Champion was poker’s 1st celebrity
It was 3 a.m. in Las Vegas in May 1972.
Thomas Austin Preston Jr., better known as Amarillo Slim, had won the main event at the World Series of Poker less than two hours earlier, and there he was looking for a game -- any game.
“As long as it’s for real money,” the tall and lanky professional gambler in the anteater-hide cowboy boots told a Times reporter, pushing his pearl-gray Stetson toward the back of his head.
“Seems like a feller ought to be able to get a game like that -- something interesting, you know -- in a town like this here,” he said. “But I swear to goodness I just can’t hardly find a thing to occupy my time!”
Amarillo Slim, who was long known as a living legend on the worldwide poker circuit, died of colon cancer Sunday in hospice care in Amarillo, Texas, said his son, Bunky Preston. He was 83.
A 1992 inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame, Slim was a colorful character who became known as poker’s first celebrity. In the wake of his 1972 World Series of Poker win, he began promoting poker -- and himself -- on “The Tonight Show” and other TV shows.
He also wrote a number of books, including “Amarillo Slim’s Play Poker to Win” and “Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People: The Memoirs of the Greatest Gambler Who Ever Lived.”
“He brought poker out of the back alleys,” said Larry Grossman, a longtime gaming analyst and poker historian who knew Slim. “He was just a guy with an outsized personality, and he was the perfect person for the time to represent poker. It was really Slim that became the face of poker for middle America.”
He also was known for his claims of making eccentric bets.
Tales abound, including beating Minnesota Fats in a game of pocket billiards using a broom stick. Or beating tennis hustler Bobby Riggs in a game of pingpong using an iron skillet. Or betting he could hit a golf ball more than a mile.
“I found this frozen lake,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1992, “and the ball hits the ice and starts slidin’ ... and one and a half, two miles away it was still goin’.”
Losing was always a possibility in gambling, Slim acknowledged, but he didn’t consider losing a bad thing in itself.
“Anyone that never loses doesn’t do much playing,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1994. “If there wasn’t any losing, it wouldn’t be any fun. You’d be bored to death.”
Bunky Preston said his father “always kept the media on their toes. He’d say or do anything. That guy was unbelievably outrageous.”
He was also highly quotable: “Look around the table. If you don’t see a sucker, get up, because you’re the sucker.”
Amarillo Slim found his reputation tarnished in 2003 when a grand jury indicted him on three felony counts of indecency with a child by contact, accusing him of touching a 12-year-old girl on three occasions earlier that year.
In 2004, he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor assault charges in the case. He was sentenced to two years deferred adjudication and fined $4,000 by an Amarillo judge. His attorney, Robert Templeton, said at the time that the felony charges were dropped because prosecutors could not prove their case.
“He was crushed by the allegations,” said Grossman, “and a lot of people in the poker world shunned him.”
He was born Dec. 31, 1928, in Johnson, Ark., and his family later moved to Amarillo, which remained his hometown.
When he turned 17, Slim enlisted in the Navy for three years.
Stationed on the West Coast, he wangled duty as a chauffeur for a captain -- a cushy job that took about an hour each day.
He then used the Navy sedan to drive to pool halls, where his exceptional playing earned him a considerable amount of money.
After his discharge, he was invited to join Special Services as a civilian to conduct pocket billiards exhibitions at military bases throughout Europe.
When he saw pool dying out as a way for him to earn a living in the early ‘60s, his son said, he turned his attention to playing cards.
From 1964 to 1971, Slim joined Doyle Brunson and Brian “Sailor” Roberts in traveling around the Southwest playing poker.
“Those were the days when poker was totally underground,” Grossman said. “One of Slim’s famous quotes was, ‘It wasn’t a matter of beating the game, it was a matter of getting out of there with the money.’ ”
Brunson acknowledged that “it was kind of a dangerous time.”
“We got robbed five times, we got arrested a lot of times for playing illegal poker games; you got a fine and they’d turn you loose,” he recalled Monday. “People equated us with being some kind of gangsters or outlaws or something, and all we were doing was playing poker.”
Brunson, a two-time World Series of Poker main event champion, credits Slim as “the one that brought respectability to poker.”
And Slim loved the limelight “more than anyone I ever knew,” he said. “He was one of a kind.”
In addition to his son Bunky, he is survived by his wife, Helen; his other two children, Becky Deane and Todd Preston; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.