DAM STRAIGHT: MY FAMILY CONNECTION TO THE WORLD SERIES OF POKER
Before the World Series of Poker exploded into a global phenomena, it was the domain of grizzled legends who spoke with drawls.
Now contestants speak in accents from dozens of countries in the tournament founded by Benny Binion, a Texas-sized mythical figure.
The WSOP celebrates its 50thanniversary this year, running from May 28 to July 16 at the Rio. A record 123,865 contestants competed for more than $266 million in 2018. The inaugural event had seven-man field, which had grown to 42 ten years later.
I owe the World Series of Poker for helping me fill in the details of a little-known chapter of my family history.
My introduction to the WSOP came in 1979 when I was sent over from San Diego-AP to fill in for the man who ran the Associated Press office. Our workplace was a tiny glass-enclosed cubicle in Review-Journal newsroom, barely big enough for a teletype machine, a desk and a chair facing a computer. Years later, when The AP expanded its staff and moved to a more spacious location, the “Fishbowl,” as it is known, became the meeting room where the editor and department heads gathered each day to plan the next day’s paper. My brother, Jeff Scheid, Terry High Class of 1977, would later spend many meetings in there as R-J photo editor.
So, having just transferred from Cincinnati, following six years there with The AP covering news and sports, I was fascinated, for several reasons, with the idea of writing about the poker tournament. It wasn’t a personal interest in gambling that appealed to me. After covering the Reds’ back-to-back world championships, the World Series of Poker seemed like the quintessential contest to determine the King of Vegas.
But there was a personal element as well. I wanted to meet Las Vegas icon, Benny Binion, the owner of Horseshoe casino, because of a family connection. My mother, Dorothy Clarke Scheid, had met him and told me to introduce myself as “Charlie Clarke’s son.” My father’s heavy equipment earth-moving company built reservoirs for ranchers and farmers throughout eastern Montana in the 1940s before he died in 1952.
Among the many dams my dad and his crew scraped out of prairie gumbo, a number were on Binion’s ranch near Jordan.
During that 10thanniversary of the WSOP, I met Binion and interviewed many other giants in the poker world, including Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim and a 28-year-old newcomer named Bobby Baldwin, who won the title in 1978. Baldwin parlay his poker fame into running some of the largest hotel-casinos in Las Vegas.
I doubt that my parents knew of Binion’s checkered history. I’ve confirmed that he was known to provide a safe haven at his 85,000-acre ranch for some sketchy characters. Remote and not far from the rugged Missouri Breaks, it was the perfect place to disappear.
I contacted Mark Goplen, who owned the Cohagen Country Club bar, a dot on the map near Binion’s ranch from 1990-1993.
“Sure, I met him once,” said Mark, who’s parents, Bud and Bette Lou Goplen, ran Young’s Cafe restaurant in Terry, later renamed Bud & Bette’s.
“Larry Bond (of Bond Drilling) and I used to repair his wells and windmills,” he said.
Binion kept a security team on the ranch. He was worth a lot of money and he wasn’t taking any chances out in that desolate area 25 miles south of Jordan and 60 miles north of Miles City.
“We had armed escorts whenever we worked on the ranch,” said Mark. “The first time we were met at the front gate by two ranch hands in a pickup truck with two rifles in the window.
“They took us through the ranch yard and I noticed a couple of guys suddenly go to the house and (enter) rather quickly,” he said. “When we got out to the well, both (escorts) had pistols in holsters. The second time I recall we were met at a gate by a hand on horseback and he also carried a rifle in a scabbard and had a holstered pistol.” After finishing their work, they were escorted out.
Years later, when Mark owned the bar, “Every once in a while we would get hands from the Binion ranch stopping in to eat, always packing hardware.”
I put a call into Las Vegas resident Nick Behnen, who married one of Binion’s daughters, Becky. They had spent plenty of time on the ranch, which Benny purchased in 1951, the year he was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence at Leavenworth federal penitentiary for tax evasion.
“Everyone wore pistols because of the rattlesnakes,” he said. But there was another reason for the firearms. “There was a lot of rustling,” he said, and Binion wasn’t one to mess with. He had a rap sheet several pages long, including a murder conviction and a suspect in others, according to published reports..
“Benny Binion would kill you quicker than anything at the drugstore.” said Behnen. There were people “who would steal anything that wasn’t nailed down,” he said.
Binion wasn’t bashful about letting the locals’ attention. He had massive bodyguards named Gold Dollar and Silver Dollar. He drove a Cadillac around Jordan with Texas longhorns adorning the hood. Goplen remembers seeing Binion’s bus, a Greyhound in a previous life, parked in Terry a number of times
“It had the Horseshoe logo on it,” he said. Binion was in town, Goplen said, to see an old friend who had spent time behind bars. Binion didn’t forget his friends and he had a soft spot in heart for horses and the Big Sky Country.
One of the most colorful characters who pulled on cowboy boots, Binion died Dec. 25, 1989. He was 85.