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Best of Benjamin Spillman

Gaming Guru

Benjamin Spillman
 

Downtown gambling: Rootin' tootin' revival

22 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- From a hotel room no bigger than a bathroom in a swanky Strip megaresort, Mark Burstein pried open a trap door and peered through a peephole to the casino floor at Binion's Hotel and Gambling Hall.

The trap door led to a glorified crawl space with catwalks and portals the late Fremont Street gambling scion Ted Binion used to spy on suspected cheaters.

"We didn't have cameras back then," said Burstein, an engineer at the property. "It was the eye in the sky."

The dusty hotel room with drab brown carpet and a creaky floor is a storage closet today.

Like much of Binion's, the room is dated compared with the plush accommodations on the Strip, where Las Vegas visitors can expect granite tile, whirlpool tubs and flat-screen televisions for less than $200 per night.

Unlike the Strip's pyramid-shaped Luxor, trendy Treasure Island or stylized New York-New York, however, Binion's can provide an authentic peek into a rowdier, more swashbuckling era locals and old-time gamblers refer to as "the real Las Vegas."

The real question is whether it's even possible to make the cowboy charisma of old Las Vegas meet expectations of customers accustomed to grandiose casino floors, hip clubs, lounges and dozens of upscale restaurants within an indoor stroll of their spacious, well-appointed guest rooms.

The answer now lies with Terry Caudill, owner of the Four Queens.

He recently spent $32 million to buy Binion's from MTR Gaming Group of Chester, W.Va. He is the fourth owner of Binion's since 2004, when Binion family heiress Becky Binion Behnen sold the 57-year-old property, along with its Horseshoe moniker, to Harrah's Entertainment.

Harrah's stripped Binion's of the Horseshoe brand, its lucrative World Series of Poker and sold the remains to MTR Gaming for $20 million.

The era of revolving-door owners followed Behnen's tumultuous seven-year tenure, which included a raid on the cash cage by federal marshals in January 2004 that shut down the casino and forced the sale to Harrah's.

That leaves Caudill to deal with neglect dating back more than a decade and a work force numbed by unfulfilled promises to restore the casino to its glory days under cowboy founder Benny Binion.

"We've had four owners in three years and a lot of promises that were never kept," said Burstein, a 19-year employee of the property.

In Caudill, employees get an owner who took over the Four Queens in 2003 for about $20 million, invested another $20 million in upgrades and more than doubled the annual cash flow.

During a recent tour of Binion's, Caudill repeated a philosophy of "good food, good whiskey and good gambling" he credited to Benny Binion.

Judging by the condition of the property, it will also take money and patience to revive it.

With 87,000 square feet of gambling space, a 25-story hotel tower with a top-floor steakhouse and rooftop pool deck, Binion's is one of the biggest downtown properties.

The Binion family acquired the tower in 1988 when it purchased the Mint and connected it to Binion's Horseshoe, formerly the Apache.

Benny Binion, who was in his twilight years by then, cracked he would need to get a pony to get around the expanded property.

"It was a different era when we were down there. It was more competitive," said Jack Binion, 71, who ran the casino from 1964 to 1998. "The area was more competitive with the Strip. Then, let's face it, downtown kind of got a little bit in limbo."

It wasn't all good times under Binion family ownership, however.

Even before the decline under Behnen, there was plenty of drama.

In the late 1980s, two California gamblers claimed they were beaten and robbed by casino security after being accused of card counting.

Eight Binion's employees were indicted and some convicted. Charges were later overturned. The casino paid a $675,000 civil settlement as a result, however, according to press clippings.

In 1990, Binion's was the subject of a bitter 10-month strike by Culinary union workers. After the strike was settled, management was accused of retaliating against union employees.

Binion's reputation for hospitality and a willingness to take bets from a dollar to $1 million outweighed negative publicity from the legal scrapes, Jack Binion told reporters in 1992.

"I never received indication from (the regular high rollers) that any of them ever paid attention to the allegations," he said then.

Today, there are places in the casino so dead Benny Binion could hold a rodeo.

MTR Gaming's most recent public filings reported the property lost $5.7 million during the first nine months of 2007 and $3.4 million during the same period in 2006.

The old Apache side of the casino is often bustling with dice and card games and a crowded bar.

The Mint side, however, is a mishmash of slot machines, empty space, a vacant sunken lounge and more poker tables than necessary to seat gamblers.

"It still feels like two properties," said Tim Lager, a longtime Caudill associate who now manages Binion's.

Caudill added: "We are going to try to figure out ways to pull it together."

The second floor of Binion's, where the finals of the World Series of Poker were once held, is now a collection of vacant restaurants and empty retail space.

Behnen's tenure coincided with a development boom on the Strip that sucked more business away from downtown. As the area struggled, Behnen cut deep to make ends meet.

"If business goes down, you have to give them more," Caudill said. "She just sort of withdrew and shut everything down."

Caudill plans to refurbish neglected areas, rearrange the casino to increase foot traffic and renovate the approximately 360 hotel rooms.

He is also seeking restaurant and retail vendors for the vacant spots and says he would like to eventually add hotel rooms.

At nearly every turn in Binion's, there are features loaded with potential but undermined by neglect.

The back of the casino, for example, features a huge bar accented with carved wood and detailed copper trim. But there are rarely customers, or even a bartender, because it is surrounded with empty floor space and unoccupied table games.

"They are creating this dead, uninviting feeling," Lager said.

At the top of the Mint tower, Binion's Ranch Steakhouse is downtown's only top-floor casino restaurant and offers commanding views of the entire Las Vegas Valley. Yet the restaurant has shabby wallpaper and worn fixtures, and nonsupporting walls block views and make the venue feel cramped.

The rooftop has another feature unique to downtown, a rooftop pool and an even better view than the steakhouse. But the pool is small, there is no permanent bar, shade is sparse and the deck is bare concrete with cheap green turf under a small canopy.

Inside, the hotel has rooms with historic significance that is unacknowledged by management and unnoticed by guests.

In addition to the hidden catwalks, there are rooms such as 2218 and 2219, where Benny Binion lived.

"I don't think most people are familiar that was where he stayed," said Burstein.

Some of Binion's biggest fans say the property will benefit by having an owner on site. They hope Caudill can tap into the property's lore.

"It is like having a child; you have to watch it," said Palms owner George Maloof, who learned to play craps at Binion's in the mid-1980s. "I think people recognize the fact that you care and you have your money into it."

Maloof said the Binion family's liberal gambling rules and generous comps were simple, effective ways to lure a crowd.

"I think what made that property was the ownership," he said.

Jack Binion said he doesn't know Caudill well. But he was impressed when Caudill agreed to let the statue of Benny Binion on horseback be moved to South Point.

South Point is owned by Michael Gaughan, son of downtown casino mogul Jackie Gaughan, a contemporary of Benny Binion. Jack Binion said the statue would fit well at South Point's equestrian center and was grateful Caudill approved.

"He has been a classy guy so far," Binion said. "If there is anybody that can revive it, I think Terry will be the guy who can do it."