Chill Wills and Benny Binion grew up together in 1920s Dallas, a time and place in which the path of a professional gangster was still a semi-viable vocation. Binion was a born criminal. He took up theft, weapons, and moonshining, before finally settling on gambling as his principal livelihood. By the 1940s he was the reigning king of the Dallas rackets.
Binion shot and killed several people over the course of his life but he seemed to take a 19th century outlaw’s view of murder: more an occupational hazard than an egregious moral transgression. He was one of the first to invest in Las Vegas in its early days, opening The Horseshoe Casino in 1951. While other casinos drew crowds with lavish revues, Binion’s focus was strictly on gaming. His primary spectacle was a case that displayed 100 $10,000 bills, inviting guests to pose in front of a million bucks. Even in his later years Binion carried a pistol at all times.
Cards were Binion’s passion and in 1970 he organized the first World Series of Poker. The inaugural event was minor. At the beginning the invitational included many of the old card sharks Binion knew from his days in Texas, including Johnny Moss, “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Doyle Brunson, Jack “Treetop” Straus, Felton McCorquodale, Brian “Sailor” Roberts, and the oilman Crandall Addington.
These days poker is a celebrity game but in 1970 the biggest name in attendance was Chill Wills, who had made his reputation as one of Hollywood’s great Western character actors. He first became famous for voicing Francis the Talking Mule in a series of popular films that presaged Mister Ed. Though he was beloved by John Wayne, who in 1960 cast him as “Beekeeper” in The Alamo, Wills never fit in with the Hollywood cognoscenti. He was nominated for best supporting actor for his work in The Alamo but became a laughingstock when he ran a series of series of shamelessly self-promotional ads in the trade papers. One read: “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.” Wayne was furious. The Alamo failed to win any awards that season. After his Hollywood career wound down, Wills moved into the Horseshoe Hotel, where he worked for a spell as a host. He even lent his chili recipe to the casino’s restaurant.
Two young scofflaws take diverging roads to success—one becomes a racketeer, the other a Hollywood cowboy—only to reunite in retirement to bask in the sanctioned sin of 1970s Las Vegas. The world changed but this pair held fast to the Dallas code, which permitted unscrupulous but industrious hustlers to prosper in cards and prostitutes and whiskey. Vegas must have felt like the happy hunting ground in the sky.