Right now, it seems like the biggest thing in new Vegas is Old Vegas. From the SLS’ many winks at its Saharan predecessor to the recent revamp of the long-running showgirl revue Jubilee! at Bally’s to the Cosmopolitan’s Liberace exhibit, it seems like glamorizing Vegas’ past has finally replaced imploding it.
Amid this new cultural climate arrives Doug J. Swanson’s compelling biography of a legendary Las Vegas forefather—Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster who Created Vegas Poker (Viking, $28). In it, Swanson combines an investigative reporter’s zeal for research with an author’s love of words. The result is a sweeping history of a lost era and a compulsively readable character study, with some fun turns of phrases to boot: Swanson describes Binion as “an aspiring pasha of vice,” “a rube savant” and a “doughy rural-route cherub, at least until he decided he wanted somebody dead, which had happened with some frequency.”
Unlike the politicians on the take who saw nothing but good in Benny Binion or the crusading FBI agents who saw nothing but evil, Swanson’s impartial eye lays out the all-too-human complexities of this singular man. The author invites readers to form their own opinions about the self-styled Cowboy who created a gambling empire in Dallas, and then when the law and his enemies were about to strike, fled to Vegas in 1946, where he created an even grander legacy. “Here was the paradox that marked Benny Binion,” Swanson writes about the casino magnate and founder of the World Series of Poker. “He was brutal when he had to be and beneficent when the opportunity arose. He also understood that love engendered loyalty, while fear instilled discipline, but together they conveyed a singular power that could elevate and enshrine.” And enshrine it did:
Revealing the real Fremont Street Experience. Blood Aces doesn’t just tell Binion’s story; it situates his past among the histories of Dallas and Las Vegas. Readers get enough context to fall into the rich scenes of these Wild West outposts long before they became big cities, but not so much as to get lost in a school lesson. Sure, Depression-era Dallas was a little rougher than one might’ve imagined, but the real surprise was the fact that Fremont Street and Downtown Las Vegas have never been all that pleasant. There is little lost glamour, nothing that has eroded over the years. In fact, it’s probably better now than it was back in Binion’s day: “Like some other joints in Glitter Gulch, [the Las Vegas Club] operated from a bare-bones gambling room offering table games, slots and a bar,” Swanson writes. “With bands of fluorescent lights and chrome-legged chairs, the club possessed all the ambience of a down-at-the-heels lunch counter.”
Mastering the art of the bribe. At almost every step of the way, both in Texas and in Las Vegas, Binion benefited from, and significantly contributed to, crooked politics. As Swanson writes, Binion was practiced at “regarding payoffs as friendly gifts and painting stark corruption as beneficence.” For all the talk of how things were better in Las Vegas when the mob ran everything, reading about a lifetime of crime going largely unpunished leaves a bad taste.
Not so much a nice guy, but quite a colorful one. As Swanson’s narrative progresses, it becomes ever clearer that Binion’s success came from his ability to blur the lines of morality and perception. Swanson calls it “self-mythologizing.” On one hand, Binion comes off as a romantic and an endearingly prickly antihero; on the other, he’s little more than a cold-blooded murderer. Certainly, he was both. But the fascination comes in how he was able to straddle that line. His image must have played no small part in this feat. As opposed to East Coast mobsters who wore “silky pinstriped suits from which they picked specks of lint with manicured nails,” Binion dressed like a bumpkin. As Swanson describes, Binion’s “trousers were perpetually unpressed, and the buttons of his Western shirts—made from gold coins—strained at his generous paunch. His hair looked as if it had been cut by the least promising freshman at a failing barber college. With all the polish of a Piggly Wiggly clerk, he wore an up-from-the-sticks grin and delivered country bromides in a nasal twang. He sometimes greeted friends with the query, ‘How’s your mammy?’”
Racism and murder fueled his rise. In his early career, Binion exploited a perverse kind of affirmative action: The author details how Binion was able to murder his black rivals with absolute impunity because, ostensibly, black lives just didn’t matter in Depression-era Texas. This ability to literally get away with murder created a dark sort of best-practices business plan that Binion followed for the rest of his life.
The law barely touched him, but karma did. For all his crimes, Binion was only ever sentenced to five years in Leavenworth for tax evasion in 1953. He died a civic hero, escaping to the great beyond in 1989, just before a sting called Operation Benny Binion could mobilize against him. But that Old Testament warning about the sins of the father certainly applies in this case. For all their advantages, his children battled drug addictions, suicide attempts, run-ins with the law, emotional problems and acrimonious family lawsuits. Swanson sums up this double-edged genetic lottery ticket in a description of Binion’s most troubled son: “Ted appeared to have inherited the old man’s freewheeling traits without the mitigating pragmatism.”
The Cowboy’s legacy. All these years later, Binion still exudes an undeniable appeal; perhaps it’s because he got here early enough to enter our city’s DNA. Despite all his faults, Binion represents the Las Vegas dream at its purest level. “He probably did not think about it in such terms, but Binion now embraced an American archetype,” Swanson writes. “He had fled his past, headed west and sought a fresh start in the wide-open spaces of the promised land.” Today, the pioneer is remembered as the founding father. No longer murdering or bribing … or innovating, he’s safely enshrined in Las Vegas lore, his casino signs on display in the Neon Museum, his likeness immortalized in a statue at the South Point and his poker tournament continuing on, bigger than ever.
Author Talk Presentation followed by Q&A session and book signing,
6 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Mob Museum, 300 E. Stewart Ave.