Nover’s View: In remembrance of Lem Banker

On November 23, 2020, in Sports, by Stephen

By Stephen Nover

It wasn’t just another era. It was an entirely different world. That’s what sports betting was like in Las Vegas during the Precambrian times of the 1960’s, until the the late ’80’s when the town began going corporate.

Legal sports books weren’t in hotels. They were in stand alone buildings with sawdust floors inhabited by characters like Jimmy the Greek, Jerry the Hat, Montana Mel, Speedy Newman, Herbie Hoops, Roxy, Crying Kenny, Bobby the Midget, Fat Gerry, Lips, Bobby the Owl, Dick the Pick, Fast Eddy and Doc to name just some. There hadn’t been this many scoundrels in one area since pirates hung out in Port Royal, Jamaica during the 17th century. Damon Runyan would have had a field day with these guys.

Betting tickets were hand written. Customer service was not in high demand. This was old school Las Vegas where Lem Banker emerged to become one of the most well-known and respected sports bettors in the country. Lem passed away at 93 from natural causes this past week.

I was fortunate enough to catch the last act of this old school wise guy landscape coming to Las Vegas in the early 1980’s to write sports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It wasn’t long before I was covering sports betting. I couldn’t wait to interview Lem. He graciously invited me to his beautiful house, which was located about a block from another Las Vegas icon’s home, Jerry Tarkanian. I don’t know if I was more honored, or thrilled, to meet Lem.

He patiently went over how he handicapped games. Mind you this was more than 10 years before home computers and the Internet when obtaining information was at a premium. The first thing Lem whipped out was The Gold Sheet. He used their numbers for his power rankings. Lem would study the games watching and reading what he could,  talking to sources and even paying people to bring him out of town newspapers.

Discipline, money management and finding value. Those were Lem’s keys, helping him become one of the biggest and most successful bettors in Nevada. Just about every time, Lem would land on an underdog. I would tease him that the last time he took a favorite was backing the U.S. against Grenada.

Lem was media savvy. He often appeared on Channel 8, the CBS affiliate in Las Vegas, giving out picks. We became friends with the mutual tradeoff that he would get his name in the paper and I would get some great quotes and a very good opinion. Unlike many others, Lem wouldn’t get his points across by going off the record. He always stood by what he said.

He once said this about a prominent hotel sports book director who had a history of running off sharp bettors: “He’s not a bookmaker. He’s a shoemaker.”

When it came to giving out witty quotes, Lem was the Mark Twain of sports betting.

Some of his most famous quotes are:

“Bet what you can afford to lose, not what you want to win.”

“They play the Star-Spangled Banner every day.”

“Betting baseball is like trying to cross the Sahara desert.”

“Women make the best bettors because they know how to shop.”

Flush with success and owning a house that could have been featured in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Lem could be egotistical and vain. But he also was kind, extremely generous and funny.

Oh, the stories he could tell. Here is one of them.

Back in the day sports gamblers would get the opening numbers from the now defunct Stardust sports book. There was a row of phones toward the back of the sports book. Once in possession of these betting numbers, it would be a mad scramble for the bettors and runners to get to the phones to call their various sources, bookmakers, etc.

One rather large and frustrated bettor couldn’t find an available phone. The last one in the row was being used by an older woman. Rather impolitely, the bettor asked the women if he could use the phone. The lady told him no she was making an emergency phone call. Out of patience, the classless bettor flung the lady away from the phone saying, “I have an emergency, too, Ohio State just went up to minus 3 1/2.”

OK, one more story. This one is a little more bawdy so consider yourself warned.

Lem befriended many people, some down on their luck. That was the case with Bobby the Midget, who did indeed have dwarfism. Bobby was a rough-around-the-edges, scuffling sports bettor. Through his connections, Lem got Bobby a job as a valet parker at a prominent Las Vegas Strip hotel. Having a job like this was quite a plum.

Bobby didn’t last a day.

One of the first cars to pull up during Bobby’s shift was a fancy state-of-the-art pink Cadillac driven by an obviously prosperous woman. The manager of the valet parkers made the mistake of  having Bobby park the car. Bobby took the keys – and off he went. It took about 20 minutes before the valet parking crew started wondering what happened to Bobby. He should have been back by now from parking the car.

An hour later and still no Bobby. At that point, one of the workers went looking for Bobby. He couldn’t find him or the Cadillac. Panic started to spread. Where is Bobby? Where is the car? What if the owner comes back now?

Sure enough it wasn’t that much longer when the Cadillac owner did emerge from the casino handing a mortified valet parker her ticket. I’ll get it right away, he gulped. Instead he went to the shift boss and told him the lady wanted her car. The manager went to stall the lady while ordering the rest of the valet parkers to immediately go looking for Bobby.

About three blocks away there appeared to be an abandoned pink Cadillac. At least it looked like no one was in the car until the horrified valet worker looked inside the rear window and saw the backseat littered with empty beer bottles and Bobby rolling around with a hooker.

Not wanting to waste any more time, the valet employee threw drunk Bobby out of the car and got the prostitute to leave. Clearing the beer bottles as quick as he could, the valet parker returned the Cadillac back to the hotel and car owner. The woman was given her keys with the hope she wouldn’t be overly suspicious that some activity had occurred in her car.

No dice. The woman went to examine her car. When she saw stains on the backseat she let out a piercing shriek that probably could be heard up and down the Strip.

Back to Lem. He had a good life never having to draw a steady paycheck to stay afloat. Lem was betting until the end although times had passed him by. His later years were marred by a failed back surgery that left him stooped over and by a family betrayal. He was very frail at the end. Lem always prided himself on being trim and in shape, which he maintained throughout much of his life by working out, boxing and swimming.

His long-time wife Debbie, a lovely lady both inside and outside, preceded him in death. So there was sadness. But Lem had a long, and for the most part, good and interesting life. He wasn’t some pseudo wise guy. He was the real thing. He was sharp and he backed his opinion with big bets. There may not have been a more wired-in boxing bettor than Lem.

If they had a sports bettor’s Hall of Fame, Lem Banker would be a sure-fire enshrinee.


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