The Hoover Dam, gambling, the mob, neon and iffy research.
Pick up a book about Las Vegas history, and there’s a chance you’ll get all of the above. For whatever reason, perhaps because so many half-truths and untruths about Las Vegas have been repeated so often they’re now part of the narrative, nonfiction about the city and its prominent people isn’t always factually sound.
So when I picked up a new biography on Benny Binion, I was skeptical. When I saw the title — “Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Cowboy who Created Vegas Poker” — which has a sensational pulp-fiction ring to it, I expected the worst.
But I read it, and I’m glad I did. It’s fascinating, not only as a biography of a Las Vegas business icon but as a look at how the city operated in its golden era of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
The pages of “Blood Aces” are full of corrupt cops, good ol’ boy regulators, politicians on the take and business operators who weren’t afraid to break the law.
Binion emerges as a ruthless operator as we follow his career path from El Paso, Texas, to Dallas to Binion’s Horseshoe downtown. The story revolves largely around his nasty relationship with a Dallas gambling lord who survived a number of assassination attempts before finally getting whacked. Binion wasn’t charged in the killing, but the clear inference is that he was involved.
The picture of Binion involves more than guns and violence, though. He’s portrayed as ferociously smart, canny and visionary as he builds his Dallas gambling empire and parlays it into wild business success in Las Vegas.
Is the book 100 percent accurate? I’m not qualified to judge. But the author, Doug Swanson, provides 36 pages of research notes and bibliographic information. Swanson is an investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing.
For a Las Vegas business operator, there are worse investments than the time it takes to read this book.
To understand the community, you have to know its culture, and in many ways Binion established principles about running a big Las Vegas business. Some examples: making “little people feel like big people” by giving them comps; using philanthropy as a marketing strategy; and always — always — working on relationship-building among influential people.
No question, “Blood Aces” has a true-crime feel, but to describe it as such gives it short shrift. It’s deeper than that.
In a way, it’s like Binion himself. The small-town Texan spoke and acted like a hick, with rumpled shirts and too-short ties. But the persona hid a complex, intelligent and, yes, infamous man.