He Cut His Teeth in a New Jersey Candy Store, but Gambler Lem Banker Has Found the Sweet Life in Vegas

updated 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is early afternoon as Lem Banker eases his Mercedes-Benz 500SL under the unlit marquee of die the Stardust hotel. Savvy about such matters, the attendant leaves Banker's car where he parked it, a privilege accorded celebs and high rollers. Washed for a moment by the glare of the desert sun, Lem clicks across the terrazzo into the weatherless world of the Las Vegas casino. Gliding fluidly past the blue-haired las flogging the slots and the urban cowpokes at the roulette tables, he strides toward the rear of the casino, where the so-called Sports Book is located. Huge boards listing the odds on the day's contests in football, basketball, hockey and boxing soar to the ceiling of the three-story room. Beneath it huddle men, most of them a-jangle with glittering gold chains, poring over tip sheets and sports pages.

Entering the room with a certain regal assurance, Banker is met by a trio of aides who engage him in confidential discussion. Finally Banker murmurs a brief reply, and one of the men, a handsome Israeli, produces a six-inch-thick roll of bills, walks to the teller's window nearby and lays a stack of hundreds in front of the smiling blonde taking bets.

Lem Banker, 56, is a gambler. By general consensus, he is the top football bettor in the business and the only one in the country who lives entirely off his winnings. Those, he says, are sufficient to earn him a comfortable stockbroker's livelihood. Every week during the season Banker places bets, sometimes as heavy as $10,000, on 13 college and seven professional football games. He needs to hit 53 percent of his bets to break even, and this season he has been on the money a remarkable 60 percent of the time. Banker's flamboyant success, coupled with his uncommon civility, has inspired Larry Merchant, author of The National Football Lottery, to call him "an orchid grown wild in a garbage dump."

Lem Banker may have flowered in Vegas—he's lived there since 1958—but he first took root in Union City, N.J. "My dad had a candy store," he says. "But he had the candy in back and the book was in front. Everything was against the law. But it was legal as long as you paid off the right people." Lem's grandparents were Russian Jews, and Banker's father, entertaining the usual dream of the first-generation American, wanted his son to be a doctor or a lawyer.

That didn't keep him from teaching Lem the basics of gambling, principles the lad learned to live by. "He taught me to bet just a little money," says Banker, who advises people never to wager more than two percent of their bankroll, "and he taught me how to pick teams and horses. We used to go to the trotting races. He'd bet a horse and I'd say, 'Look at his past performance! He's never won, and the last eight times he hasn't been in the money!' What he'd explain to me was that that particular horse had been racing in better company when he lost. So now they were putting him in with slower horses, and we'd be getting good odds."

Success at the betting window, says Banker, is all a matter of looking for bargains. He doesn't believe they can be found at the track. "The horses are too unpredictable and the track's cut is too large," he says. Sports betting is his meat, though he cautions that each sport is unique. "Football," he says, "is a lot of psychology. Teams may be up for a game or they may not. There are a lot of injuries. And you got to watch the scheduling. Players hold back sometimes, waiting for important games." Basketball? "The players all want to do their own thing, slam-dunk the ball. These fellows do their best for the people back home, for their own personal greed, to help them renegotiate their contracts. The teams that play together win together." Baseball? "Pitching is the most important feature you handicap. Some pitchers do good against certain teams, and they have a complex against other teams." Boxing? "Fighters are easier to bet on. It's a one-on-one handicap."

Because in his business information is money, Banker has a telephone in every room of his house and a satellite dish in his backyard. He also strives to keep up his contacts. "I like to talk to sportswriters," says Banker. "They know who's injured, who's having trouble with his wife, who's going to be traded, which team is up, which is overconfident." The Gambler's Rule No. 1: You're only as smart as your information. A few years back, Lem remembers, the top college football team in the nation had a star quarterback with a favorite receiver. Only trouble was, the receiver started completing passes of his own, to the quarterback's wife. That was the rumor. Sure enough, all of a sudden, everything the one guy threw, the other guy dropped. Rule No. 2: Discipline. "They play The Star-Spangled Banner every day," says Banker obliquely. "The main thing is to be around toward the end of the season." His point: Don't be a sucker and bet every game; "The team and the price have to be right."

Though Banker lives surrounded by the gambling capital's reckless extravagance, his daily regimen is contoured by discipline. During the football season he is up by 10 a.m.—by Vegas standards, practically dawn. After breakfast, unless there is an early game to watch on TV, he works his numbers and plugs into his life-support system, the telephone. Then he circulates through the casinos and late in the afternoon comes home for his workout. He runs three miles, skips rope, does his Jane Fonda aerobics, lifts weights, hits the sauna or settles down in the whirlpool. Then he has dinner and goes out once more. He cruises the Strip, especially the restaurants and cocktail lounges at Caesars, the Riviera, etc., where gambling's elite and hangers-on tend to congregate. "Nobody says hello, they say, 'Who do you like?' " observes Banker.

Lem, who has never drawn a paycheck in his life, devotes as many as 70 hours a week to making his daily bread. He has to. "There are more casualties in the gambling business than in any other business I know," he says. He speaks from experience. In 1960, when his wife, Debbie, went into the hospital to give birth to Blaine, their daughter and only child, Banker was so far from being fortune's favorite that he had to wager his last dollar to pay the bills. "Fortunately, I won," he says.

Obviously, he has made it a habit. His address now is a rambling ranch-style house complete with brass-rail bar, the requisite swimming pool and enough communications gear to start his own retail outlet. Lem is a family man and not as given to flash as his peers, but the two women in his life dress to kill. They wear expensive furs—lynx, sable, mink, as the mood moves them—and wheel about town in any of Lem's three luxury cars.

"I was just a bettor back in Jersey," Lem reminisces. "But I built a reputation. People would want to know who I liked. I enjoyed that, but I'm happier here in Vegas, where it's legal." He pauses. "You know," he continues with a look of amusement, "my father thought I'd never amount to anything." That said, Banker slides behind the wheel of his gleaming white Mercedes and sets out on his evening rounds.

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