Lem Banker was a sports bettor for all seasons By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports November 23, 2020 at 7:00 pm Long before he became famous for picking winners in the Super Bowl, Lem Banker was a tall, talented young basketball player growing up in New York and New Jersey. He was good enough to receive more than one college scholarship offer. He had a gift for numbers, you might say, but he wasn’t interested in an accounting degree. He was interested in betting on sports at a time when the activity was more likely to give you a rap sheet than a diploma. Banker, who died recently at 93, gained legendary status for his savvy wagers and handicapping skill. And his ability to work the press and promote sports gambling helped drag the notorious pursuit out of the shadows. For that alone, he deserves a place in the sports betting hall of fame. I’ll miss my friend of 40 years for many reasons, not the least of which for his ability to spin stories of his long education by street bookmakers, handicappers, and players from Mr. B and The Brain, to Crippled Julius and Liver Lips Gordon. He grew up among Runyonesque characters, some with rap sheets as long as the backstretch at Churchill Downs. After moving to Las Vegas in the 1950s, Lem managed the Saratoga, Derby, and Santa Anita sportsbooks back when bookmaking was still considered so shadowy it wasn’t allowed inside the casinos. At least, not officially. Every bookmaker in the country owes Lem a thank you for the way he fearlessly promoted sports betting at a time Nevada was the only place in the country where it was legal. His syndicated handicapping column was read by a generation of players. Lem Banker’s Book of Sports Betting, written with Frederick C. Klein, helped educate scores of customers. Sports gambler Lem Banker in his backyard in Las Vegas And he was successful in his own right, earning a good living and at one point winning 20 of 23 Super Bowl bets. His numbers were solid in his prime, and there was a time everyone wanted to know what Lem was thinking about a game. He didn’t use a computer, and not just because they weren’t available. He used legal pads, notebooks, a remarkable brain. He networked for the best odds and prices, which gradually became easier with the advent of phone accounts. He also knew which way the wind was blowing on games Back East, where no one imagined sports betting would ever be legalized. If a Bears-Lions game moved an inch, Lem Banker knew about it. Lem didn’t subscribe to every newspaper in the country, it only seemed that way. He was from the generation of smart bettors and bookmakers who sent runners to McCarran Airport to scour the commercial jets that flew tourists into Las Vegas for discarded dailies just to get the latest information on team injuries and intrigue. He became an authoritative voice for an industry best known for pleading the Fifth. And Lem collected friends along the way. Sonny Liston, Ash Resnick, Sheriff Ralph Lamb, and handicapping king Bob Martin, in his prime it seemed that everyone who was anyone knew Lem Banker. I could tell you about Lem and Jerry Zarowitz, who was once the man to know at Caesars Palace. Or about Lem and Lamb, who was once the man to know, period. I could tell you about Lem and Liston. They ran together on the Strip and out of town. And, yes, Banker did believe that the mob killed the troubled former heavyweight champion. He was certain of it. He told some of his stories in my 2014 book of interviews, Vegas Voices: Conversations with Great Las Vegas Characters. His life had become less complicated in his later years, and he liked it that way. “Nowadays I still work out regularly,” he said. “I stay in good shape for a man my age. I still hit the heavy bag, and I still swim. In 2008, I had four arteries that were all clogged up. The doctors said they never would have operated if I wasn’t in good shape. “I don’t play as high as I used to, but I still like to bet games when the price is right. I like to play a little every day. What else do I know?” Lem was once featured on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but like everything else under the sun the celebrity he enjoyed eventually moved on to others. He didn’t mind. He kept a circle of pals on speed dial and met with them for lunches and dinners, always reaching first for the check. When my daughter Amelia was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 8, Lem regularly sent her get-well cards and costume jewelry. He’d tell her what a champ she was and bolstered her spirits many times. He’ll always be a big man in her eyes. I last spoke with him a few weeks ago. He was in good spirits, but the coronavirus pandemic had everyone locked down. He said he was playing small, but still playing. How could he not? He was Lem Banker. And he knew he’d gotten the best from life. John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.