Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston died in hospice at 12:07 a.m. Sunday, just short of four months into his 84th year. With his passing, poker loses its most colorful character and a visionary.
Slim, as we knew him, was a controversial figure. To some, he was a shameless huckster who was accused late in life of the worst kind of indiscrimination. To others, a tragic figure, fallen from grace, whose remarkable charm and skill at obfuscation left an unfortunate, indelible doubt on the validity of his claims of innocence. Regardless, he led a remarkable life and had a powerful effect on those who knew him; he took the poker world on a ride that played a part in making it everything it has been for the past decade. From here onward, we'll focus on what made him remarkable.
First, a story:
The 1972 World Series of Poker was down to three eventual Hall of Famers: Puggy Pearson, the soon-to-be consensus best player in the world, Doyle Brunson and Brunson's old running partner, Amarillo Slim. The WSOP wasn't exactly headlining "SportsCenter" in those days. It was just eight players who had entered, and the championship wasn't exactly the subject of hopes and dreams. That said, Benny Binion wanted a winner.
Brunson, a devout Christian, wasn't thrilled about the media Binion had assembled, blasting his face in their respective outlets in connection with what he saw as a dubious title. Pearson, allegedly, wasn't too interested in the IRS or in preferably ignorant poker players potentially finding out that he'd won the winner-take-all $80,000 prize against the best in the world. Later, Slim would hedge when asked about these events, but the story goes that a quick conversation during a break in play was the moment it was decided that Amarillo Slim would be the world champion of poker.
Slim knew how to work this scene. The Binion clan wanted a "legitimate" ending for the few media in attendance, so the final three played it out. Slim threw in three-bet bluffs like an as-yet-unborn member of the online generation, then showed his hands to the crowd in triumph every time. Brunson and Pearson, in on the scam, were forced to swallow their pride as their colleague milked the moment for all it was worth. Finally, Brunson bowed out, then Slim finished Pearson. He had what, until then, had been a worthless title; from that point on, that title meant something and it was Slim who bestowed that title's value.
The point here isn't to bemoan ethical fogginess of a different time and place. The media wanted a show and they got one. Slim was the only man at the table who saw value in the title, and in doing so, he set the cast for the modern era's branded poker star. He knew good branding before branding was a thing. A man of remarkable easy charm when it suited him, he started selling himself as the world champion of poker and soon he was making the rounds, scoring three appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, always in the trademark Stetson and cowboy boots. He even scored a small role in Robert Altman's "California Split," a poker film whose production costs were justified by surging interest in the game, which was inspired by its cameo star. Slim took the title because he knew he could invest in himself.
In 1973, after little previous growth, the WSOP went from two to eight events. The main event's participation increased from eight to 13 players, with the tournament's first film footage being captured. In its small way, the WSOP had arrived along with its biggest star, a reality Slim could claim for the next 30 years.
The legend of Slim's gambling career is too lengthy to do justice to in this space. He moved to Amarillo in his early teens, took up pool and met Minnesota Fats, the legendary stick man immortalized in the film "The Hustler." Fats used gab to get into opponents' heads and Slim learned to do the same. The main difference was that Fats' abrasive approach meant he was only getting action from a given opponent once. Noting this, Slim adapted a more magnanimous attitude, later adopting the credo, "You can shear a sheep a hundred times, but skin it only once."
Pool led to poker, which led to Slim's playing the Texas/Oklahoma private game circuit. There, he famously teamed up with Brunson and Sailor Roberts; they traveled to games together, shared a bankroll and watched one another's backs. It was Brunson who delivered the news to Twitter that Slim was gone early Sunday.
With Slim's WSOP win translating to celebrity, his new social circles provided for his whimsy. He'd plan gambles months in advance, chasing down champions and challenging them in their own games with a twist. He beat tennis pro Bobby Riggs in a game of pingpong in which Riggs had agreed to conditions stating that Slim could pick two rackets and Riggs could choose which one to play with. Slim had been playing with Coke bottles for months. When Riggs came back to Slim later, having practiced with the bottles, they repeated the bet; this time, Slim chose frying pans.
I had the opportunity to do a two-hour interview with Slim in 2007. He was already frail (having survived a near-death health battle in 2004 and an armed-robbery-related beating in 2007) and didn't still have the spark that made him a talk-show favorite. But the man could still spin a yarn and still had that charm. He wasn't shy about who he was. He didn't dress himself up to be heroic or even nice. He was still the hardened gambler from Texas, albeit a little weaker for the ride.
That day, I made a bet with Slim on how many games the Dallas Cowboys would win that year and no, I don't particularly follow football. I just felt he was the one guy it would be a privilege to lose a bet to. That's how large Slim's legend was in the gambling world. We know today we've lost a visionary and an icon.