The early days of the WSOP were a world away from the modern game – join us as we travel back to Downtown Vegas in the 1970s with Benny Binnion at the helm
Somewhere along the lonesome highway between Reno and Las Vegas, on a winter day in 1969, Benny Binion began thinking of a new gambling frontier. Already a Vegas legend, Binion now hatched an idea that would change everything: He would gather a few top stud players at his Horseshoe club and let them play for big money while an audience watched. It might attract some publicity and crowds. They could call it the World Series of Poker.
Later, as Binion strode through his downtown Vegas casino – past the spinning roulette wheel, alongside the tumbling dice and through rows of ringing slot machines – he faced at least two problems with such a tournament. First, he didn’t have a poker room at the Horseshoe. Second, poker contests generally didn’t offer much as a spectator experience. Why would any sane person want to watch a bunch of paunchy middle-agers with pool-hall tans and stunted social skills, wreathed in cigar smoke, playing a slow match full of prolonged silence, crawling action and – in the form of folding – multiple pre-climax surrenders?
Yet such a display had its fascinations, not so much in the game itself as in the raucous backstory of the players. Which made the Horseshoe the ideal spot and Benny Binion the perfect host.
Elsewhere in the country, poker was illegal, so high-stakes affairs took place out of sight, in hotel rooms, social clubs and off-the- books game rooms. Many of the better and richer players had to hit the road. And the best and richest of those travelled a familiar route known as the Texas Circuit, though it included Oklahoma, Louisiana and a few other states. The life of the gambler who rode the circuit was naturally itinerant, and it was hazardous.
Doyle Brunson spent years ‘fading the white line,’ as the players called it, from burg to city to tank town, chasing big suckers and bigger pots. ‘You had to worry about winning the money,’ he said. ‘You had to worry about getting cheated while trying to win it, you had to worry about getting paid after you won it and you had to worry about getting arrested before, during and after.’
And you had to worry about being robbed, which is why he kept a loaded shotgun in his back seat. Over the years, Brunson had been held up by thieves with guns, knives and baseball bats. Some games operated as if under siege. ‘I played in a game in Oklahoma once, they had a .50-caliber machine gun sitting up on top of the house,’ Brunson said. ‘That place I don’t think ever got robbed.’
The first year of Binion’s World Series of Poker, 1970, drew just a handful of players, but it was a collection of superstars. Among them were Brunson, Johnny Moss and the irrepressible Amarillo Slim Preston. ‘The first time he comes into the Horseshoe, he tells a dirty joke,’ Brenda Binion Michael remembered of Slim. ‘Because my mother’s there nobody laughs. He thinks nobody gets it so he tells it again.’
Binion solved the problem of where to play by having workers move some of the other games out of the way to make room for poker tables. Before long he had a gathering of outlaws with long sideburns and polyester slacks, playing cards. The competition that first year was loosely organized, and at the end of it the players were asked to vote on a champion. When each one voted for himself, Jack Binion – Benny’s older son – asked them to vote for who they thought was second-best. Moss won. The next year the Binions changed the series to a winner-take- all tournament. Once a player lost his chips, he was out. Six players competed, and Moss won that one, too.
The series picked up momentum over the next several years – more money, more players, more attention. Soon, network shows such as the CBS Sports Spectacular and ABC’s Wide World of Sports were covering the tournament. ‘This poker game here gets us a lot of advertisement,’ Binion said. Never mind that the Horseshoe was shop-worn, low-ceilinged, lit like a Texaco station, and smelled of old Camels and last night’s beer.
The tournament gave tired, tattered downtown Vegas new life in the form of a spectacle unmatched anywhere in the world. Out on the Strip, the resort operators turned to extravaganza and silliness to rope in tourists. The shiny new Circus Circus had trapeze artists flying above the casino floor. But at the Horseshoe Binion had done nothing less than create a new dimension in the world of gambling.
It was drawing packs of spectators. They stood ten-deep on the worn carpet and crowded the velvet ropes that separated them from the action by just a few feet. Many of them would stick around later to lose at the Horseshoe craps and blackjack tables. That, after all, was Binion’s grand plan, to lure them inside and take their money. His bait – the kings of the poker, chasing fantastic pots – was irresistible: Slim, Brunson, Moss and the rest, plying their once-secret trade for anyone to watch, almost close enough to touch.
For the average Vegas visitor who might ordinarily venture no further than a game of penny-ante stud in the rumpus room, this tableau generated a trill of excitement and awe. And there was no more fitting place for it than a casino with its own ready-made aura of danger. Binion didn’t know frisson from fried chicken, but he was selling it now.
When it came to creating that aura of danger, Binion really didn’t need any help. As the former king of gambling in Dallas, he had killed two men and been implicated in the deaths of many others. At least a couple of rivals met untimely ends via car bombs. ‘If anybody goes to talking about doing me bodily harm or my family bodily harm,’ Binion once noted, ‘I’m very capable of, thank God, of really taking care of them in a most artistic way.’
But should Binion falter, his younger son, Ted Binion, had his own artistic touch. ‘He’s sorta like I am,’ Benny said.
Ted, who often ran the night crew at the Horseshoe, appeared to have inherited the old man’s free-wheeling traits without the mitigating pragmatism. He often spent much of the night shift smoking dope, keeping watch on the casino floor from the Horseshoe’s eye-in-the-ceiling vantage point. Rakish and engaging, he burned through money and good times. Ted was highly intelligent yet completely undisciplined – a self-educated history buff and math whiz who also enjoyed gambling and strippers. ‘Ted was brilliant. He had phenomenal insight into what life was about,’ said lawyer and former Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman. ‘But he had demons.’ Chief among them was an addiction to black tar heroin. Ted rolled the heroin into a ball, put it on aluminum foil, lit it and inhaled the smoke. ‘I’d find these little foil bowls all over the place,’ a former Horseshoe worker remembered.
The combination of a flammable disposition and a serious drug habit practically mandated that someone might soon die under questionable circumstances. That person was Rance Blevins, 38, an ex-Texan whose failed marriage had led to late nights in downtown Vegas. One Monday in May 1979, just before 5 am, Blevins found himself playing poker at the Horseshoe. After losing some hands Blevins concluded that the dealer and another player were cheating him, and he started a loud argument. Horseshoe security guards hustled him from the place, but on his way out, Blevins managed a parting shot. He kicked a ane of plate glass, and it shattered. Then he committed what may have been his worst error. He ran.
Blevins made his escape down Fremont Street as at least three men – a Horseshoe guard, a pit boss named Walt Rozanski and Ted Binion – pursued him. From his parked car, a Las Vegas taxi driver named John Koval watched the chase, telling himself, ‘Oh, they’re going to fuck this guy up.’ It took about twenty seconds for him to be proved correct.
After just one block, and at Third and Fremont, Blevins stumbled and fell. His pursuers surrounded him in the light of the flashing Horseshoe neon. One of the three men took a 9-mm handgun from the security guard’s holster and pressed the barrel against the top of Blevins’s skull. ‘He just pulls a gun out,’ Koval recalled, ‘and shoots him in the head.’ Without a pause, the guard, Rozanski and Ted Binion turned and walked back into the casino, calmly leaving Blevins dead on the sidewalk for the crime of breaking glass.
Now it was time for the Vegas version of criminal justice to swing into action. As soon as the first uniformed police officers made the scene, Koval offered to provide a positive ID of the shooter. He once had been a police officer in New Jersey, so he had a pretty good idea how these things worked. ‘Let’s go in the casino and I’ll point the guy out,’ he said. That’s when one of the Vegas cops looked toward the Horseshoe, frowned and shook his head. ‘We can’t go in there,’ he said. ‘We’re not allowed.’
Others did make the effort, with predictable results. About an hour later, assistant district attorney Dan Bowman arrived at his downtown office to find police detectives waiting for him. They said their attempts to enter the Horseshoe for a search had been rebuffed by none other than Oscar Goodman. ‘He told the cops that he represented all employees of the Horseshoe, and he was not giving them permission to go in,’ Bowman recalled. It took Bowman about five hours to find a judge to sign a warrant. By that time, the gun that had been used to shoot Blevins had disappeared from the Horseshoe forever.
Investigators had no weapon to dust for prints. Nor did they conduct a timely test for the presence of gunpowder residue on the hands of any of the three men who had been surrounding Blevins when he was shot. Jerry Blevins, brother of the dead man, phoned a detective to ask why such a test had not been done. ‘He said, “That’s not something we normally do,”’ Jerry Blevins remembered.
Koval, the cabbie, had no doubt that Walt Rozanski shot Blevins. Rozanski, the Horseshoe pit boss, was a 24-year-old former linebacker for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, varsity football team. He stood 6-3 and weighed 225 pounds. ‘It was the big guy who did it,’ Koval said. But prosecutor Bowman had three eyewitnesses who would positively identify Ted Binion as the shooter. They were, in fact, unwavering in their identification of him.
Taking on one of the most powerful families in Las Vegas, Bowman prepared his case against Ted Binion – and then watched it collapse. ‘All three witnesses mysteriously changed their story,’ Bowman said. Now the three were saying that Rozanski had pulled the trigger. ‘I was just screwed,’ Bowman said. ‘There was no way I could prosecute that case and win.’
Rozanski told the court the gun had discharged accidentally. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received probation. He never served a day in prison for the death of Rance Blevins. ‘And,’ Bowman said, ‘Ted Binion walked.’
More than three decades later, it is no struggle to find people in Vegas – the ex-prosecutor among them – who believe Benny Binion fixed the case for his son. Bowman, now retired, relaxed on a stool in a Henderson, Nev., bar and shook his head over the old riddle, still baffled. ‘I can’t understand,’ he said, ‘‘how three witnesses would change their stories overnight.’ His best guess: bribes. ‘Benny Binion had a lot of juice, and a lot of money to spread around,’ Bowman said. ‘He took care of his own problems…In my personal opinion, I think money changed hands.’
One man who might be able to clear everything up – Rozanski – has stayed silent. Book publishers and movie producers have offered good money for his story, he said, but he has turned all of them away. From a distance of years, he recalled the shooting’s aftermath obliquely. ‘I’m 58 years old now,’ he said in a note, ‘and I often look back with sadness, heartache and dismay over what happened, what was lost and how it was spun.’
He endured hard times after the shooting, Rozanski said, but he put himself back together. He does not blame Binion for his difficulties. ‘To this day,’ he wrote, ‘I am proud to say I am grateful to have met and worked for Benny Binion! He was a great man!’
On an autumn afternoon 33 years later, sipping coffee in a near-deserted diner in Florida, Rozanski laughed ruefully at the notion that Binion bribed him to take the rap. ‘Everybody said I got paid,’ he said, ‘but I was sitting there living in poverty… I never got a penny.’ He would not, however, give his account of what happened on Fremont Street on that morning so long ago. Rozanski glanced out the diner window and hinted darkly of unnamed forces and possible murderous revenge against himself and others.
It was a gambler’s calculation, and Rozanski decided to fold his hand. ‘Each man’s destiny has their side of the story. Some never tell it! Some don’t get the chance,’ he wrote in a note. ‘Some just wait till the time is right and some don’t tell because of who it would hurt! Believe it or not, Benny taught me that.’
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This is an extract from the brilliant Blood Aces by Doug Swanson. The book is out in paperback now – order your copy from Amazon now. Blood Aces is published by Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Doug Swanson, 2015.
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