Arguably the most well-known professional poker player, Amarillo Slim was a divisive person. Living to the age of eighty-three, he was called everything from hustler to an inspiration by many players, and he never backed away from any of those names. There is no question that Amarillo Slim made huge contributions to the game, and helped push it into the mainstream of society.
Born in Johnson, Arkansas, in 1928 Thomas Austin Preston, Jr. and his family would later move to Texas, where his family frequently moved between Amarillo, Texas and Arkansas.
Slim began his career as a poker player hustling at pool halls around the U.S., while also performing illegal bookmaking on the side; these pursuits did not disappear when he joined the Navy, and later the Army, but instead were augmented by his time in the military.
Though, as some sources have noted, this was not a glamorous life; in one account Slim recounted how he was gagged, bound with duct tape, and left naked in a bathtub in a hotel room in Atlanta. Eventually, he would make his way to the Las Vegas of the 1960s; where poker was still trapped in basements of suburbia and only openly played on the tables of the casinos. Poker in the 1960s was had not shaken off its association with saloons and brawls, and it was not as respectable then as it is today. But this was something that Amarillo Slim would eventually change.
In 1972 he won his first World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet playing the $10,000 No Limit Hold’em Championship. This win catapulted him to stardom. He would go on a win another bracelet in 1974 in a $1000 Limit Hold’em Tournament, a third in 1985 from $5000 Pot Limit Omaha tournament. His fourth in 1990 while competing in a $5000 Pot Limit Omaha tournament.
Perhaps Amarillo’s Slims biggest contribution to the game of poker was making it respectable in the eyes of the mainstream culture. He was not just a brilliant player, but he was a showman who knew how to keep people engaged in the game. And he was said to bet on anything. The Economist stated the following in its obituary article “Amarillo Slim”:
He bet on which of five sugar cubes a fly would land on; whether a stray cat could carry a Coke bottle across a room; whether he could beat Bobby Riggs at table tennis played with iron skillets, and Minnesota Fats at pool with a broom; whether he dared ride a camel through the fanciest casino in Marakesh, and whether he could hang on to a horse’s tail for a quarter of a mile. He won them all until, as the song said, even the Devil wouldn’t bet with him.
It was these kinds of stories about him that got people interested in Amarillo Slim, and it was Amarillo Slim that got the U.S. Interested in poker. He played poker with people like Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, Pablo Escobar, and with Larry Flynt (Martin par 5). And the stories of such games helped make poker seem somehow both respectable and dangerous; it made the game more exotic.
In recognition of his skills and contributions to the game, Amarillo Slim was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1992. It would have been the perfect capstone to the wild career of one of the most celebrated, and outrageous, poker players in the history of the United States. However, much of his career has been stained when he was indicted on multiple counts of indecency with a child in 2003.
The indictment came from a grand jury in Randall, Texas, and, although the felony charges were dropped, Slim opted to take a plea bargain He entered a plea of “no contest” to misdemeanor assault (Dalla par 4). Although he did not serve any jail time, the accusation and plea bargain had a devastating effect on his life and reputation; even more so because he was accused of assaulting his own granddaughter. This resulted in his family ties being splintered, his poker friends in Las Vegas distancing themselves from him, and a possible biographical movie being shelved indefinitely. The scandal also led many in the live poker circuit to call for a reevaluation of Slim’s contributions to the game.
Slim always denied any actions of indecency; six years after the legal resolution to the case, during an interview with Nolan Dalla, he stated:
“Contrary to all these charges and things, I’ve always been a family man. And now after 80 years, I’m going to be accused of being a predator of children? No chance.”
Even though he died in 2012, this incident is still a hotly debated issue in the community, and industry, of professional poker. Many people believe that Slim was wronged with the accusation of indecent behavior with a child, but just as many, if not more, believe that the scandal should be counted whenever his legacy is assessed.
As far as the game of poker goes, the passing of Thomas Austin Preston, Jr signaled the end of an era when poker players relied on instinct and observation to win at the table. Most professional poker players from the last fifteen years – like Chris “Jesus” Ferguson and Joe Cada – rely on a more scientific approach to playing the game, using logic and statistics to look for opportunities to win. It is a world away from the one that Amarillo Slim played in.