On the Sincerity of Las Vegas: 13 Thoughts While Reading BLOOD ACES

Guest Article by: 
Benjamin Rybeck

Before I met my girlfriend, it never occurred to me that people actually live in Las Vegas. Now, I expect to fly there at least a couple times per year and stay with her parents in their doctor-sized house about twenty minutes north of the Strip. More or less all I know of Las Vegas is living there, since when I go, it’s to spend quiet time watching Ransom with in-laws (in-laws for all practical purposes), or reading picture books to my girlfriend’s six-year-old nephew—not to bathe in glitz, which, based on the hoots and hollers of the frat guys on every airplane to the city, is still mostly what the place is there for.

I’m not sure Benny Binion ever thought about people living in Las Vegas either. Ever since Nevada legalized gambling and the Hoover Dam went up—ever since the gangsters moved in—the city has been about its visitors, not about its residents. And by visitors, I mean celebrities. Because this is the key to the Strip’s allure: even if you’re a regular person spending a few nights, the whole experience makes you feel like a celebrity, rich in the cheapest way possible. Then, after the city squeezes you dry, you get on a plane and fly home. How could this experience possibly be meant for residents? Who wants to lose everything on the strip and then drive a few miles back home to your family? Vegas’s distance is the key part of its allure. This is why all of the city’s original architects—Bugsy, Lansky, Binion, etc.—came from elsewhere. They were all visitors who bought into the myth more than anyone else: they felt so much like celebrities that they never left, living their lives in the humidity of decadence and fame, sweating money through their clothes.

Doug J. Swanson’s BLOOD ACES, his biography of Benny Binion, is on a shortlist of the great books about Las Vegas. Also: Colson Whitehead’s THE NOBLE HUSTLE. Also: Brooks Haxton’s FADING HEARTS ON THE RIVER. Also: John D’Agata’s ABOUT A MOUNTAIN. Also: James McManus’s POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET, which, even alongside these other books, is that kind of if-you-haven’t-read-it-then-drop-everything masterpiece. Notably, BLOOD ACES is the only one that’s biography; the others are all memoir, which makes a great deal of sense. After all, more than any American city (except probably for Los Angeles or Orlando), the entire appeal of Vegas is personal, emotional—all pathos. You go there to realize yourself. Narratives of Vegas are by necessity written in first-person: it is a city that prioritizes the individual and bleeds him/her dry. You go to Vegas and spend money because you think it’ll define you, or make you better, and all the while you know it’s a joke, a lark. The trick of Vegas is it lets you hold these two notions—that you are simultaneously important and not important—in your head at the same time without feeling like there’s any contradiction. Whitehead, Haxton, D’Agata, and McManus—smart, ironic, skeptical authors—all involved themselves with Vegas, and despite their smartness, and irony, and skepticism, bought into it in one way or another. This is because Vegas, despite what anyone says, is somehow the most sincere city in America.

Driving to my girlfriend’s parents house from McCarran, I’m used to passing a few things: New York, New York; Excalibur; the MGM Grand—all places that act as facsimiles for other places. All of this is fake, and yet from that fakeness rises some kind of truth. Vegas is the fetish porn of American cities: whatever you want—however you want to recapture some thing or feeling long gone—it’s there. And will the city make you feel bad about your fantasy? On the contrary, it welcomes you—it welcomes the fantasy. Vegas believes in the power of other places with a focus and earnestness of a child drawing her favorite cartoon characters on a piece of paper and then showing the drawings to adults as though it’s a matter of life or death. Is Vegas trying to gouge you? Obviously. It knows it too. And doesn’t try to hide it. As soon as you accept that all politicians will say anything to get your vote, the enterprise of politics becomes weirdly sincere. Same goes for Vegas. In a city where all the visitors are pretending, the city itself never pretends at all.

Not so the Dallas that Swanson also profiles in BLOOD ACES—the Dallas where Benny Binion got his start as a booze runner. A conservative city that, on the whole, advocated temperance during Prohibition, it also contained Deep Ellum. “Offering all manner of temptations,” Swanson writes, “the district had inspired the song ‘Deep Ellum Blues,’ which included the lyrics ‘Once I knew a preacher, preached the Bible through and through / He went down in Deep Ellum, now his preaching days are through.’” What makes this story different from the story of Vegas, where many good men go and get corrupted? Well, here’s the thing: the preacher goes to Dallas because he thinks it’s a pure place and gets corrupted by surprise. But nobody is tricked by Vegas. Vegas doesn’t want to trick you. Fuck, man, no decent preacher gets corrupted in Vegas. If you get corrupted in Vegas, you were born to be corrupted.

For all these reasons, BLOOD ACES isn’t just a biography of Benny Binion; it’s a portrait of the American city in the twentieth century. No city screams “twentieth century” more than Vegas. It’s the most coherent iteration of America as the Roman Empire. “And while the kids played cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy dropped the house payments and junior’s college fund on the poker slots,” Ace Rothstein (played by Robert DeNiro) tells us in the elegiac, apocalyptic finale to Scorsese’s Casino—but Rothstein’s closing narration seems to me, as someone who sees the phony realness of Vegas, a little long-winded, the griping of the old codger who wakes up one morning to realizes he isn’t cool anymore. Earlier in the film, Nicky Santoro, Joe Pesci’s violent, opportunist hood—and, for that reason, the sincerest and most self-aware character in Casino, especially when compared with Rothstein, the ostensible pragmatist who’s ultimately clueless—earlier in this masterpiece of a film, Santoro says something that sums up the narrative as succinctly as anyone can: “[In] the end, we fucked it all up.” The corrupt get corrupted—destroyed. The city was built for them, and there was only one way it could end.

The city was built for Binion too, but only because Binion built it for himself. A small town Texas boy with a shrewd eye for criminal enterprises, he built himself a gambling empire in Dallas before being run out of town. Where to rebuild himself but in Vegas? His is a story of almost cliché American success—but then, Vegas loves a cliché. Like so many people do when leaving home for new territories, Binion embraced his heritage even more so in Vegas, and against the Italian and Jewish mobsters in their pinstripe suits, hobnobbing with celebrities, his folksy Texas charm and twang stood out. He smiled and shook your hand, while behind you, one of his goons put a gun to your spine. “I wasn’t to be fucked with,” Swanson quotes Binion as having said, and it’s true. His not-to-be-fucked-with-ness allowed him to build an empire, including—and perhaps most notably—Binion’s Horseshoe, a casino that’s still there (although, if you don’t know the city, it’s now part of the “older” Vegas, the true glitz (by which I mean, “true” glitz) of the Strip having migrated south). And Binion’s greatest legacy? The creation of the World Series of Poker (WSOP), one of the world’s most popular—and, not coincidentally, lucrative—competitions.

Many of the memoirs about Vegas mentioned earlier in this article involve poker, because poker is a shortcut to American self-actualization and success—at least, in the eyes of so many, it is. A shortcut because, hell, it’s all luck, isn’t it? That’s what the failed poker players say, anyway. The great Vegas memoirs involve poker in a way somewhat bemused and enchanted, like it’s a game that’s a bit magical and unknowable: Colson Whitehead tries to play but doesn’t get very far; James McManus takes the advance he was paid to go write about the WSOP and uses it to enter the competition himself, eventually making it to the final table; Brooks Haxton watches as his son becomes a professional player and then, due to the vagaries of online poker regulations, loses nearly all his winnings. Do these books paint a portrait of luck? Only in so far as the central myth of poker—of life, really—is that it’s all about luck. Both true and not true. And Whitehead, McManus, and Haxton, in their books, are tourists in the world of luckiness won through hard work: they’re good enough to know they’ll never be good enough.

For people who don’t know about poker—and I confess to being very much an amateur player, though I have a stronger-than-average interest—this balance of hard work and luck might seem difficult to grasp, but consider: you are playing No Limit Texas Hold’em heads up, which means it’s just you and your opponent. If you are unfamiliar with even rudimentary rules of Hold’em, I won’t help you much here, except to say that each player starts off with two hidden cards; from there, they compete for the best hand from another five community cards laid face up on the table. So, say you begin with two aces—the best hand you can have at the beginning. In the vast majority of cases, you will win this hand from your advantageous starting position. Thus, you will bet high. Now, say your opponent has a jack and a nine. Not terrible, but not worth much. Nevertheless, your opponent calls your high bet. Why? Who knows. Maybe he doesn’t grasp the game’s dense math. Maybe he hopes to get lucky. Then, three community cards come: let’s say, two jacks and a nine. Fuck. Your opponent has a full house—three jacks, two nines—and your meager aces are suddenly worthless. Mathematically, you held the best position, and you and any other good poker player would’ve known it, would’ve bet high on it. But because blind luck happened—because a statistical improbability happened—you will now lose to a full house unwisely gained. Can you imagine the mix of skill and luck necessary to actually be a successful poker player? Can you imagine the idea that you might be the best in the world, but all that skill might still be worthless against somebody else’s blind chance? They call it “beginner’s luck” for a reason—the clueless luck of somebody who puts a gun to his head thinking it’s empty, not knowing there was still a bullet in the chamber, not knowing how close he came to splattering his brains. One need look no further than the average Phil Hellmuth meltdown for a vivid portrait of how years of earning a living in such a tenuous way erodes one’s grip on sanity.

Of course, Swanson’s book isn’t about poker; rather, it’s about the kind of personality that engerened the game’s very...well, not existence, since it existed before him, but certainly perseverance. As such, it makes sense that Swanson’s prose is a mix of trash and tragic poetry. For the latter, consider a moment when gangsters killing other gangsters is considered, by the police, by society, “nothing more than smoke on the wind.” But elsewhere, Swanson goes lurid: “Binion often looked at a man—from an angle, with a squint—as if he were sizing up his price per pound. He calculated odds on nearly everyone he met. As soon as Binion saw Fred Browning, he knew he held aces.”

Though his life was spent visiting tragedy upon others, Benny Binion never lived to see the tragedy that visited his own family: the death of his son, Ted, in 1998. Ted Binion was troubled much of his life, into drugs and crime, and not in the smooth, good-old-fashioned way his father was. In 1998, Ted Binion got murdered in an unprintably grotesque manner. Changed with the murder: his girlfriend and her lover. Acquitted of the murder, eventually: his girlfriend and her lover. This crime hangs as the backdrop of McManus’s POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET. He wrote about and played in the WSOP as the Ted Binion trial was making Vegas headlines. How much did McManus know—or care—about Benny Binion? Not as much as Swanson, clearly, and this is why BLOOD ACES, despite not being a memoir, joins the ranks of the other great Vegas books I mentioned above. It’s about a mindset, a personality: if Vegas could be distilled into one person—somebody crazy, human, violent, shrewd, and finally tragic—then Benny Binion would be him. And what did Binion leave behind? A sketchy family legacy, much violence, and—somehow—the American magic of dreaming big at whatever cost. God, what a nightmare he was. All Binion’s venality, all Binion’s cruelty, all Binion’s smarts put at the service of disreputable ends—and what does Vegas do? It celebrates him. The city knows exactly what he was—scum—and yet, he remains a founding father. Upon Binion’s death in 1989, famed poker player Amarillo Slim reportedly said, “He was either the gentlest bad guy or the baddest good guy you’d ever seen.” Talk about sincerity.

Benny Binion was a wretched hive of American exceptionalism. He knew exactly what he was, and he helped create a city that knows exactly what it was. And in thinking about him, and Vegas as a whole, something occurs to me that I kind of wish hadn’t: sometimes there’s nothing more fucked up than sincerity.

My girlfriend’s nephew, now seven, likes cards too—in particular, Uno. One of the best parts about going to Vegas is that sometimes I get to see him. He doesn’t live there: his parents have moved away from Vegas, to California. On my last visit, we played Uno, bantering and turning over colored pieces of paper. Better playing that than Chutes and Ladders, a game entirely dependent on luck—the sort of horrific scenario that people who don’t understand poker probably imagine the game to be. The boy is bright; he has a sense of the ironic. For him—and for most children—games are something to be pursued sincerely in the moment, then shrugged at in the aftermath, his brain now onto something else. What I’m saying is, he has a distance from himself that things in Vegas so seldom have. It’s a city—sometimes vile, sometimes awe-inspiring—where you find slot machines in Kroger, where you have to walk through a casino floor’s haze of cigarette smoke to see a showing of Inside Out, the city’s Vegas-ness relentless. But my girlfriend’s nephew, even though he was winning our current round of Uno, didn’t seem to care. He wanted to play Battleship instead. So he stared off into space. For a second, it made me a little mad. I felt myself getting into it. I wanted to play Uno. I wanted to win. But there were other things. Ben the Hen, he often calls me, simply because it rhymes. “Ben the Hen,” he said, “you win again,” before I had even won, while he was still the one winning. And as I watched the way he smiled at me, his mind already far away from the cards on the table, I felt happy that he’ll grow up away from Las Vegas, because there—and by “there,” I mean nearly anywhere else in America—a little bit of irony will save him.


Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker Cover Image
ISBN: 9780143127581
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Books - July 28th, 2015

Doug Swanson signs BLOOD ACES at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, August 4 at 7PM

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