Benny Binion Made
Montana His Home
Binion Drove Cattle 200 Miles from Hardin to His Ranch in Jordan
BY CHRISTINE HENSLEIGH
...Binion was a problem. I traveled to Texas to see for myself the fearless boss of the streets of Dallas and found a cross between John Wayne and Jesse James.
Mobster Meyer Lansky
It wasn't just the Cadillac with a set of long horns as a hood ornament or that he was the only person in Jordan, Mont., who had a bodyguard that made Benny Binion stand out. He was straight out of Las Vegas, a fact that he neither flaunted nor hid as he slipped into ranch life in Montana.
But such was the dual life of Benny Binion—one of Las Vegas' founding fathers (owner of Binion's Casino in Las Vegas and founder of the World Series of Poker) and also one of Jordan, Montana's most colorful characters. But just about the time Binion got started in Vegas he also staked his claim in Jordan.
So why would a man accustomed to Cadillacs and card games seek out a small Eastern Montana town?
Jordan has always been a small town, peaking at a population of just over 500. It's hard but beautiful country. Winter means an average of 179 days of freeze and summertime heat can evaporate green in a matter of hours. Despite that, ranchers and dry land farmers scraped out an existence as early as 1910. When Binion came to Jordan in the 50s, sod houses dotted the landscape and large families were raised where indoor plumbing was scarce.
“The people who stayed in Jordan were either tough enough to survive or had no other choice,” long time resident and county commissioner Jack Murnion explained with a chuckle.
If the ability to survive was the key to exis-tence in eastern Montana, then Benny Binion found kindred spirits in Jordan. Because before he made it big in Vegas, survival was Binion's first order of business. And in those days, there weren't better places than Texas to teach the art of survival.
Born north of Dallas in 1904, family circumstance forced Binion's hand—his father was prone to drinking and lost the family farm when he was a teen. So Binion swapped school for street smarts, and went to work with horse traders to provide for his family.
“Daddy was a horse lover, it was what he wanted to do…he had the dream of a big, western ranch life,” Binion's daughter Brenda Binion-Michaels, 67, recalled of her father.
While horses were his love, his strong suit was his ability to sniff out card games and cheats in the horse-trading tents. At age 19, he positioned himself amongst Prohibition's bootleggers, and proved his knack for making a buck. By 1928, Binion was running his first 'policy' game, similar to today's lottery. The game was illegal and highly profitable. And so Benny Binion started accumulating his easiest asset—cash—during the Depression.
“It was hard times. People were really suffering. But Daddy made plenty of money and took care of all of his relatives. That was his role,” Binion-Michaels explained.
Underworld wealth did not bring police protection in Texas, where the standard operating procedure was to kill your competition. Binion racked himself up a pair of murder charges—though both charges were dropped due to self-defense.
By the 40s, Binion controlled much of Dallas' gambling until reform minded politicians or the mob (depending on your source) pushed Binion to relocate to Vegas.
“He was pure quill….a product of tough times, ol' Benny,” recalled Buck Roberts, a foreman at the Jordan ranch in the 60s and a family friend in later years, “Besides, Texas politics made Benny look like a saint.”
With his family of five in tow, Binion relocated to the desert of Nevada where he set up camp in 1946, the year Bugsy Siegel started construction on the famed Flamingo Hotel. But before he moved to Nevada, Binion invested in his early dream of horses and the West. After surviving Dallas, there was something about the open spaces of Montana that appealed to horses and Binion.
“Eastern Montana is natural country for a horse. Flight is a horse's first instinct, and [in eastern Montana a horse] can see for miles,” Buck Roberts explained, adding that the rich gumbo grass that is plentiful in Eastern Montana provided great protein.
Binion first set up shop in Montana leasing Red Hills pastureland near Hardin. Elbert Newman, 85, a longtime Hardin resident, remembers Binion's early days in the area, where Binion first nurtured his dream of the West. Already comfortable in the accoutrements of Las Vegas style, Binion drove a black Cadillac, complete with bulletproof windows, while he learned the ropes of being a cowboy.
“He was pretty green as far as working cattle goes. [But] he had a lot of money at the time, and it was a time when there was not a lot of money floating around. But he never talked about any of his business. He strictly wanted to be a cowboy,” Newman recalled.
By the early 50s, he had accumulated a fair share of land in Jordan, so Binion trailed his horses and cattle Lonesome Dove style over 200 miles from Hardin to Jordan, where he set up permanent camp.
Montana proved that Binion was shrewd in more than just gambling—his selection of horses proved it. He invested in tough horses and added thoroughbred speed so that cattle could be cut precisely during long days on the range. Galaceno mares—a small, tough mustang brought to the New World by the Spanish conquistadores—were his favorite.
“Those Galaceno horses were the toughest horses I've seen in my life,” Binion-Michaels recalled. Binion-Michaels inherited her father's love of horses and runs a ranch in Amarillo, Texas. “Daddy bred horses for what he liked—high weathered trotting horses. You could leave the house in a long trot and stay in it all day.”
Binion had the resources to buy thoroughbreds, and while he never kept the papers, he used that fast blood to breed a horse for what Binion liked best about his ranch—being in the saddle for hours, even days, at a time.
“The blooded horses aren't as sound,” Roberts explained, “And you had to have good horses in rough country…in that broken gumbo country. He was always trying to get better and better horses. [His horses] had better blood than most people know.”
But before he could settle down to his dream, Texas had unfinished business with Binion. In 1953, he was found guilty on five counts of tax evasion. Binion spent three-and-a-half years in the Leavenworth federal penitentiary. Ironically, it was the money spent on land, horses and cattle that may have tipped off the IRS in the first place. After his stint in Leaven-worth, he never returned to Texas.
Montana folks also saw another side of Binion. He supported local 4-H kids by buying their beef. There were always free rooms offered to anyone from Jordan who happened to visit Las Vegas. And Elbert Newman recalls a stand off between Binion and a particularly hardheaded horse.
“One horse bucked [Binion] and he had him tied to a tree and wasn't going to feed him. But not an hour went by and there he was, feeding him and talking to him again.”
By and large he kept to himself in Jordan, spending spring and summer on his ranch, in the saddle and out in the country. When he did come to town, he was known for a sort of fatherly wisdom that locals never quite knew how to take.
At the post office, when a fellow resident balked on paying the government tax bill that was sent to him, Binion patted him on the back and urged him to always pay the government what you owe them.
Then there was the advice as to how to get rid of the man in town that no one liked—Binion explained how to plant a car bomb that would just scare him, but not kill him.
And once at his ranch in Jordan, he told his hired hands—If you're ever in a bar where bullets are flying, stick to the floor and keep your head down. There's always some idiot who sticks his head up, and it's always that idiot who gets shot.
While Binion for the most part tried to blend in, it wasn't always possible. He was the only person in Jordan who had a bodyguard (a necessary accessory in Vegas). Binion's favorite bodyguard was a big (6'6”) black man named Perry Rose, nicknamed Gold Dollar, who doubled as the man in charge of the grill in Jordan. He was the first African-Amer-ican the town had ever seen. Dollar, as he was called, would let the kids in town sneak up behind him at a store and then delight in yelling Boo! at them.
While Binion was never a flashy dresser in the style of Vegas, he had one defining attribute that everyone in Jordan remembers—his tall boots worn with tucked in pants. While this style was not uncommon for Texas, it was a Montana faux pas to wear pants tucked in boots. The style made Binion stand out and set the town to smiling. You could always spot a Binion hand from out of town—they wore their pants tucked into their boots just like their boss.
Not everyone loved Binion; those who didn't kept their mouths shut—not out of fear but out of a code of conduct that runs through small Western towns—you don't bad mouth your neighbor because you never know when you'll need a hand. But Binion was also respected in his own right, and by the 70s, his reputation from Texas had caught up with him. But even before that, according to more than one local, 'he was a man you just didn't cross.'
By the end of his life in 1989, he was known as one of Vegas' 100 most influential people; his casino was among Vegas' most profitable, and he changed the face of Vegas with his style of no-limit gambling. And he succeeded in bringing the National Rodeo Finals from Bozeman to Vegas—where ticket sales tripled and for which he won entrance into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs.
But Montana was where Binion earned his cowboy stripes, and by the end of his life he had acquired 85,000 acres of land, an impressive ranch, just outside of Jordan—roughly 6 x 6 square miles of country. The ranch house was no mansion, but the land and lifestyle were what mattered to Binion.
Becky Binion summed his life up simply:
“After all the things he'd done, he cared about horses, big open country and real people,” his daughter explained.
Eventually, the long arm of the law took hold of that dream. In 1999, ten years after Binion's death, the family was forced to sell the Jordan ranch in order to pay estate taxes.
Did you know that the first World Series of Poker got started at the Binion's Horseshoe Casino in 1970? This high stakes poker among his intimate friends became so popular that it naturally advanced to the best online casinos you will find nowadays. Benny Binion has become a world icon and will forever be recognized in the gambling industry.