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ORCHID IN A DUMP
"Gambling," said an oldtime gambler known as Cheesecake Ike, "is the worst, meanest business in the world. Everyone hates one another."
If this be true, Lem Banker is an orchid grown wild in a garbage dump. Everyone seems to like him. Gene Mauch, the baseball manager, said of the saintly Alvin Dark, "He's the kind of guy we'd all like to be if we had the time," and that's how Lem Banker is regarded by his peers. They recite his virtues as though he were a Boy Scout: loyal, trustworthy, honest, friendly, industrious, temperate. I'm sure he helps old ladies across the street.
I also marvel at his audacity in betting so many games—and winning.
The credit probably goes to clean living. Although he decks himself out in Las Vegas mod (suede Ike jackets, two-tone shoes), Lem Banker would be thrown off the set of Guys and Dolls as an impostor. Few athletes take care of themselves as well, are as dedicated or construct an environment as harmonious to their profession. Animated by a wry feeling of tribal fellowship, he glides unobtrusively among the brasher hustlers and wise guys. He regards their schemes and dreams as colorful incense. He regards himself as a businessman in an exciting business.
"A gambler is like anyone else who uses his head in his work," Lem said. "You have to keep a sound body and sound mind. You need a good wife who won't be involved in keeping up with the Joneses. You have to avoid emotional involvements. Gamblers get screwed up when they lose their heads over beautiful women. There are millions of stories about that. You need stability to think clearly. Health, stability, credit. You have that, you have everything."
Lem lives with his wife Debbie and 13-year-old daughter and a menagerie of cats and dogs in a Spanish-style ranch house. There's a pool and a heavy punching bag and gym equipment out back. Lem said he works out nearly every day. He jogs. He rides a bicycle. He takes steam two or three times a week. He is, at 6'3", age 46, built like a tight end. He doesn't smoke, drinks only socially. But he isn't perfect. He has a sinful weakness for ice cream.
An adding machine on the kitchen table, a typewriter nearby. This is Lem's office. His tools are notebooks crammed with records and ratings, notebooks that are neatly inscribed ledgers, sports magazines and other publications, a telephone with two exchanges, sharpened pencils and colored pens. He is as meticulous as a tax accountant, as organized as the Dallas Cowboys.
Lem emigrated to Vegas from Union City, N.J. 16 years ago. He was an outstanding high school basketball player, went to Long Island University and the University of Miami. "It's ridiculous: you cross the state line and you're legitimate," he said. "I came here because I wanted to be a first-class citizen. I tried to make it in every kind of business, but gambling is the only one I'm good at. It's my profession. If you know what you're doing it's like almost any other business. Sometimes I have losing streaks and I wish I had a normal job, but then I win a few and I'm O.K."
Selling stationery or building sky-scrapers it isn't. "Lem can't eat without a telephone," Debbie said. Or a transistor radio. Lem tells the story of the gambler who inexplicably cracks up and cries at his uncle's funeral. Nobody understands it. Lem does. The gambler's transistor has just given him a terrible result. Lem has a calico cat that he cradles when he needs to pull a game out. And a lucky sweat shirt Debbie readies for him on television game days. Magic can't hurt.