Before the Storm: Binion’s Horseshoe (2002)
This is the second in a series of articles about Chris Moneymaker’s stunning victory at the 2003 World Series of Poker and what went on behind the scenes that year at Binion’s Horseshoe. where I worked at the time as the casino’s public relations director.
The Binion War
The 2002 Hall of Fame tournament was a disaster. A colossal failure. It would be the last Hall of Fame tournament ever.
Now, you have to understand that the Hall of Fame tournament used to be a really big deal. Jack Binion ran two major tournaments each year — the WSOP and the Hall of Fame. The latter was done in conjunction with the official announcement of the latest inductee(s) into the Poker Hall of Fame. Usually, a dozen tournaments were scheduled for what was basically redux of the WSOP. The winners received gold watches emblazoned with the Horseshoe emblem.
By September of 2002, the Hall of Fame — much like Binion’s Horseshoe — had become a shell of its former greatness. That final fateful tournament was held downstairs at Binion’s Horseshoe — just as it had been during the previous 15 years. But this time an odd thing happened. Nobody showed up. The biggest names in poker, namely Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese were still boycotting the Horseshoe out of their loyalty to Jack, and that undoubtedly hurt attendance. Some of the tournaments drew a dozen players. A few events were even canceled. It was an embarrassment.
A big reason for the Hall of Fame’s rapid downfall was the messy Binion Family feud and split. Patriarch Jack Binion his sister Becky Behnen (Note: Becky Binion married Nick Behnen, and thereafter became Becky Behnen) fought in a bitter power struggle that ultimately resulted in the division of the family empire. The famous Binion murder trial (their brother Teddy was allegedly murdered by his stripper girlfriend) and the scrutiny of a national media spotlight on the casino and its screwball family didn’t help matters.
As part of the 1998 deal reached after years of infighting, Jack took his immensely profitable two new properties in Bossier City (Louisiana) and Tunica (Mississippi), along with rights to build another casino in Hammond (Indiana) just outside Chicago. Meanwhile, Becky was given control over the family’s flagship property — Binion’s Horseshoe in Downtown Las Vegas. Along with Binion’s Horseshoe came rights to the World Series of Poker. That’s one reason why Jack eventually struck out on his own and created what became known as the “Jack Binion World Poker Open,” played every January in Tunica (2000-2005). Jack’s tournament was every bit as big and successful as the WSOP. One can only speculate what might have happened were it not for the remarkable events of 2003, and the ultimate closure of Binion’s Horseshoe.
While Jack was raking in hundreds of millions in profits at his properties, Becky was hemorrhaging money and losing credibility. To be fair, she inherited a horrible mess. Sort of like taking over the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. By 2002, the Horseshoe was starting to show serious signs of decline. The casino was in a state of perpetual disrepair. The carpeting became worn out and was even ripped in some areas. In one spot in the middle of the casino, an underpaid and no doubt overworked maintenance man actually “repaired” a huge tear with silver duct tape (on the black, red, and yellow carpet!). That eyesore — two long strips of silver duct tape slapped over dark carpeting and then left there for the next couple of years like it was normal — pretty much symbolized how the Horseshoe was going downhill.
Indeed, the casino started to look filthy. Everything inside smelled like smoke. Televisions inside the hotel rooms were broken and stayed that way for months. Some of the TVs still used old-fashioned rabbit ears. Hotel rooms went for as cheap as $19 a night, and they still couldn’t book them. Binion’s Horseshoe was an excruciating reminder that “old” Las Vegas was disappearing fast, soon to be extinct. It was a dying dinosaur on its last legs. Fewer tourists came downtown anymore and those who stayed there didn’t tend to gamble much. The real casino action and entertainment were down on The Strip, which might as well have been not just in a different state, but on another planet.
This is the impossible situation I stepped into when I was asked to come and work for Binion’s Horseshoe in the fall of 2002. I was brought in as the “Director of Public Relations” for a casino making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Oh, we were getting publicity all right. Plenty of free publicity. We were getting more press than Steve Wynn. On the front page. But the headlines and articles were scathing.
Following years of dirty revelations about Teddy Binion’s cocaine and stripper addictions, made worse by his out-of-control use of black tar heroin, the lid had been blown off the Binion’s Family secrets during the riveting Ted Binion murder trial. As things were deteriorating, employees began speaking off the record to the media about a circus atmosphere going on at the Horseshoe, punctuated by moments of terror and even acts of violence. There were allegations of gross mismanagement. Cash simply “disappearing” out of the cage. Union issues. Dealer walkouts. Unpaid debts. Lawsuits. Unpaid medical insurance. Tax problems. Gaming violations. It’s wasn’t just a madhouse. The place was a complete clusterfuck.
And to think — I didn’t even apply for the job.
I’d moved to Las Vegas months earlier and played in the poker room regularly. Close pal George Fisher, Director of Poker Operations, was in charge of things. He actually lived inside the hotel and was one of the key people close to the Binion’s who really ran operations, his authority given the courtesy of Nick Behnen (Becky’s husband) who I’ll get to a bit later in some detail.
George knew I had a political background and asked me to come and work full-time for the Horseshoe, which frankly didn’t interest me in the least. I’d moved to Las Vegas with the expressed intent NOT to work. Instead, I intended to play poker, bet on sports, and pursue some writing projects on the side. I had absolutely no interest in wearing a suit and sitting behind some desk in a windowless office slaving away in a 9 to 5 job. When George explained that I could make my own hours and pretty much do as I pleased — including playing poker, betting sports, and even drinking on the job — well, that was far too fucking good an offer to pass up.
I was to be salaried at $50,000 a year plus full benefits, plus a bonus for working the WSOP (another $30,000 or so). Come to think of it, this was real money honey of a gig — collecting 80 grand or so to hang out with gamblers, drink free, and play poker at a casino where I’d spend a lot of my free time anyway. What was there to think about?
But then, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.
RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING: One of the best poker books ever written is the marvelous narrative by Jim McManus, Positively Fifth Street, which focuses largely on the Ted Binion murder trial and the events of the late 1990s.