Updated February 2, 2019 - 9:41 pm
Long before Billy Walters became widely known as the most successful sports bettor in the country, Lem Banker owned that distinction.
Banker picked the winner against the spread in 20 of the first 23 Super Bowls in newspapers across the nation, including the Review-Journal.
From 1973 to 1985, he picked 13 straight winners in the Super Bowl.
“I had that magic touch,” he said. “I can’t do it anymore. I just want to relax.”
Banker’s mind is still sharp at age 91, and he still bets on sports from the comfort of the Las Vegas home he’s lived in since 1966, albeit for hundreds of dollars rather than tens of thousands.
“It keeps me going,” he said. “I’m not winning much, and I’m not losing much.
“I’m just playing small now because everybody has got the same numbers and same information.”
Before sharp bettors began using computer algorithms and analytics and scoured the internet and social media for information to give them an edge, Banker relied on newspapers and a nationwide network of runners and insiders to beat countless bookmakers.
“Years ago, before the computer came out, I had a man back in New York at the New York Times building who had all the out-of-town newspapers,” he said. “He knew exactly what to read. I gave him 300 bucks a week to read all the newspapers and beat everybody to the punch.
“I had runners all over, in Florida, New Jersey, New York, Indiana, California. They all had different numbers. They had some morons making the numbers. The lines were real weak, but now the line is very sharp. It’s not as easy to win.”
Born in Bronx, New York, in 1927, Banker received an early education on gambling from his father, who was a candy-store bookie in Union City, New Jersey.
“You’ve heard about the guy who ran the candy store in the front and the book in the back,” he said. “Well, my father ran the book in the front and the candy store in the back.”
Banker joined the U.S. Army after high school and went to Long Island University and the University of Miami on basketball scholarships before moving to Las Vegas in 1959. He said he never has drawn a regular paycheck in his life.
While his father discouraged him from being a gambler, he taught Banker some valuable lessons that served him well in his pro betting career and still ring true today: Bet not what you want to win but what you can afford to lose; when you’re behind don’t try to get even all at once, but a little at a time; and, most important, go against public opinion.
Banker, who wrote “Lem Banker’s Book of Sports Betting” in 1986, always has made his own power ratings and point spreads.
Mostly an underdog player throughout his life, Banker likes the Rams and under in Super Bowl LIII and also bet on Los Angeles defensive tackle Aaron Donald at 18½-1 odds to win MVP honors. The Patriots are consensus 2½-point favorites, and the total is 56½.
“You’ve got the best defensive player (in Donald), you’ve got the best runner (in Todd Gurley) and you’re getting points. You’ve got so many things going for you,” Banker said. “Tom Brady might be the best quarterback ever, but you’re only as good as your help. Donald and (Ndamukong) Suh will bring a lot of pressure.”