Book review: ‘Blood Aces’

Posted Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker

by Doug J. Swanson

Viking, $27.95

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Meet the author

Doug J. Swanson will discuss his new book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at an Authors Live! event at Highland Park United Methodist Church, Wesley Hall, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas, 214-521-3111; www.hpumc.org.

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The Benny Binion story, as told by Doug J. Swanson in the fascinating new biography, Blood Aces, is a perverse version of the American Dream.

We learn in the pages of this book that a lowly criminal, if he’s got the right tools, can strike it rich and buy himself celebrity status and the illusion of respectability.

All it takes is an eye for promising business opportunities and a willingness to do whatever it takes — from under-the-table payoffs to in-broad-daylight murders — to make the twisted dream a reality.

Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion: The Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker examines the brutally colorful life of the man who built an illegal gambling empire in Dallas in the 1930s and ’40s, then became a major player in turning Las Vegas from a map-dot middle-of-nowhere highway stop into the casino capital of the world.

Binion, who died in 1989 at age 85, doesn’t have the same name recognition today as other mobbed-up Vegas pioneers, such as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, but in his day he was quite famous and just as charismatically amoral.

That’s why Swanson’s book is such a revelation — because Binion’s life story is a humdinger, from modest beginnings as an uneducated 12-year-old (paying the household bills by recruiting gamblers for a local racketeer) to his calling the shots as owner of Binion’s Horseshoe in the heart of downtown Vegas.

For a time, Binion was practically deified within his adopted city. His casino was famous for its no-limits betting policy at the craps tables, for its photo-op floor display of a giant horseshoe containing $1 million in $10,000 bills and for being the birthplace of the World Series of Poker in 1970.

Meanwhile, Binion was zealously targeted by the handful of law-enforcement straight arrows he couldn’t buy off. Alas, the only charges that federal prosecutors ever made stick against him in the 1950s were for tax evasion, the same strategy that brought down Al Capone two decades earlier.

Even after that, Binion, nicknamed “The Cowboy,” managed to make a comeback.

The mystique of the World Series of Poker led to amiable appearances on talk shows with Merv Griffin and Tom Snyder. Neither one asked about the rival bootlegger he shot dead in 1931 or the numbers-racket competitor he riddled with bullets on a busy street in Dallas’ Freedman’s Town district in 1936.

If they had asked, Binion might have dismissed those incidents with the aw-shucks rationalization “I ain’t never killed a man who didn’t deserve it.”

Perhaps Binion’s greatest archenemy was Dallas gambling boss Herbert Noble. The Cowboy repeatedly sent hit men out to murder Noble, who earned the nickname “The Cat” while surviving 11 attempts on his life, one of which, a car bombing, killed his wife.

But Binion was nothing if not persistent. In attempt No. 12, Noble was blown to bits by a bomb that was buried in the dirt road in front of his mailbox in Denton County.

Swanson, an investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written a book that’s practically crying out to become a feature film. Binion would be quite memorable in it as a cowboy-hat-wearing version of Don Vito Corleone or Tony “Scarface” Montana.

The book also should be enlightening reading for North Texans who are unaware of the area’s shockingly recent uncivilized past.

Swanson tells how, after Dallas won the rights to be the host city of the Texas Centennial celebration in 1936, city officials legalized gambling and prostitution in Fair Park to compete with lurid tourist attractions over in Fort Worth, such as Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, which featured shirtless cowgirls.

He also recounts the history of Arlington’s Top O’Hill Terrace, a swanky gambling den that dates to the 1920s and was visited by such well-known clientele as Mae West, W.C. Fields, Siegel (who took notes on how to run a high-end casino) and, once, an on-the-lam Bonnie and Clyde.

But my favorite story of early Dallas is the one in which Sheriff Hal Hood, in an attempt to appease prohibitionists, orders a series of raids throughout the city to confiscate contraband whiskey.

The barrels of demon drink are then ceremoniously opened and poured into the street — a glorious triumph for the temperance crowd, until some fool tosses a match, turning Main Street into a river of flame!

That’s an anecdote no novelist could ever get away with. But it’s all true.

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