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Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Colorful, Controversial Champion and Raconteur, Dead at 83

by Justin Marchand |  Published: May 30, 2012

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During the 1972 World Series of Poker final table, the wisest public relations move the game ever experienced was formulated over dirty cups of coffee and a few cigarettes in a Binion’s coffee shop booth.

Amarillo Slim, the man largely credited with ushering in the early positive exposure the WSOP received, was nursing an extreme short stack with four players left.

The three other players sitting around the booth had no interest in winning the title.
“Slim had like fifteen hundred in chips, just, as they say, a chip and a chair,” Poker Hall of Fame Member Crandell Addington recalls.

“Doyle (Brunson) brought it up. He lived in Fort Worth with his wife and he said he could not stand the heat if he won. Puggy (Pearson) said, ‘I can’t win. I sold 200 percent of myself.’ I couldn’t win it either.”

The three men held more than 98 percent of the chips in play. Jack Binion caught wind of the crew’s plans and stopped play for the night.

The next day, Brunson withdrew claiming illness. He and Pearson were allowed to keep part of the prize pool. But Slim and Puggy played on.

The new champion, “Amarillo Slim” Preston would soon ride the victory, a tournament that only had eight total entrants, further than any other poker player ever could.

Soon after, prime time TV, magazines and Hollywood movies all incorporated the tall tales and yarns that naturally flowed from the West Texas cowboy.

Always unmistakably adorned in his trademark Stetson hat and custom cowboy boots, Slim, as a great hype man for the Texas road gamblers and the early World Series of Poker, did more for the modern game of poker than anyone else.

“He was the biggest promoter for poker and brought respectability to poker when there was none,” says poker legend Doyle Brunson.

Slim traveled around the world promoting poker and his endless stories and constant self promotion made him the one of the most famous gamblers in American history.

Slim, born Thomas Austin Preston, died of cancer in late April at the age of 83 in hospice care in Amarillo, Texas. This is his story.

Building a Bankroll

Preston was born in Johnson, Arkansas, on December 31, 1928. His family moved to a small Texas community soon after and eventually settled in Amarillo.

By the age of 15, he was a pool shark and adopted the Slim nickname, in a similar vein as fellow pool prodigy Minnesota Fats.

In order to be granted an early graduation from high school, Slim joined the Navy in 1945. His first mission was to relocate Bikini Atoll islanders during the U.S. military’s atomic bomb tests.

The mission appealed to Slim, especially the four-day sail back to Hawaii where he would have ample opportunity to hustle his shipmates.

Slim said that upon arrival in Honolulu, he had to throw his clothes over the side of the ship. His sea bags were filled with money.

After his Navy stint, back in Texas, he lost a large chunk of his bankroll and learned an important gambling lesson after betting $30,000 on the outcome of the 1946 baseball World Series.

A botched play cost Boston and Slim the win and, afterwards, he vowed to never bet again without an edge.

He spent the rest of his life seeking and creating that edge.

It wasn’t long before he again anted up for military service, this time joining the Army and entertaining troops with his billiard skills as part of the Special Service Unit.
He spent a few hours a day pulling off trick shots to boost troop morale, but most of his time hustling.

He made a fortune selling cigarettes, coffee, chocolate, nylons, gasoline and other hard-to-find staples in the post-war black market. “Anything you could not get, I could get,” Slim said in Anything to Win, a television biography on his life.

In order to finance his operations, Slim pulled off an audacious feat; he fixed the second game of the 1948 GI baseball World Series. His haul from the fix included fleet of converted Jeeps he used to deliver his black market goods to customers willing to pay ridiculous markups.

He left the Army after a year of service. He was 19 years old. In Anything to Win, he said he already had a million dollars to his name.

Greatest Hustler That Ever Lived

Slim is often credited as the greatest hustler that ever lived. The reason was simple. Not only was he was great at beating people out of their money, but his personality was such that he made them like it as well.

His hustle, refined as a youngster in the Texas pool halls and in the military, was ready for prime time when he returned to full-time civilian life.

New York, the re-entry point for service members, was where Minnesota Fats, the most famous pool hustler in America at the time, preyed on his marks. The two played a number of matches and Slim admitted to losing “a big number to him.”

When Fats found out just how potentially juicy of a mark Slim was, he followed him back to Amarillo, trying to bust the skinny cowboy. But, while Fats made his living hustling the suckers, it was Slim that sheared this sheep.

“He would not look for a sucker,” Shawn Rice, Slim’s traveling gambling partner of 25 years remarks. “He would look for a smart son of a bitch and make a sucker out of him.”

When Slim, years later, opened his pool hall, Amarillo Slim’s Pool Palace, in Amarillo, Texas, he turned to Rice, a fellow pool hustler and poker player, to run the place.

“He knew how to make a son of a bitch chase him, how to get the damn fish jumping on the hooks,” Rice added. “He looked like a dumb old cowboy, talked like a dumb old cowboy but was sharp as they come.”

Back in Amarillo, Slim threw his fellow pool sharp a curveball when he proposed that they play with broomsticks instead of pool cues. He offered a game that Fats could not resist, a game that Slim, who had mastered running a table with a broom handle, was sure he had an edge in.

In the end, Silm had sheared the fattest sheep of his young career.

Road Gambler

With pool games harder and harder to find, Slim switched his attention to booking sports and poker to pay the bills.

He met Doyle Brunson and Brian “Sailor” Roberts, men with solid reputations on the Texas circuit. Soon after, at a game, Slim busted the men but was kind enough to give them a $2,500 rebate, enough to get home.

“That showed that he trusted and liked us.” Brunson remembered.
The trio formed a partnership, would share a bankroll, book sports and hit the road, seeking out underground poker games across the Texas and the South in the 1960s.

“We looked like a vacuum sucking up every loose thing.” Slim reflected in Anything to Win.

Brunson looks back fondly on those road gambling days.

“Slim and I once found ourselves in Mexico following a potential poker player; a wealthy guy we hoped to play when an earthquake hit. I remember Slim joking that we might end up buried under a bunch of rubble and, since nobody knew we were down there, we might never be found.”

The road days, while exciting and lucrative, were extremely dangerous. Robberies, and arrests were all commonplace when relieving town after town of money stacks.

It wasn’t until high-stakes poker moved to Las Vegas that Slim, and his larger than life personality, had an opportunity to shine on an even larger stage.

World Champion Takes a Few Victory Laps

While the first few years of the World Series of Poker were a low key collection of gamblers and cash games, Slim’s championship win in 1972 changed the course of the event and the game itself forever.

At a time when gambling was secretive, Slim was a natural born showman. This showmanship and poker’s colorful backdrop created a true gambling celebrity.

“Amarillo Slim always just lit up a room; he was always the life of the party and the main attraction,” said Larry Grossman, gaming author and analyst who spent significant time covering Slim and the early WSOP.

“He was an American original and there are not many of them. Before meeting Amarillo Slim and becoming friends with him, I thought he was in the same realm as Paul Bunyan, a mythological figure.”

After winning, he became, as he says in his 2003 autobiography, titled Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People, “a touring ambassador for the sport.”

He appeared on the Tonight Show eleven times, where, Slim said, “Johnny [Carson] and I got along like ham and eggs.” He also appeared on other television shows such as 60 Minutes and Good Morning America as well as on several game shows.

“People have been making all this fuss about Moneymaker,” Addington said. ““He was a creation of the media who were hungry at the time for something to promote. If his last name was Smith, I doubt if the media would have made much of his victory. He certainly wasn’t the first amateur to win the main event. That was Hal Fowler from 1979. The media created Chris Moneymaker. Amarillo Slim created himself. And there’s a world of difference between them.”

“Slim was instrumental, the front man, the golden voice that helped poker grow, and he helped people realize the game was not just full of gangsters, thugs and leg breakers.”

Mount Everest of B.S.

Slim, thanks to his friendly nature, charm and Texas talk, had a knack for getting games together. People would play him heads up, invite him to home games and clamor to be around him because the charm, entertainment, ribbing and tall tales never seemed to end.

“Slim was the Mount Everest of bullshitters,” Johnny Hughes, poker player and gambling historian who traveled and played with Slim for many years says. “He would make money beating doctors and lawyers that just wanted to play with him, to listen to those tales.”

“Thanks to all the PR Slim created,” Addington chuckles, “the mullets and the baitfish came flying from everywhere and the great white sharks feasted for a long time.”

“He could spin those Texas yarns. He could get those big audiences. There was nobody in gambling or poker ever like Slim.”

The problem was, you just never knew when the truth started and ended with Slim.

“Slim bragged that he won two hundred pairs of boots from Imelda Marcos in the Philippines,” Hughes laughs. “Slim said he played poker with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Come on. I don’t think they would hang out with that outlaw son of a bitch.”

Preston’s autobiography is full of borderline mythological gambling tales. They include Slim detailing how he played ping-pong with a skillet against Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs, played golf with a carpenter’s hammer against Evel Knievel and how he fleeced $300,000 from Willie Nelson after a high-stakes domino match.

All helped embellish his reputation as a world-class gambler and helped drum up action.
But caveat emptor, some of his closest comrades say.

“Remember that Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People is a memoir,” Greg Dinkin, Slim’s co-author and agent for the book wrote in a tribute piece to Slim posted on Grantland.com. “It’s simply the stories Slim wants to remember – how he wants to remember them. Given that he’s a hustler and a con man, I felt it was understood that Slim’s truth doesn’t necessarily reveal the truth.”

Rice agrees. “I was with Slim for the past 25 years, traveling, gambling and sharing a bankroll with him. I didn’t even read that book because I knew the tales were not true. It was part of his bullshit, his promotion. By him putting on a show, which that book was, he was able beat people that didn’t know what a big blind was out of thousands of dollars.”

The stories were so outrageous that Hollywood sought to make a movie based on Slim’s life.

Dinkin was part of the movie negotiations with Nicholas Cage, who was planning on playing Slim. He recalls a humorous exchange when finalizing the pitch.

“Slim always had to be the alpha male in every situation. He told me that when we were about to finalize the film deal with Nicolas Cage, he was going to shake Cage down. ‘You’ve got an agent, son. We’ll guess what. You’ve now got another one.’ For all the offensive things Slim has said over the years, including when he looked Cage dead in the eye while about to sign his book and said, ‘How do you spell prick?’ I don’t believe he had a racist bone in his body. The only color he saw was green. Everything he said or did was to gain an advantage, to put people on their toes, and to get a read. Many poker players will needle others on the felt. Slim was doing it every second of every day of his life.”

Family Business

Bunky Preston, Slim’s 61-year-old son, grew up on the road with his father as they drove from town to town looking to shear thick sheep.

“From when I was six years old on, me, my dad and my mom would go from pool game to pool game, Bunky recalls. “When pool dried up, Dad turned to poker and often took me with him.”

“Dad got playing poker with the Chagra family in El Paso. I remember us going to play at their hacienda on the boarder. That was the first time I saw MAC-10 machine guns. Dad played for two or three days. We were driving home and dad said ‘son get in the back and count that money.’ Our entire back seat was filled with $20 bills. Dad said you always knew when you were playing drug dealers because they pay in $20 bills.”

Bunky also recalls a time his dad and mom flew to Cartagena, Columbia, the hangout of Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel, for a promotion at Casino de Caribe.

“My dad, always the showman, walked in and called them all bean dip mother f’ers to their faces. At first they thought it was hysterical.”

It was funny until Slim started beating the drug lords out of stacks of twenties and, Bunky says, they had to catch an impromptu flight before they wound up dead.

The prop bets and trips didn’t all center on gambling. One time, Slim almost died from a crazy bet that proved more than he bargained for.

While playing poker, Slim took a $31,000 bet that he could not run a 29-mile stretch of Idaho’s Salmon River, known as the River of No Return. There was a catch, however. He’d have to run it in the middle of winter.

He survived the six-day ordeal thanks to a special wet suit Jacques Cousteau designed for the trip.

“Amarillo Slim Whips River of No Return” read the November 27, 1972 headline of the Tuscaloosa News.

“It was the first bet I ever made where I threw in my own personal life to sweeten the pot,” Slim said in his autobiography. “And it would be the last one, too. I made a vow that from that day forward, I’d do my gambling with just plain currency.”

Charges Tarnish Reputation

At the outset of the modern poker boom, Slim became a lightning rod for controversy after he was accused of touching his granddaughter inappropriately.

While the rest of the media was eating up the story of a Tennessee accountant parlaying a $39 online satellite into millions, the world’s most famous poker player was cutting a deal with prosecutors to avoid being labeled a pedophile.

In 2003, a grand jury in Randall County, Texas indicted Slim on multiple counts of indecency with a child. The felony charges were dropped after the grand jury never convened, but Slim, as part of a negotiated plea bargain, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor non-sexual assault charge. He paid a $4,000 fine and served no time in jail.
Afterword, he professed his innocence, saying he accepted the deal to protect his family from having to face off in a public trial.

“There was an assistant district attorney in Amarillo that did not like my dad,” Bunky said. “So when he pled, dad thought it would go away quietly, but [the district attorney] made sure it did not.”

In a 2009 interview with WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla, Slim said “All of them (his family) have since written letters about these charges saying it was a big mistake and the sexual abuse never happened.”

Those closest to Slim deny that the episode happened, period.

“It’s all a bunch of bull,” Brunson said. “I’ve been around Slim for a very long time. He had a lot of faults, but that was not one of them.”

Rice, his traveling partner for the past 25 years, agrees.


“Slim never showed any inkling at liking kids or that behavior….not once. They had no evidence on him and the reason they didn’t have any evidence was because Slim did not do it. He wound up pleading to the same charge someone would get if they left their kids in the car of a 7-11 parking lot.”


Lasting Legacy


Slim opened up a tremendous number of doors for gamblers and poker players.
He was the only poker player, from any generation, to appear on prime time TV and hold a captive audience with tens of millions of viewers.


And, over time, Slim proved he was a worthy candidate for the accolades based solely on his poker prowess. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1992 and won four WSOP bracelets.


His poker celebrity status also helped him create the Super Bowl of Poker, an event that was second to only the World Series of Poker in overall importance to the poker tournament scene during its existence from 1979-1991.


But Slim, always the showman promoter, missed out on what could have been his most lucrative haul of all; using his likeness to promote online poker during the boom years.
He was looked upon as damaged goods by time poker exploded and was never able to capitalize on the online craze like many of his brethren.


“Slim would have taken it to even a higher level if he would have been more involved in the poker boom,” Rice says. “The monetary amount alone that he probably lost out on was in the tens of millions.”


Whether you love his quasi-mythological personality or feel he deserves a place on poker’s historical sidelines, Slim made poker richer. The positive publicity he dug up for the game still remains unrivaled today. ♠