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Goodbye to the last great bad-old-days casino in Vegas

Times Staff Writer

At Binion’s downtown Las Vegas casino, there used to be a big horseshoe-shaped case holding $1 million in $10,000 bills. The photographs that people took of the stash are souvenirs of a kind you can’t get in Vegas now that the wild, no-holds-barred, bad old days are gone.

Gone, too, is Binion’s Horseshoe, founded by Lester “Benny” Binion, a Texas bootlegger said to have arrived in 1946 in Vegas with $2 million in a suitcase. On Jan. 9, federal marshals closed the casino for failure to pay an estimated $3 million in employee pension and health benefits.

Two weeks later, Harrah’s Entertainment bought the troubled Horseshoe for a reported $50 million in liabilities.

Though the company hasn’t ruled out eventually selling the downtown property and pinning the famous name on a new casino elsewhere, spokesman Gary Thompson said the Horseshoe would reopen no later than April 1.

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That’s just in time for the World Championship of Poker, which Benny Binion started in 1970. The tournament, known for attracting the best poker players in the world and nobodies, will culminate May 28 at the Horseshoe, when the last player standing among an expected 1,000 contestants will win a first-place jackpot of $3 million.

“Harrah’s bought the casino for the brand and the poker championship,” Thompson said. “No one would build a property in Las Vegas now that looks like the Horseshoe.”

Even when I was last there in 1997, the action had moved away from downtown, and Binion’s was a sad sack compared with the glitzy casino-resorts with amusement park themes on the far reaches of the Strip. Claustrophobically low ceilings trapped cigarette smoke on the gambling floor. The carpet was threadbare, the rooftop pool barren, my $45 room featureless. But none of that mattered.

“There will never be another Binion’s. It was one of the all-time great joints,” said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter. “You always felt you were going to brush up against something good there.”

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High stakes -- the casino was famous for never refusing a bet, no matter how big -- free-flowing comps and a $2 steak dinner were Horseshoe hallmarks that made it the favorite of local gamblers.

Binion’s block-long Fremont Street frontage had open-air entrances and its western theme was chiefly carried out by the inimitable Benny Binion. He could be seen striding through the casino in custom-made cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, except during a three-year period in the ‘50s when he was serving time at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., for tax evasion.

“I remember the days when I used to sit with Benny in the Horseshoe cafe,” said Oscar Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, formerly an attorney for leading Mafia figures. “He ordered squirrel stew, with the glassy-eyed heads on, and told stories about murders, gangsters and down-and-outers.”

Benny Binion was left standing, the grand old man of Vegas gaming, when all the other flashy, underworld-connected casino operators, from Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to Morris “Moe” Dalitz, played their last hands. When he died of natural causes in 1989, casino tycoon Stephen A. Wynn, creator of the Mirage and Bellagio, eulogized him.

Some old Vegas hands recall Binion before time varnished his reputation. “Benny was a bad guy, a Texas mobster,” said the Advisor’s Curtis, “a mean, nasty, hard dude, but he knew how to run the business.” Binion left Dallas after a bloody gangland feud with Herbert “The Cat” Noble, though he later told the University of Nevada’s “Oral History Project” that he wasn’t involved in the killings that resulted from it.

His remains lie in the Chapel of Eternal Peace at Bunkers Eden Vale Memorial Park in Vegas, along with those of his youngest son, Lonnie “Ted” Binion, who a put a lurid “Pulp Fiction” spin on the Binion legend.

Ted Binion was discovered dead on the floor of his Las Vegas home in September 1998. Two days later, police arrested the secret paramour of Ted’s topless dancer girlfriend. He was using an earthmover to dig up the casino heir’s multimillion-dollar stash of silver, buried on a lot in Pahrump, Nev., about 60 miles west of Vegas. A macabre seven-week trial ensued, culminating in guilty verdicts for the girlfriend and accomplice (though the conviction was later overturned and the pair awaits retrial in October).

By comparison, Benny’s other children are solid citizens, though Jack and Becky Binion got into a tiff over management of the Horseshoe about five years ago, with Jack selling out to his sister Becky. At the helm, she removed the million-dollar display in the gaming room, discontinued the cafe’s $2 steak dinner and, many Vegas pundits say, drove the casino to cash out.

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Inevitably, the demise of Binion’s Horseshoe raises the issue of Vegas’ struggling downtown, miles away from the tourist-glutted Strip, with seedy plasma donation centers on its fringes and the four-blocks-long, canopied Fremont Street Experience sound-and-light show its only big draw. Most of the hotel rooms are on the Strip, where 74% of Las Vegas visitors stayed in 2003, compared with 9% who found lodgings downtown.

“The closing of the Horseshoe is not indicative of the health of downtown. There’s lots of new blood coming in there,” Goodman said. In the last few years, the Golden Nugget, Lady Luck casino, Fitzgerald’s and the Four Queens have changed hands, and experts agree that someone is bound to buy the old Horseshoe even if Harrah’s sells out.

Only Harrah’s knows whether Binion’s old joint will stay downtown or be transmogrified into some sanitized, smokeless casino-resort on the Strip, with a big, bold Horseshoe theme most visitors won’t understand.

At least the Binions won’t be forgotten at a $10-million museum taking shape at the downtown federal building, the scene of the 1950 U.S. Senate hearing that investigated the gaming industry’s links to organized crime. The facility, scheduled to open in 2005, is the brainchild of Goodman, who originally called it a Mafia museum, which worried local historians and church leaders. Now he refers to it, more diplomatically, as a cops-and-robbers museum and expects the life and times of Benny Binion to be part of it.

That will be good for downtown. But I’d rather have the Horseshoe, where Benny Binion’s smarts and panache, the essence of old Las Vegas, could live on.


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