a huge blow to the renovation projects, which were happening at the time. Even Mayor Oscar Goodman did everything he could to make sure the Horseshoe stayed open. That’s one of the reasons we got away with so much over such a long time. No one could imagine Las Vegas without the Horseshoe.
So, the press had it in for us. The Nevada Gaming Board was our enemy. We were bandits in the eyes of other casinos. And most of our own employees despised us, because they were terrified of losing their jobs. Even the poker players hated us, because it wasn’t like the old days when Jack ran the show. Some, including Doyle Brunson and others, even boycotted the Shoe for awhile.
All of these things were minor league troubles compared to the casino-hotel’s building and maintenance problems.
For one thing, nothing had been updated in nearly 20 years. The older side of the Horseshoe was already an antique, and probably could have gotten away without upgrades. But what we called “The Mint” side (because it used to be the old Mint casino until being acquired in 1987) looked like a building that hadn’t been touched by a screwdriver since the late 1970’s.
When asked how bad things were, I like to tell the story of the duct tape. The casino’s carpeting was black, with gold horseshoes emblazoned on the floor. The motif was consistent with the image you’d associate with the Horseshoe. Trouble was, over time the carpet started to fray. It started coming apart.
In heavily-tracked areas seams started to pop open in the carpet. They threads would eventually give out and the seams would rip apart. Of course, this posed a danger to the guests, who might trip over one of the seams. The casino was kept darker than a nightclub most of the time anyway, which only added to all the mystique and danger.
So, maintenance was called in to fix the problem. The solution? Several rolls of silver duct tape.
By the time I was working at Shoe, in some areas the silver duct tape was tacked on three layers thick. Guests would be walking across the casino floor, and see a huge line of silver tape across the slot pit, like yard markers on a football field.
Couldn’t maintenance at least have found some black duct tape?
The last few months of the Horseshoe’s existence, I was asked to write a monthly employee newsletter. So, I called it, “From the Horse’s Mouth.” There’s a double meaning here, a fact which wasn’t lost on some of the employees. You can imagine the impossible task of trying to put a positive spin on things, and keep the staff motivated under these conditions.
Becky came up with the idea to have an “Employee of the Month.” Sounded reasonable. The winner would get a free dinner for two inside the rooftop Binion’s Steakhouse, and some cash ($100 I think). I was to write up the story about why such-and-such person was chosen every month.
Our first winner was some maintenance worker who was apparently a wiz-kid with electronics. Something like half the televisions inside the hotel room didn’t work, or had snow (the hotel wasn’t completely wired with cable). So, the maintenance people were spending half of their days responding to hotel guests who had the audacity to want a working TV. They’ve have to shuffle TVs around between the rooms and the warehouse. If you sneezed, sometimes a clear picture would turn into snow.
Like I said, one of the workers loved challenges. He was probably making $12 an hour, if that, but saved the Horseshoe a fortune. Somehow he worked on all the dead TVs and got them working. I have no idea how he did this, but apparently he could reconfigure the antenna and at least get a clear picture for the major stations. That seemed good enough for hotel rooms that went as cheap as $22 a night.
The worker performing his magic got all the TVs running and installed them inside the rooms and basically solved the entire problem in a week.
So, he ended up being the first (and last) “Employee of the Month” at Binion’s Horseshoe. I presume he got his $100 cash prize. However, I don’t know if he made it up to the steakhouse in time for his free dinner
Oh, one more story. I’ve got so many, I almost forgot this one. It’s a classic.
Like I said, the Horseshoe was in a total state of disrepair. We weren’t spending money on anything.
Outside the casino on the giant neon-lit facade, which was the world famous trademark that everyone knew, some of the tubes and lights started burning out. Nothing quite advertises that a joint is in serious trouble like burned out lights. Especially in the casino business. The more burned out lights there on the giant marques, the more fucked the place is.
Well, our light bulbs started to burn out in some strange places.
On the older side of the casino, facing an open street with tens of thousands of people who passed by daily, there were signs lit up with bulbs. There was a giant KENO sign. There was POKER. There was CRAPS. There was also a sign that said SLOTS.
Now on this next part of the story, you have to use your imagination.
The SLOTS part of the sign was lit up in single light bulbs, kind of like you might see in a lamp, only bigger. Each letter was ringed with bulbs. Trouble was, a few of the bulbs happened to burn out on the “O” part of the sign. Imagine the top of the “O'” with two bulbs burned out. The letter “O” becomes a “U.”
So, from the street, in bright lights the sign said “SLUTS.”
The casino’s outside facade showed all the things were offered — KENO, POKER, CRAPS, and SLUTS.
Well, I had to let Nick know about this problem. It was a minor emergency, worthy of spending perhaps $50 to replace the bulbs. All someone had to do was get a ladder and the problem could be solved in 15 minutes.
Nick looked up at the sign and laughed.
“At least we have one thing going for us,” he said. “Truth in advertising.”
NOTE TO READERS: I meant to close this chapter out with the conclusion of the country-western band story. But I got sidetracked this morning. So, I’ll post the end of this trilogy tomorrow.
COMING NEXT: The Last Rodeo at Binion’s Horseshoe