Day One as Director of Public Relations for Binion’s Horseshoe
This is the third in an extended series of articles about Chris Moneymaker’s victory at the 2003 World Series of Poker and what went on behind the scenes at Binion’s Horseshoe — before, during, and after that historic event.
Day One as Director of Public Relations for Binion’s Horseshoe
On my first day, I almost got fired.
In fact, I was fired. Then, I got re-hired.
George Fisher was in a panic. He called me urgently into his office. There was big trouble brewing, and I hadn’t even started working yet. “Shit is hitting the fan,” he said. What was the problem? No one knew. I’d find out soon enough.
I’d been “summoned.” That meant I was to have what’s known in other menacing circles as a “sit down.”
The dreaded “sit down.”
Unbeknownst to me, I was scheduled to meet none other than Nick Behnen himself — the dark and mysterious shadow of a figure who was whispered to actually run Binion’s Horseshoe behind the scenes.
The casino license and ownership of Binion’s Horseshoe might have been in Becky’s name. She surely made executive decisions, most in fact. But her husband Nick wielded the heavy fist and did the ballbusting. He took over most of the gaming-related matters, along with son Benny Behnen (grandson of the late Benny Binion, founder of the Horseshoe).
Since Nick couldn’t get a license on his own from the Nevada Gaming Board (no further comment), he was prohibited from making any management decisions on property. Instead, he spent most afternoons barking into a telephone at subordinates from his living room at the Binion Family Estate. Those who took orders included George, Warren Schaeffer, a few others, and eventually me. It was like working for the Wizard of Oz and Al Capone rolled into one towering and intimidating figure who often wore dark sunglasses indoors (see photo above).
Nick was someone you didn’t fuck with. Those who did ended up in back alleys on the wrong end of an escort courtesy of Binion’s crack security detail. Everyone who knew the landscape was terrified of Nick. When he came on property, the joint snapped into shape like a military brigade. Everyone’s tie was perfectly straight. He was rumored to fire people on the spot at the slightest hint of annoyance (some of it justified, by the way, based on what I later observed).
The fact was, whether it was true or not, Nick had the reputation of a gangster. A throwback to the old days of the mob. Later, he even later revealed to me that he’d killed someone (in self-defense, he insisted). I can’t remember if the body count was one or two — so long as it wasn’t going to be three. But Nick was never actually charged with a crime, so it must have been self-defense.
Nick acted like Attila the Hun on the casino floor. Many of the stories are so wild, you wouldn’t believe it. He reportedly threw a fully dressed hot dog at an employee one time which bounced off the back of the poor unsuspecting victim’s head, an incident that even made the newspapers.
Nick could also turn on the personal charm. A vociferous reader an intense student of history, Nick quoted philosophy like an Ivy League professor and told great stories (he knew Robert Maheu well, the close confidant of Howard Hughes and even had a huge collection of Maheu’s personal notes from the relationship — a treasure trove that’s priceless). He knew everyone in town, on both sides of the tracks. Nick also knew as much about the ins and outs of gambling and how to run a casino as anyone I’ve ever met.
The man had the eye of a hawk. It was uncanny. He was able to spot cheaters and pick out sloppy dealers just by casually strolling through the casino (incidents I later witnessed several times). Some of this expertise Nick picked up working temporarily at casinos in the former Yugoslavia, where he spent some time. If Nick had a dark side, and he most certainly did, he also knew as shitload about casino operations and was a gold mine of both entertainment and insight.
The events leading up to my “sit down” with Nick also bear some reflection.
By fall of 2002, Binion’s Horseshoe had burned through some really good people. Like Tom McEvoy, the 1983 world poker champion — who had been hired to run the poker room. He lasted a month. Cathi Wood, WSOP Tournament Director Robert Thompson’s loyal daughter took over for a while. She was close to Becky and lasted some time before inevitable conflicts arose, much having to do with the infamous 2002 WSOP — the most insane atmosphere for any poker event in history. No other event comes close to the circus that existed that previous April and May.
That 2002 WSOP was a mind-boggling mess. A total disaster in every conceivable way. Dealers and staff threatened to walk out in a bitter dispute over money and the allocation of tips, which was all public. Drunken on the gritty details of the Ted Binion murder trial, anything to do with the daily soap opera that was the Horseshoe was reported somewhere, often on the front page.
In retaliation for the dealer and staff walkout, the Behnens came down with an iron fist on all those deemed to be “traitors.” They barred not only employees but players who spoke out against them — one of the reasons legends like Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Billy Baxter, and others boycotted the Horseshoe for a number of years.
One of these outspoken players was named Paul Phillips, a popular up-and-coming young tournament regular who’d made a fortune selling his Internet company during the high-tech boom of the late 1990s. By 2002, Phillips was playing poker tournaments and quickly evolved into one of the circuit’s most well-liked players.
In characteristic fashion, Phillips spoke out in support of the dealers who’d been fired. His comments appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. When one of the Behnens discovered the traitor Phillips playing cash games at the Horseshoe, he was rudely plucked from the game and was instantly escorted by security to the infamous backroom, where Nick Behnen sat waiting. Phillips’ version of this incident appeared at various poker forums after he was released. To say he was intimidated would be a gross understatement. Phillips was ultimately barred from the Horseshoe and read the trespass clause, which meant he could be arrested if he returned to the property. There would be no 2002 WSOP for poker player Paul Phillips. But the heavy-handed strategy backfired. It just made the acrimony between Becky Behnen and poker players even more bitter. She became hated. Becky caught the flack for it all, as the head executive of the Horseshoe. But the fingerprints belonged to someone else. Nick’s heavy-handed tactics were really behind much of the mess.
Then, there was the infamous “Russ Hamilton incident.” Before anyone else knew he was a scumbag cheater, Russ was a highly-respected member of the poker community. The 1994 world poker champion had been a regular player in cash games at the Horseshoe for more than ten years. But Nick somehow uncovered some serious dirt on Russ and vowed to make things as difficult as he could for the former champ.
The great irony here is that Nick’s instincts turned out to be entirely correct about Russ. For years (afterward), I tried to find out what and how Nick knew about Russ’ background that caused such rage. Of course, this predated the Ultimate Bet scandal which took place around 2007. But Nick was onto something very early on and was the only person out there unwilling to kiss ass and instead kick ass. Nick teased me about it for years, often referring to the infamous cheat as “your pal, Russ Hamilton.” To this day, I have absolutely no idea how Nick fingered the slimy slug out long before he revealed his true lack of character to the world. But it bears mentioning that this insight was one of the things that eventually made Nick a fascinating person to be around, at times.
I wasn’t there the night the actual incident happened. But according to multiple witnesses inside the poker room including the legendary graveyard shift boss Tony Shelton, Nick became enraged at Russ to the point where he defaced one of the most sacred shrines in poker. Worse, there were dozens of witnesses.
At the rear of the poker room was the famous “Gallery of Champions,” which had the portraits of every world poker champion dating back to 1970. This was “the wall” of all walls in poker. Everyone wanted their picture up alongside Brunson, Moss, Ungar, Chan, and all the rest. Since Hamilton had indeed won the 1994 world championship eight years earlier in that same building, his portrait was hung proudly among the winners.
Nick had reportedly been “drinking heavily” that night. I later spent a lot of time drinking with Nick, and the “drunk” charge doesn’t ring true to me. He probably wasn’t drunk, but simply had just been drinking as was his normal routine. When he revealed what for him was quite a normal pattern of behavior (rage and sometimes violence), it later widely became reported as a “drunken rage.” But I’m not buying it.
However, what Nick actually did do is undisputed. He summoned a crowbar from the maintenance department, stormed over to the paneled wall where the Gallery of Champions was hanging, and plucked Hamilton’s portrait right from the walnut. The glass frame, with Russ’ smiling championship pose, was completely shattered into bits. Nick allegedly screamed something like “We won’t have any fucking cheaters on the wall,” and then stormed out of the building.
The glaring empty void where Russ Hamilton’s picture once famously hung became an instant focal point to everyone on the poker universe. Everybody knew about it. Even overseas. People were scared to come into the casino after that. The act had been so malicious that the wood was permanently scarred from the sharpness of the crowbar. The great irony here is that everyone at the time thought Russ was a hero. And so Nick Behnen, already so detestable to many, became Darth Vader to poker players.
This was the man I was about to have a meeting with on my very “first day,” in the back of a dark and empty Binion’s Horseshoe coffee shop.
The Sit Down
I didn’t know it at the time, but my “sit down” meeting with Nick Behnen turned out to be one of the most important moments in my professional life.
Had I not survived the confrontation which was to come, I most certainly wouldn’t have been with the World Series of Poker to this day, nor would I be working on the business side of poker. Hell, I’d probably be out pumping gas somewhere.
Not only did what happened over the next 40 minutes or so reshape the entire direction of my career, but it also taught me an important lesson that I’d now like to share.
There’s a memorable line from the Kris Kristofferson song performed by Janis Joplin. The line is from “Me and Bobby McGee.” It goes like this: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
The verse means that true freedom comes from having no fear of loss. For instance, if I’m not afraid of losing my job, I might do and say things that another employee would never dare think or share. I’d be free to say what I really thought. And that’s pretty much what happened.
I was ordered to go to the coffee shop. Immediately. Nick was sitting there and waiting on my arrival. George was convinced I was about to get fired. His assistant, a hard-working man named Steve McDonald just sat there shaking his head. He’d already worked for Binion’s Horseshoe for some time and never even met Nick before. The fact was, no one had a “sit down,” unless it was one of Nick’s most trusted confederates, or there was some serious ballbusting about to happen.
The problem for me was — I had no idea what I’d done wrong.
I walked downstairs into a deserted coffee shop which was located underground at the basement level. How fitting. Off to the rear in a separate alcove sitting alone at a large round table was an immaculately-tailored man in his mid-50’s. He wore black horned-rimmed glasses, with thick lenses. He sat all by himself with a cup of coffee. No one talked to him. On the table was a manila file envelope stuffed with papers.
This image was right out of central casting and this scene was virtually out of the movies. You couldn’t imagine a more “old school Las Vegas” freeze-frame moment. In retrospect, most people would have probably said “fuck it,” and never even showed up. Why work in a madhouse where this kind of atmosphere exists?
But my curiosity was too strong. I had to find out why I was in big trouble.
Nick saw me coming and didn’t bother getting up. That was a bad sign.
I approached his table. Nick stuck out his hand. I shook it.
“Sit down,” Nick said.
“Tell me. Who are you?” he asked.
“Excuse me. Who am I?” Was this conversation even real?
“I’m Nolan Dalla,” I said. “George Fisher asked me to come to meet you.”
“Tell me a little about you. I’d like to know more.”
Again, I obliged with a short bio on my education and working background that lasted perhaps 30 or 40 seconds.
Nick wasn’t rude. But there were no pleasantries either. When Nick heard I’d worked and lived in Romania, he revealed that he’d worked in a neighboring Communist country — Yugoslavia
“So, George tells me you’re going to be head of our PR,” he said.
“Yes, that’s my understanding.”
“Well, I have a serious problem here, you see. You’ve had some very interesting things to say about us in the past. Look here.”
With that, Nick sprawled out a file that spilled out dozens of Internet posts of mine to various online forums, as well as articles I’d written for Card Player, Poker Digest, and others. Some passages were highlighted in yellow. The goodies had been provided by Federico Schiavo, who worked sort of as IT man/investigator for the Behnens. One article was paper clipped to the top. When I saw it, I knew instantly why I ‘d been summoned and why I was there.”
“What in the fuck is this?” he asked.
Nick was holding a scathing editorial I’d written for Poker Digest. The article expressed the view that by its actions Binion’s Horseshoe had demonstrated it no longer should be the custodian of the crown jewel of poker, which was the WSOP. Disturbed by what had happened with the dealer firings and to friend Paul Phillips, I editorialized that an effort must be made to try and get new ownership for the WSOP.
Naturally, this didn’t stand too well with Nick or the Behnens.
There was nothing to run and hide from, here. It was all there in black in white. In fact, at that very instant I accepted the reality that I was certainly going to be fired on my first day on the job. And, I really didn’t care. And that’s when the line from the Joplin song popped into my head: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” What did I have to lose by speaking my mind openly in a forceful but respectful manner?
“Yeah, I wrote that,” I affirmed. “The WSOP last summer was a mess. But I’m here now because I want to make it better.”
Nick stared at me as I talked, studying perhaps, although I couldn’t really see what he was thinking behind those dark glasses.
“Mr. Behnen, you hired me as your head of public relations. For that, I become your advocate. Like an attorney. My job is to represent you as best I can, and maybe even give some advice which you can take or leave. I’d like to work here and make this place better if you’ll give me the chance.”
I don’t know how or why it happened but the tone of the conversation completely changed from that point forward. In retrospect, I suspect someone simply leveling with Nick honestly and showing some loyalty despite some differences made an impression on him. Or, maybe I just caught him on a lucky day. Whatever the explanation, I became a friend and confidant from that moment forward.
“Call me Nick,” he insisted.
After several minutes of casual conversation, next a stunning development took place. I remember the dialogue verbatim because it was so stunning.
“So what can we do to bring back the poker players. Everybody hates us. What can we do to make the World Series better?”
I really hadn’t thought about talking points coming into this meeting. But the first thing that popped into my head was the Russ Hamilton incident and the glaring void on the wall of the Gallery of Champions. It was an embarrassment to poker and the WSOP.
“You should put Russ Hamilton back up on the wall,” I said.
Nick paused. He did that a lot, as though he was thinking. He nodded. He sat for a good 20 to 30 seconds before reaching for the telephone. The conversation that ensued was surreal. He dialed “0” which brought on the Horseshoe operator.
“Get me engineering!” he demanded.
A few seconds later, I heard his part of a two-way conversation.
“I want you to go down and get another picture of Russ Hamilton and put it back in the wall,” he ordered. “Do it right now.”
What the fuck? Moments ago, I was a phone call away from being barred — and maybe even backroomed. Now, I was calling him Nick and advising him on how to undo the damage caused by the Russ Hamilton incident. And he complied!
“So, what else do you need?”
“Uhhhh, uhhhhhh, uhhhhh…” For whatever reason, I couldn’t think of anything else.
“Go up to security and tell them to give you a private cell phone,” Nick said. “Tell them I told you to do this. I’ll call you on that phone when we need to talk, okay?”
So, I was about to have a personal line from Nick which might ring any hour of the day or night.
“Anything else?” Nick asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Do you need any money? You need to borrow some money?” Nick inquired.
I couldn’t believe this course of events. I’d been a step away from being fired. Now, I was about to be linked to the boss, and he was asking me if I needed any money.
“No, I’m fine. But thanks.”
Nick spent considerable time on this point, insisting I should simply ask if I needed money. Pretty unusual question for any boss to ask, probably motivated by wanting to gain some control over people who worked for “the Family.” Nick explained I would be given “green draft” privileges at the casino cage. That meant I could go sign out any amount of money I wanted at any hour, for virtually any purpose.
I was starting to feel like Meyer Lansky.
COMING NEXT: ENDINGS AND NEW BEGINNINGS (THE 2003 WORLD SERIES OF POKER)
On the Binion Family Mess — Forget the Sopranos. Meet the Binion’s (Texas Monthly)
Story of Benny Behnen Assaulting Bob Stupak — What lead to the assault on Stupak at Piero’s? (Las Vegas Tribune)