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Best of Benjamin Spillman
Benjamin Spillman

License OK'd for Binion's owner

25 January 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Even with a pistol and full-length fur coat Terry Caudill wouldn't pass for Benny Binion.

But Caudill is confident he'll shake the cloud of malaise from Binion's old casino on Fremont Street.

On Thursday the Nevada Gaming Commission approved Caudill's license to run Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel, a move that clears the way for him to take control of the historic property sometime in February.

Caudill made a deal in June to buy Binion's for $32 million from MTR Gaming Group of Chester, W.Va.

The purchase puts Binion's in local hands for the first time since 2004, when gaming regulators swooped in and closed down the troubled casino to ensure former owner Becky Binion Behnen could pay mounting debts.

Since then Binion's changed hands twice, lost ownership of the popular World Series of Poker and lost its stature as a Fremont Street destination for hard-core gamblers and tourists who came to revel in old Las Vegas charm and gape at the million-dollar cash display.

"It is no secret the property is losing money," Caudill told the Gaming Commission shortly before the panel voted unanimously to approve his license. "We are going to have to make some changes to turn that around."

It's unlikely Caudill -- or anyone, for that matter -- can ever recreate the atmosphere as it was when former Texas gunslinger, gambler and good-time guru Benny Binion and sons Jack and Ted ran the joint.

Between 1951 and 1998 Binion's Horseshoe became the first Fremont Street gambling joint to install carpet, gained a reputation as a casino that would take any bet and was widely known for personal service and generous comps.

One of the biggest thrills for Binion's guests was to catch a glimpse of Benny Binion, who would swagger through the casino greeting guests, often sporting a cowboy hat and buffalo skin coat.

In 1998, Ted Binion was slain in his Las Vegas home and Jack relinquished control to sister, Becky, who took much of the blame for the downfall of the once-thriving casino. After the shutdown, she sold the casino to Harrah's Entertainment, which stripped the Horseshoe name and World Series of Poker and sold the casino to MTR Gaming.

"In an age of corporate gaming and MBAs, you aren't too likely to find a Benny Binion," said Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada. "That puts kind of an unfair onus on the new management to try and match the behind-the-scenes character."

But Caudill, a longtime Las Vegas resident, former craps dealer and owner of the Four Queens on Fremont Street, expects to get Binion's books back in the black.

For starters, he plans to spend about $10 million to upgrade the 366 hotel rooms and update the casino floor.

Caudill says he will strip the hotel rooms bare and replace the carpet, drapes, beds, fixtures, furnishings and install large flat-screen televisions.

On the casino floor he plans to add slot machines and complete the transition to a 100 percent coinless selection. Although the short-term plan is to retain all of the approximately 900 jobs at Binion's, there will be reviews of every department, Caudill said.

"There is no miracle cure," he said. "It is going to be a lot of little things."

Caudill's track record at the Four Queens suggests he is up for the job.

He's invested about $20 million in upgrades in that property since taking over in 2003. Under Caudill the Four Queens became the first Fremont Street casino with an entirely coinless selection of slot machines and earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation jumped from $5 million to $12 million annually.

Caudill's background in the gambling industry predates his takeover of Four Queens.

Daron Dorsey, an attorney who spoke in favor of the licensing, detailed Caudill's background for the commission.

Caudill, a graduate of University of Nevada, Reno, worked for Harrah's as a craps dealer and keno runner. He went on to work at Circus Circus as an accountant and eventually became a corporate vice president.

He also founded the Magoo's, Loose Caboose and Chicago Brewing Company restaurants in Las Vegas.

Caudill said just having a local owner walk the floor at Binion's will improve the bottom line.

"You have to be in there and you have to spend time there," said Caudill, describing how the owner's presence at the Four Queens helped revive that property. "We had to educate people that duct tape on the carpet was just not an acceptable standard."