LAS VEGAS — On a quiet residential street a few miles from the glitzy Strip, in a Spanish-style home with a white Mercedes 500SL parked out front and two satellite dishes next to the swimming pool, Lem Banker sat at the kitchen table that serves as his desk, looking hard for winners.
Like a Wall Street financial analyst, he had assembled a portfolio of statistics on each potential investment, though his variables were not price-earnings ratios but injuries, weather, team morale and past performances.
The UPI sports wire chattered on the counter next to the sink and he got up to check it for late news. He sifted through the local papers and the Gold Sheet, a Los Angeles-based weekly digest of team ratings that is to gamblers what the Bible is to priests. He shuffled some numbers on his calculator and punched into his computerized phone the code for the Stardust Casino, one of a half-dozen places around town where he maintains accounts.
Beating the Odds
The phone there rang once.
"Hey, pal. It's Lem. Yeah, what's that basketball game tonight? . . . You got the Bulls by a point, huh? OK. Thanks, pal, call you back."
Then he dialed another bookmaker, looking for an extra half point, a margin that can mean thousands of dollars to a "wise guy" (professional gambler), who, year in and year out, earns a six-figure income beating the odds and point spreads in games of sport. The stock market, horse races and casino tables he shuns as foolish bets.
Across town, in his office on the ninth floor of the Valley Bank Building, Michael (Roxy) Roxborough, president of Las Vegas Sports Consultants Inc., was also at work, making the line--the projected point spread in more than 200 football and basketball games--that Banker and millions of American bettors across the country have to beat if they are to take money from the bookmakers.
His line, uncannily accurate and distributed each Sunday evening to 25 Nevada "sports books," is one of the most closely followed in the country. To a large extent it even determines what illegal bookmakers from Seattle to Miami will offer their clients on any particular game or championship fight.
"Our objective is not to pick probable winners, but to set a line that evenly divides the public, with half the money backing one team and half the other," said Roxborough. If a perfect point spread is posted, he explained, bookmakers can pay off the winners with the losers' money and keep as profit the 10% commission--called "vigorish" or "juice"--they charge on successful wagers.
Sports wagering has enjoyed a phenomenal growth in the United States during the past decade. It is now the fastest growing sector of the Nevada gambling economy, having grown from the $41 million bet in 1975 to $886 million last year. According to Gaming & Wagering Business, a monthly New York magazine, the amount Americans bet legally and illegally on sports increased 8% in 1986 to $22.2 billion, a figure about equal to Bulgaria's national budget.
If gambling were a single corporation, the magazine says, its total revenue would make it the nation's 15th most prosperous company, ranking just behind Chrysler and ahead of Philip Morris.
With every state except Hawaii, Indiana and Utah now permitting some form of gambling, sports wagering generally has become a socially acceptable pastime. Lines and odds are published by newspapers and analyzed by television sportscasters. The National Football League weekly publishes an injury list, which appears to have little purpose other than helping gamblers make decisions. If you include office pools and friendly wagers, an estimated 90 million Americans make at least one bet a year on sports.
Super Bowl Bonanza
The Super Bowl alone brings about $25 million in bets to Nevada's bookmakers. "If you can't bet on the Super Bowl, who the hell would watch it?" Pete Rose, the Cincinnati Reds manager, asked last year.
Throughout the week, lines like Roxy's move in reaction to the placement of bets, injury reports and changed playing conditions as bookmakers add or subtract points in order to encourage bets on the underdog.
Like most professional gamblers, Lem Banker makes his own line and believes it "constitutes an order" on a football game when he finds a three-point difference between his projected point spread and that of a bookmaker. He hires runners with beepers and clipboards to shop the bookies for the best bargains and jokes that one of his agents arrived in Las Vegas 10 years ago with nothing but a $10 bill in his pocket and a white shirt on his back "and he hasn't changed either one since."