Las Vegas lost one of its most well-known, and most colorful sports bettors and handicappers last week.
Lem Banker was born in the Bronx to a family that kept a close eye on the odds and he moved to Las Vegas in the 1950s—Part of that was to gamble without worrying about the law.
State of Nevada contributor John L. Smith was a young sportswriter hanging out at a local boxing gym when he first met Banker.
“He knew all the characters. They knew him well. He was well respected for his expertise. I’ll miss that voice, the rest of my life. He was a sweetheart of a guy, generous with people. The first guy to grab a check, that kind of person,” Smith said of his old friend.
Banker was friends with boxer Sonny Liston, Lefty Rosenthal and the crew at the Stardust, along with dozens of other guys who had come out to Las Vegas so they could set up legitimate businesses.
“That was the world. Guys who were making a transition. Some of them didn’t quite get out of the shadows but Lem did and really lived happily ever after in Las Vegas,” Smith said.
Banker used real information and real numbers to set a "solid line," Smith said.
This was all before computers. Banker and others would pay runners to go to the airport and find sports pages from the newspapers of other cities that had been put in the trash.
“The people who worked the hardest, of course, generally had the best lines,” Smith said.
He was well known for having solid information for gamblers, but Banker was also known for sharing his information and talking to the press.
“At a time, when I like to say, most bookmakers were pleading the fifth Lem Banker was willing to be quoted,” Smith said.
He may not have been a sports columnist but he did share his advice for gamblers in papers in Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York City. Plus, on Friday evenings, his picks for "Channel 8 sports fans" were featured on KLAS-TV Channel 8.
“He spoke up and he was well-spoken about the industry itself,” Smith said.
Beyond his acumen at betting, Banker had workout centers and spas where Smith says "the swells" hung out.
“He was basically a mayor in his own right, unelected but popular nonetheless,” he said.
Smith said that Banker came from a world on the East Coast where a bookie had a partner whether he wanted one or not in the form of the local mob.
“When he came West, he certainly knew all of them, tried to avoid them, but that was the world that he moved in. He was comfortable in light and shadow,” he said.
Banker was 93.
New Restrictions to Stop the Spread of the Coronavirus
New restrictions went into effect Tuesday as the state tries to stop the skyrocketing spread of the coronavirus.
“I think the governor has tried to keep people focused on the seriousness of it," Smith said.
Under the new restrictions, capacity limits for restaurants, gyms, bars and casinos will drop to 25 percent or 50 people, whichever is less. Private and public celebrations will be limited as well. The governor is telling people to keep gatherings to 10 people from no more than two families.
“It kind of boils down to the basics but people have to follow the basics. They need to socially distance, and when you see crowds, they’re not doing that," Smith said.
Not following those restrictions is a "recipe for disaster," he said.
The problem is Las Vegas was not made for social distancing. In fact, the city was designed for the opposite. Plus, getting people to listen when there is so much misinformation out there and the months grind on is difficult, Smith noted.
He said it is really a compliance issue.
“A majority of folks do take it seriously. You can see that. People are extra careful,” he said.
Smith believes it is really impossible to enforce some of the new restrictions, like limits on private social gatherings, but it is a good idea to promote them.
One of the big messages from the governor's office has been a warning about overwhelming the health care system. Smith does not understand why that part of the message is not being taken more seriously.
“It was a warning from the very start. Whether it’s Dr. [Anthony] Fauci or someone else, it was the basic warning. If you overload the system, the system won’t serve you,” he said.
Now, hospitals in Arizona are overflowing, he said. Utah and Nevada are getting close. In Reno, a hospital has converted a parking garage into a makeshift hospital ward.
“There’s no more time for a conversation about not complying,” he said.
John L. Smith, contributor
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