News arrived several months back that Herb Lambeck had died. Lambeck, who acquired the cognomen Herbie Hoops, spent his final months in a VA convalescent home in New Jersey. He had come full circle, returning to his home state to live out his days, but while he spent his formative years in crusty Newark and was shaped by that greasy spoon of a city, he was foremost a symbol of old Las Vegas. A man who lived by his wits and was honest to a fault in his own idiosyncratic way, Herb Lambeck had a valued opinion when it came to college basketball and especially boxing and within his tight-knit community a man did not stand tall without a valued opinion.
Lambeck cultivated an interest in boxing at his uncle Solomon Lambeck’s tavern. Friday nights were always packed, not merely because it was payday and folks were flush, but because the black-and-white TV above the bar was tuned to the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports (“look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp”), the NBC boxing show from Madison Square Garden. Lambeck wasn’t old enough to drink, but as the owner’s nephew he had the run of the joint. It was his habit on Friday nights to get there early to claim a ringside seat at the bar. Everyone there was a self-proclaimed authority on the sweet science and some of the regulars were quite sharp. Soaking in the conversation instilled in him the seeds of a good handicapper.
Lambeck’s father, who worked in a delicatessen, insisted that his son go to college and squirreled away some money for this purpose. With no particular career in mind, Herbie had many options; just about any college would do. He chose Bradley, a school in Peoria, Illinois, because he was a fan of the school’s basketball team which finished second in the 1950 NCAA and NIT tournaments.
Lambeck earned a degree in history. That opened the door to a job sorting mail in the post office. Bored to death, he signed up for a two-year hitch in the Navy.
In Newark, as in other blue-collar cities with large immigrant populations, finding a bookie was no problem. In Lambeck’s neighborhood, the most prominent bookie was a fellow called Joe the Polack who operated out of a bowling alley. The Polack concealed nothing except his last name. His odds were displayed for all to see on a blackboard at the front counter.
Lambeck recalled that he made his first wager on a boxing match during his junior year of college when he returned home during the Thanksgiving break. Joe the Polack chalked Harold Johnson a 4/1 favorite over Nino Valdez. Lambeck laid the odds, risking $24 to win $6. Johnson won every round.
Most professional gamblers went broke at some point in their career. Lambeck was no exception. His Waterloo came in the famous Heidi game of 1968. Football fans went ballistic when NBC turned away from the Jets-Raiders game with 105 seconds on the clock so that the children’s movie “Heidi” could start at the appointed time. During the blackout, the Raiders scored two touchdowns to overcome a 3-point deficit. Herbie, who was then betting on credit, had his case money on the Jets. Goodbye Newark, hello Las Vegas. (Lambeck eventually paid off what he owed.)
In Las Vegas, Lambeck moved into the Casbah, a three-story hotel with a small casino in the lobby. The place was shabby but the location was ideal; he never learned to drive a car. The major casinos downtown with their various restaurant offerings and most of the town’s bookie joints were only a few blocks away. (In those days, the casinos were prohibited by state law from offering sports betting; the little bookie joints got all the action.)
Lambeck first attracted notice for his college basketball smarts. That brought him to the attention of a local character named Jimmy the Greek whose betting line was being syndicated to dozens of newspapers. The Greek, who became a famous TV sports personality, eventually had no time to formulate a daily betting line – there was too much on his plate — so he sub-contracted the chore to others. They were ghostwriters who worked with numbers rather than words. Herb Lambeck, aka Herbie Hoops, was his college basketball man.
Lambeck became associated with Leroy’s, a storefront bookie joint sandwiched between two pawn shops. Leroy’s sat on the shady side of the street, literally when the Golden Nugget built a hotel tower and figuratively before that. No one quite knew what Lambeck did there – it wasn’t his workplace so much as his clubhouse — but, as had been the case at Uncle Sol’s saloon, Herbie had the run of the joint.
Nevada’s bookmakers were leery about dealing boxing because it was hard to draw two-way action and all but the biggest fights were thought to be susceptible to “arrangements.” In 1978, Lambeck was induced to post odds on the 12-round non-title fight between Larry Holmes and Earnie Shavers. He made Holmes a 3/1 favorite.
Leroy’s had the betting line up first. Word got around and the little bookie joint was inundated with bets on Shavers. Lambeck stuck to his opinion, lowering the odds only a shade, and when Holmes won, the house emerged a big winner.
From that point on, although it’s hard to set a demarcation point, Lambeck was known more for boxing than for basketball. And he maintained his new identity as bookmaking in Nevada moved into the corporate era. During the transition, a company called Las Vegas Sports Consultants emerged as the pre-eminent oddsmaking firm. The firm’s founder, Michael Roxborough, considered Herbie a mentor and it became common knowledge that the boxing odds disseminated by LVSC were manufactured by Lambeck.
Lambeck’s name resonated beyond Nevada when he agreed to submit odds for “Boxing Update” and “Flash,” periodicals published in Capitola, California by a man named Virgil Thrasher. These were modest 12-page newsletters, “Update” a monthly and “Flash” a bi-monthly, but at their peak they had 6000 subscribers.
Lambeck holstered his odds with concise and often caustic observations. He was no friend to promoters selling mismatches under the pretense of a live underdog.
Lambeck conceded that he was lucky to win his wager when Julio Cesar Chavez met Meldrick Taylor in their first encounter in 1990, but his analysis was spot on. “Chavez’s granite-like chin, punching accuracy and mental toughness are too tough to overcome,” he wrote. “Somehow, someway, Chavez will prevail.” Likewise, his preview of the Foreman-Moorer fight was eerily prophetic: “Moorer looks ripe to be taken. He doesn’t have the best beard in the world and I can see Foreman clocking him. New champion.”
This isn’t meant to suggest that Herbie was infallible. He was as shocked as anyone – and more than a little embarrassed — when Buster Douglas upset Mike Tyson. He had written that an appropriate venue for the fight was a garbage scow in Newark Bay. The smart money was on Riddick Bowe when Bowe opposed Evander Holyfield in the first installment of their trilogy, but Lambeck wouldn’t budge. “I have a feeling about Bowe,” he wrote. “I think he is soft and will unravel like a spool of twine the first time he’s in trouble. If I’m wrong, it will cost me dearly.”
He was wrong. It cost him dearly.
A life-long bachelor with simple tastes, Lambeck wasn’t a high roller. A very large wager for him was a wager in which he put several thousand dollars at risk. But he hobnobbed with some of the heavy hitters, men like Billy Baxter and Ahmed Bey, both of whom dabbled in the management of prizefighters, and the great British promoter Mickey Duff who turned up in Las Vegas for all the big fights. A relationship he forged with Vegas visitor Ivor Thomas, the owner of a small betting chain in the U.K., was personally and materially rewarding. The odds against a popular British fighter like Frank Bruno were always juicier across the pond. Conversely, if one favored Bruno, betting on him in Las Vegas offered more value.
Lambeck’s byline opened doors. With it, he passed muster with the gatekeepers at pre-fight press luncheons. The buffet that Caesars Palace rolled out for the boxing media would satisfy the palate of the most finicky gourmand. The pastries tasted as scrumptious as they looked. But Herbie, a sporadic attendee, never touched the food. This would have violated his ethos. By his reckoning, he wasn’t entitled as he wasn’t there in the role of a news reporter. He was there to sniff out a bet.
“Pittsburgh Phil” Smith, a fabled horseplayer from the early days of the American turf, reportedly developed a sixth sense for gleaning how badly a trainer wanted to win a race by studying his body language as he communicated to the jockey in the paddock, a heightened sensitivity to what professional poker players call “tells.” Lambeck brought his tell detector to confabs where boxers seated on a dais are required to say a few words and answer a few questions. Protocol dictates bravado, but sometimes that bravado doesn’t ring true. Sometimes there is something in the body language of a boxer that betrays an anxiety that is inconsistent with the formulaic words coming out of his mouth.
There came a day when Lambeck took to submitting his odds to Thrasher’s publications without commentary. Somewhat later, he abruptly stopped. Las Vegas bookmaker Art Manteris filled the void.
Lambeck never elaborated on why he quit, but dropped hints that he had been threatened with mayhem if he didn’t let up on the brickbats. Herbie attached the word “exhibition” to some fights, deeming them unworthy of being dignified with a betting line. Even some heavily hyped matches (e.g., De La Hoya-Camacho) were dismissed as mere exhibitions. Did a promoter send word to Lambeck through a henchman that something bad would happen to him if he persisted in this practice? That was the scuttlebutt.
In the world that Lambeck inhabited he was bound to cross paths with some hard-boiled characters. He didn’t encourage a relationship with Tony Spilotro, but it was hard to say no to Tony the Ant.
Played to perfection by Joe Pesci in the movie “Casino,” Tony Spilotro arrived in Las Vegas in the early ‘70s as an enforcer for the Chicago Mob. It was his job to see that the “skim” (the money embezzled from casino profits) wasn’t skimmed away by other interests. Standing five-foot-two, the stocky, quick-tempered Spilotro was pound for-pound the toughest guy in town, even when he wasn’t carrying a weapon. And like so many others of his ilk, a thirst for sports action was embedded in his DNA. During college basketball season, Tony the Ant was Lambeck’s morning wake-up call: “Herbie, this is Tony. Who we got today?”
In the summer of 1986, a farmer spreading herbicide in an Indiana cornfield stumbled upon the fresh remains of Tony the Ant and his brother Michael Spilotro. There were indications they had been tortured and buried alive. “When they found Tony’s body,” Lambeck told a mutual friend, “I was so relieved. I had a nice run with him but I knew that someday I would fall into a bad slump and I didn’t know how he would react.”
Tony Spilotro was a scary guy. Lore has it that he was involved in 22 murders. But Lambeck’s qualms may have been symptomatic of a more general malaise. As he approached the last full decade of his life, Lambeck became more withdrawn and began to exhibit behaviors consistent with the clinical definition of paranoia.
Lambeck left Las Vegas one day without the formality of saying goodbye. The story I got, which I couldn’t confirm, was that a nephew drove out from New Jersey to visit him, could see that something just wasn’t quite right, and cajoled Herbie into going back home with him.
Lambeck’s disappearance prompted a visit to the seedy little hotel that he called home. It wasn’t called the Casbah anymore, having taken on a new name, the Queen of Hearts. Lambeck, it was learned, had paid his rent in full for the entire year before leaving town (this was in the early summer, if memory serves). The clerk at the front counter worked under the assumption that someday he would look up and there would be Herbie, walking in the front door. But he never returned.
In some ways it was better this way. Lambeck was a creature of habit. Downtown Las Vegas, like much of the city, was morphing into something that would have taken him out of his comfort zone.
Lambeck was in the habit of taking his lunch at the Plaza Hotel which fronts the stretch of Fremont Street once known as Glitter Gulch. After Lambeck left town, this stretch, a four-block corridor, was converted into a pedestrian mall where high-decibel computerized light shows entertain well-lubricated tourists and conventioneers consuming godawful concoctions sucked through a straw in a large plastic souvenir glass. Lambeck would run for the hills at the very sight of such people. He would eventually outlive the place where he hung his hat. The Queen of Hearts was demolished to make way for a new City Hall.
Lambeck didn’t fall off the map entirely. Several of his old friends ferreted out his whereabouts and kept in touch. Ivor Thomas, the U.K. bookmaker, was one of them. But as the end days approached for Lambeck, these long-distance telephone chats became more awkward. “He just wasn’t the same Herbie that we had all come to know,” Thomas told me. He didn’t need to elaborate. Like so many of his favorite boxers, Lambeck in his dotage couldn’t roll back the encroaching fog.
I think of Lambeck whenever I find myself in a sports book pondering the odds on a boxing match. I half expect to hear someone say, “Well, who does Herbie like?” His memory lingers.