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Best of Benjamin Spillman
Benjamin Spillman

Recurring currency

22 August 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Binion's newest owner is bringing back a renowned tradition at the downtown Las Vegas casino, and it isn't swift and thorough beatings for people dumb enough to get caught cheating at cards.

The casino floor is once again home to a stack of cash worth $1 million that is on display to lure tourists into the once-rollicking gambling joint.

The appearance of a $1 million display similar to the one that entertained millions of Las Vegas tourists from the 1950s until 2000 is the latest gimmick by Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel owner Terry Caudill to revive some of the spirit from the casino's heyday.

The money is encased in an acrylic pyramid on top of a poker table in the middle of the casino. Casino workers brought it out last week to the surprise of tourists who happened to be there when they installed the display.

"It was pretty wild," said Binion's general manager Tim Lager. "People were taking pictures with their phones."

Unlike the version of the stack on display from 1964 to 2000, the new display isn't made of rare $10,000 bills. It is $270,000 in $100 bills, $688,000 in $20 bills and $42,000 in $1 bills.

Assembling enough $10,000 bills, which are now out of circulation, would have cost $16 million or more, Lager said. Just one of the $10,000 bills from the old Binion's display was posted on the auction Web site eBay for $160,000, he said.

Also, photos with the new cash stack don't come courtesy of the house like they did when the Binion family ran the casino and an estimated 5 million people trekked downtown for a snapshot.

Under the new ownership, to get a photo with the money, a customer needs to sign up for the slot club and plunk down $20 for the souvenir and $25 in slot or table play.

The setup around the display includes a camera mounted on the ceiling that snaps the photos and a workstation where employees process the photos.

The display will be visible from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily and during off hours will be locked under a stainless steel shell. The poker table on which it rests is also reinforced with steel plates and each level of the acrylic casing is sealed shut and secured.

There are also cameras fixed on the money.

"We took all the cautions our insurance people wanted," Lager said. "It is really overkill."

According to Review-Journal archives, the million-dollar display first appeared in the 1950s at what was then the Horseshoe Casino under ownership by Joe W. Brown.

Brown sold the original stack in 1959 and in 1964 then-owner Benny Binion assembled $1 million in $10,000 bills and re-created the attraction.

For decades it was one of the most popular attractions in Las Vegas.

In 2000, when coin collector Jay Parrino bought the display for an undisclosed price, longtime Binion's fans mourned the loss.

"That's a part of Benny," Poker Hall of Fame member Pug Pearson told a reporter then.

Stratosphere founder Bob Stupak said at the time, "It's almost like family history; I'm extremely disappointed."

The original display was part and parcel with the down-home atmosphere at Binion's.

When Benny Binion was alive, the casino was run in large part by his son, Jack Binion. At the time the place was known for generous food and booze comps for high and low rollers and a willingness to accept any bet.

It was also a place that stayed true to Benny's outlaw, Texas roots. In the late 1980s two California gamblers who were accused of cheating claimed they were badly beaten by casino security guards.

Eight Binion's employees were indicted but the charges were eventually tossed out, although the casino paid a $675,000 civil settlement, according to press clippings.

A scene depicting casino workers beating card cheats was also part of the 1995 movie "Casino," a film that included nods to the glamour and dark side of a bygone era in Las Vegas.