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September 19, 2018

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Poker limelight shines elsewhere, but Binion’s is hallowed ground for players

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Mikayla Whitmore

Binion’s Hall of Fame Poker Room on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Binion’s, once known as Binion’s Horseshoe, “was the Wrigley Field or Fenway Park of casinos,” said Nolan Dalla, media director of the World Series of Poker.

A glass of whiskey beside him, Las Vegan Ron Conway, 45, smirks as he strokes his salt-and-pepper-colored goatee, lifts his dark sunglasses and slowly rakes in a stack of chips worth just under $300 at Binion’s in downtown Las Vegas.

Less than an hour later, Paul Patton, wearing a bright red Margaritaville T-shirt and gnawing on a toothpick, collects a stack of his own after catching a second ace on the river to beat another player's pair of jacks. The 58-year-old Sevierville, Tenn., resident's pot is worth about $250.

The Tuesday night combination of about 50 tourists and local Las Vegans — half playing a tournament, the other half a $100-minimum cash game — is focused and subdued. The players fill most of the poker room, located just off Fremont Street and surrounded by glass windows and three small sets of stairs on each side, while a handful of players wait with a casino attendant for their chance to buy in.

Binion’s Poker Room

Binion's Hall of Fame Poker Room on June 14, 2016. Launch slideshow »

For poker players, this is hallowed ground. Binion's, once known as Binion's Horseshoe, is the cradle of the World Series of Poker, the place where stars like Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar occupied the World Series final table in Benny's Bullpen, the informal name of the second-floor Longhorn Ballroom.

“The Horseshoe ... was the Wrigley Field or Fenway Park of casinos,” said Nolan Dalla, media director of the World Series of Poker, who worked as a Binion’s spokesman from 2001 to 2003. “There’s something majestic about sitting at the place where it all began.”

Eleven years after Binion's staged its last World Series of Poker event, an auxiliary area of 15 poker tables once used for World Series overflow remained empty and dark. Ditto for Benny's Bullpen.

But Dalla, 54, a Dallas native who made annual visits to the casino in the 1980s and 1990s, fondly recalls an atmosphere where casino founder Benny Binion, and then his son Jack, regularly comped gamblers with free rooms, drinks and food toward the end of Las Vegas’ mob era. The casino also is known for taking craps bets of $1 million and $777,000 in the early 1980s. WSOP main event tournaments, which didn’t reach more than 400 players before the 2000s, often included players at tables placed outside the casino, on Fremont Street, before Gaming Control Board regulations started requiring video surveillance of each individual table in 1998.

Binion’s Horseshoe was the home of World Series of Poker from the tournament’s Las Vegas inception in 1970 — when it was a six-person invitational that took place at a small table between two restrooms — to the turn of the millennium. The event grew to more than 2,500 participants, but the casino lost its rights almost overnight when it was purchased by Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. in 2004 and resold just days later. Harrah’s also owned the Rio, and acted quickly to move the tournament over to its larger, more modern casino before dumping Binion’s in a sale to MTR Gaming Group.

Binion’s’ last World Series action was in 2005, when it hosted the final table for a final time after the tournament’s preliminary rounds had already transitioned to the Rio.

“It’s 200,000 square feet of convention space, it’s not on the Strip and there’s a parking garage right next to it,” WSOP spokesman Seth Palansky said, referring to the tournament’s current home. “Convenience-wise, everything about the Rio’s location is terrific.”

Binion’s has since switched hands again, in 2008, and is currently owned by TLC Casino Enterprises, which also owns Four Queens across Fremont Street. While the downtown casino was once barred from hosting any World Series events after the Harrah’s purchase, relations with the casino’s former owner, now called Caesars Entertainment Corp., have improved, said Tim Lager, Binion’s’ current general manager.

In 2014, for the first time, the former Benny’s Bullpen played host to the WSOP Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which welcomes two new members each year. Daniel Negreanu and Jack McClelland were inducted in November of that year, the night before the main event final table, now known as the “November Nine,” began. Jennifer Harman and John Juanda joined the Hall of Fame in a similar ceremony held in the ballroom in 2015. The ceremonies also featured visits from Hall of Famers Jack Binion and Brunson.

“Basically, we were told they wanted to bring it back to the place where the World Series was once located,” Lager said. “They’ve been very gracious in allowing us to become more involved.”

Although Binion’s isn't playing host to the World Series’ expected 7,000 main event players, who are now competing at the Rio, the casino will have at least paved the way for two of them to be there. Starting in 2007, the Binion’s Poker Classic, which began June 3 this year and ends July 3, will cover the $10,000 main event buy-in for two tournament winners.

Now officially known as “The original home of the World Series,” the Binion’s experience can perhaps best be described as “historical,” Lager said. He gets a kick out of seeing eager 20-somethings enter Binion’s with their fathers to play their first poker games at perhaps the valley’s most iconic poker casino.

“We have something that nobody else has. It’s history, and you can’t buy that," he said.

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