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Bloody biography: The terrific and terrifying tale of Vegas legend Benny Binion

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Chuck Twardy

Four stars

Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, The Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker By Doug J. Swanson, $28.

Ah, the good old Vegas days, when the mobsters ran the joint. Everything was swell. Free cocktails, comped shows, two-buck T-bones. And if rowdy bettors got beat up, or the occasional difficult “business associate” turned up dead in the desert, well …

Well what? No skin off your nose? Omelets need eggs? The one-percent’s no better? You might find yourself grappling for justifications while reading Blood Aces, Doug Swanson’s colorful biography of Benny Binion, the shifty Texan who rose from teenage horse-trader to Las Vegas legend. His philanthropy, combined with his endearing cornponery, made him a beloved figure in the Valley—and it’s hard not to like him even as you read about his ruthlessness. Swanson, who seems at least to admire Binion, has to remind the reader now and then that his subject was a murderer.

“He was brutal when he had to be and beneficent when the opportunity arose,” Swanson observes. “He also understood that love engendered loyalty, while fear instilled discipline, but together they conveyed a singular power that could elevate and enshrine.”

Binion learned early on that work sucked and playing suckers paid better, although you sometimes had to blow up a rival or pay off the authorities. He got his start by running lottery-like “policy” games and hotel-room craps in Dallas, but even in that wide-open town, he reached a point when neither murder nor bribery availed, and he split with state and federal authorities bearing down. Moving to Nevada, Binion joined what Swanson calls the “Mob diaspora of the 1940s … It was Manifest Destiny, felony division.”

That Binion held his own amid the likes of Tony Spilotro and Moe Dalitz says something about that mix of charm and malice. Eventually the feds put him in Leavenworth for four years, and he sold the Mob stakes in Binion’s Horseshoe to pay tax penalties. He bought it back later, though, and payoffs helped him stave off justice until his death in 1989. “It takes a pretty good man to make you bribe him,” Binion once said.

The World Series of Poker, to which he attracted players such as Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar, remains Binion’s chief legacy. But after his daughter was forced to sell Binion’s, the tournament migrated to the Rio and morphed into something unimaginable in the humble Horseshoe. That Binion’s name survives on Fremont Street as a brand is either ironic or perfectly apt.

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