Poker legend TJ Cloutier shares tales from the poker trail.
Since I'll be heading out to Vegas one day soon to play a tournament, I started thinking about the old days in Glitter Gulch when gambling and just about everything else was influenced by Benny Binion.
Benny was a piece of work. We used to sit around the Horseshoe in Benny's later years and eat breakfast at a big circular table behind the Sombrero Room and he'd tell us some of the stories about his gambling days back in Texas. "You never worried about getting broke," he said. If you got broke, you just went out and robbed the bootleggers." Just push a gun in a bootlegger's face, take his money, and you had a bankroll again. The bootleggers couldn't go to the cops because they were running an illegal business.
When Benny first came to Vegas, he never forgot his old compadres who had gone to jail for a little while here, a little while there. He knew they wouldn't try to rob him because of his reputation, so he hired them all. When he first started, he had all those thieves working for him. He taught all of them and they all became great workers - and they were all pro-Benny. That's one of the reasons why the Horseshoe went over so big.
Natey Blank was an old loan shark who had been connected a little bit in the old days. Benny had to take some money from Vegas to Reno and he was worried that Natey knew about it and was going to have him robbed. So he did the right thing: He hired Natey as a bodyguard to go up there with him. Benny was sharp.
Benny treated his whole family great, had all of them working in the casino. Of course, there's been a lot of tragedy in that family, you know. First there was Barbara and then Teddy, they're both dead. Barbara had a problem with drugs. We were sitting at breakfast one morning and Benny said, "Fellas, I just let it be known all over town that if I hear of one man selling one thing of dope to Barbara, he's a dead man." He tried everything to help her out, but she died from an overdose. I think she was the apple of his eye because he was always talking about her.
Benny helped more people in Vegas than anybody realizes. In the old days all the casinos banked their money on Friday and they'd keep a certain amount on hand. Benny was always the "cash place." If somebody put a big run on one of the casinos, they'd come down and borrow the money from Benny until the banks opened. The ones on the Strip would come downtown and get money from him or have the Horseshoe send money out to them so they'd have enough cash to pay off when somebody put a big hit on them. It didn't happen very often, but he always came through for everybody.
Benny liked to play poker but he wasn't a great player. The World Series of Poker was his idea, of course, and he started it off with very few people. They used to have that game over at the Fremont all the time with Tommy A., who was a big bookmaker, and Billy Davis and Nick the Greek Dandolos. Nick was backed by the Fremont at the time-he was a millionaire 77 times and broke again. They used to play real high razz at the Fremont to let people see them playing. Those guys were all there and that's one reason why Benny started the World Series. He wanted to get all the best poker players in the world, put them in one spot, and see who was the best. He always had business in mind, too, so he put them on display. He loved poker.
But above everything else, his real passion was good food. Personally, I never liked his chili but they always called it "Benny Binion's Famous Chili." He had a ranch up in Montana, a big spread. All the beef they served at the Horseshoe came off his ranch. Jack ran the World Series, but Benny was the one who always made sure the food was right. In fact, the food was fabulous during the World Series when Benny was alive. He always put some oddball item in the line ... buffalo steaks, rattlesnake meat, bear meat, this or that. Every year they had some different thing, and they never had the same buffet twice during the entire World Series. I mean, the main courses were never repeated at any time. This was true all the time that Benny was alive.
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