The news has just come out that, as of December 14th, there will no longer be a hotel at the Horseshoe Hotel-Casino in Downtown Las Vegas. Of course, it used to be Binion’s Horseshoe, the site of the World Series of Poker for 35 years and the center of the poker world for that long.
They’re also closing down the coffee shop. Sic transit gloria mundi.
For those of us of a certain age who remember the old days, this is a sobering moment. We’re told that they will keep the poker room, but it’s like saying, “Don’t worry, we’re keeping the statue of Lincoln; we’re just tearing down that big building around him.”
I first stepped into Binion’s back in the early 90’s, almost 20 years ago. It was during the WSOP, which used to be in May. I remember because it fell right over Mother’s Day; the fathers among our poker degen crowd could no more get away to Las Vegas that weekend than they could flap their arms and fly over the Grand Canyon.
It was just two to three years later when I first stayed at the hotel there. It was with the BARGE group, which has produced some of the luminaries of the poker world (Andy Bloch, Greg Raymer, Phil Gordon, and Bill Chen are all proud BARGErs). Our group took over Binion’s annually and they treated us like royalty. They comped us to breakfast in that glorious coffee shop; we’d leave tips amounting to half of what the meal would have cost.
Many of us stayed in the hotel rooms that are about to be boarded up and forgotten. They were not, let’s be honest, luxurious. At least one BARGEr was known to bring his own sheets and blankets to ensure their cleanliness. But by God, we were staying and playing poker in Mecca. No walking through a labyrinth of expensive shops and spas to get from your room to the casino and then a further schlep to find the poker. No, you came down one of two elevators and stepped out into a tiny hall. From there, it was literally half a dozen steps into the poker room. During the WSOP, you could hear the poker crowds while you were still in the elevator.
These were the same elevators that Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson, and Jack Strauss had ridden to their suites to celebrate their WSOP victories. Heck, Johnny Moss lived in one of those rooms for the last few years of his life, an honored guest of the Binion family. He’d come down every day and play $20-$40 Limit Hold’em, riding around the casino floor on his little scooter.
Me, I never won a WSOP bracelet at Binion’s Horseshoe, but in 1998, I was fortunate enough to win the Main Event tournament at BARGE, which was held there. BARGE basically took over the entire property. I recall the thrill of walking into the coffee shop and getting a standing ovation from probably two-thirds of the tables in the place. That was one of the highlights of my poker career. Going back to my room, with its view to the wall of the casino next door, to call my wife and tell her that I’d just won.
Both during the WSOP and BARGE, Binion’s became poker heaven; the poker players greatly outnumbered the “civilians” and the air was electric. Part of that was because it was self-contained – we ate breakfast in the basement coffee shop, came up to the main floor to play poker, went up to the second floor for the buffet or Benny’s steak house, back for more poker, and then (maybe) make it up that elevator in the pre-dawn to get a few hours of sleep. If you were a veteran, you knew the Clue-like secret passage from the front lobby area that took you through a delivery alley and popped you out right next to the registration desk and at the poker room. You ate, slept, and played poker at the Horseshoe and for a period of time, that’s really all you wanted to do.
Sometime I’ll tell you about the time that Nick Behnen, Becky Binion’s husband, had a series of wee-hour heads-up No-Limit Hold’em matches against members of the BARGE crowd. When everybody got hungry, he ordered dozens of hamburgers sent out from the kitchen, but that’s a story for a different time. For now, let’s all take off our online poker logo baseball caps for a moment and say goodbye to a piece of poker history.
Lee Jones is the Cardroom Manager of Cake Poker. He has worked in the poker industry for over six years and been associated with professional poker for almost 20 years. He is the author of “Winning Low Limit Hold’em,” which has been in print for almost 15 years.