A Texas poker legend should be larger than life, as with all things Texan. He should also have a hustler’s keen wit, an unflappable urge to win, a good sense of humor, and a Southerner’s way with words. And when the chips are down, he relieves you of yours with a smile, leaving his outrageously funny words ringing in your ears: “Son, you had as good a chance of beating me as getting a French kiss out of the Statue of Liberty.” And with that, you’ve just been beaten by one of the best: poker legend Amarillo Slim.
What’s in a Name?
Born Thomas Austin Preston, Jr., Amarillo Slim got his nickname from his early gambling days as a pool hustler, long before he became part of the original Texas Road Gamblers, along with “Texas Dolly” Brunson and “Sailor” Roberts. It also helped that he was raised in Amarillo, and at 6 foot four, 170 pounds, stood about as slim as your chances of beating him at poker. Thomas Preston was born in Johnson, Arkansas, but his parents moved to Turkey, Texas when he was baby. After they divorced, Slim’s father moved him to Amarillo. He was later quoted as being extremely thankful that he didn’t end up in Turkey, Texas: “Amarillo Slim sounds a heck of a lot better than Turkey Tom.”
Natural Born Gambler
Amarillo Slim was a true gambling man. It didn’t matter if the wager was on a game of poker or a presidential election, he always loved to lay the money down. Slim was said to have played cards with Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and claims to have won $400,000 in a domino game against Willie Nelson. Poor Willie probably had to go on the road again after that loss. Amarillo Slim would bet on anything and everything, and he was even more thrilled when he left the other player penniless. He wrote in his memoir, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People, “If I’m gonna win, I sure as hell want to break somebody doing it.”
Amarillo Slim was always looking for an angle. Long before he became Amarillo Slim, young Thomas joined the Navy to get out of high school early. He states that the real reason he joined the Navy was all that idle float time, which gave him plenty of free time in which to fleece fellow sailors out of their earnings. And fleece them he did. He returned to the States with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Being a young man, he spent all his money on cars, booze, and women—and squandered the rest.
Soon after that, he returned to the military life, and joined the Army. This time, he went as an entertainer for the troops, treating them to exhibitions of pool games and billiard tricks. The real game, he explained, was in the black market. He happily sold American tobacco, coffee, and chocolate all over war-torn Europe—and once again, he made a killing, without even firing a shot.
Pool Hustler: Slim Meets Fats
After the war, Slim became a full time hustler. Before he perfected his poker chops, Amarillo Slim was a real life pool hustler, who plied his trade proudly around the pool halls of 1950s America. And the word ‘hustle’ does not offend him at all. Like the world depicted in the 1961 movie The Hustler, winning big playing pool depends on more than just the rules of the game. To ‘hustle’ your opponent, a player needed to pretend to be a weak player, lose money regularly, then suddenly turn the tables to empty the opponent’s pockets.
Amarillo Slim got his name after a chance meeting with famous pool hustler Minnesota Fats. He learned the importance of being bold, chatty, and quick with a good story. This, combined with a good nickname, made up the arsenal of the pool shark. Amarillo Slim was born, and he proudly sported his cowboy boots, signature Stetson hat, and a big grin. He played the ‘slow’ country bumpkin to perfection, making it easier to hustle his opponents. “Everybody thought I was lighter than a June frost,” he laughed.
When Slim met Fats in the pool hall for the first time, he lost big to the bigger man. Minnesota had been waiting for the brash young Texan to arrive, so he could bilk him out of his fortunes. Slim was Fats’ mark, and Slim started losing money to the master. But just when all hope seemed to be lost, Slim bet Fats that he could sink 4 balls in a row using a broom. It seemed impossible that anyone could pull off a feat as crazy as that, so Fats took the bet, for a large sum of money. Unknown to Fats, Slim had been practicing pool with a broom for months, and he quickly hustled the Hustler. Fats was defeated.
I Have a Proposition for You
After his fame caught on and word got around, Slim couldn’t hustle as effectively, so he gave up pool. After a brief stint as a bookmaker, he started betting on just about anything he could think of. Amarillo Slim loved proposition bets. And the more outrageous the bet, the better. He would bet famous tennis players that he could beat them at table tennis—with his choice of racket. He would show up sporting skillets, and would quickly trounce his opponent. It also helped that Slim had been practicing playing with skillets for a month beforehand. Amarillo Slim only made bets he knew he could win. He discovered the game of poker, with all of that game’s bluff and bravado, and he soon found his calling in cards.
Poker and the Texas Road Gamblers
Slim tried his hand at family life, but getting a ‘real job’ just wasn’t in the cards. While back in Texas, he discovered the game of poker. At that time, poker was not as popular as it is today, and you certainly couldn’t play online. In the 50s, even Vegas wasn’t yet developed into the thriving gambling mecca it is today. The only places a gambler could hope to make a buck were in the places you could find an illegal card game: in the back rooms of backwoods bars. And when you start beating the locals on a regular basis, they start beating you back—with their fists.
It was during these dangerous times that Amarillo Slim met up with Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson and Bryan “Sailor” Roberts. Each of them tired of being beaten, robbed, and threatened, they partnered up to form the original Texas Road Gamblers. And a legacy was born. Together the three poker aces went from town to town throughout the South and the Southwest, cleaning out the local card rooms and the pockets of the locals. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for “Sailor” and the boys. While there was strength in numbers, nothing prepares a gambler for a shotgun pressed against his belly—as Amarillo Slim once experienced. He said he was also arrested, chased by mobs, and robbed by bandits waiting outside of the poker rooms for the winners.
Once Slim was grabbed by attackers while leaving a card game with his winnings. His captors took him to a hotel room, tied him with wires, and held him under water in the bathtub. They demanded to know where his partners were. He refused to tell them, so they left him in the tub, tied and bleeding, until a maid finally found him. When the police asked for his testimony, Slim refused to snitch on his attackers. Instead, he preferred to find his friends, pool their strength, and get revenge on his attackers. Whether that revenge took the form of brute strength or gambling guile is uncertain. But one thing is clear: Amarillo Slim doesn’t like losing.
Winning Big in Las Vegas
After tiring of life spent dodging beatings and bullets, the Texas Road Gamblers heeded the clarion call of Las Vegas. The dusty days of a few casinos owned by mobsters were over. Now Las Vegas was establishing itself as the premier gambling destination in America. And with that, three Texans strolled into town, and took Sin City by storm.
Once the Texas Road Gamblers discovered the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the sky was the limit. They decided to split up the team, and play ‘every man for himself.’ Individually, their winnings were legendary. After he won the WSOP Main Event, he appeared on The Tonight Show, where he shared his love of a good gambling story with Johnny Carson. Eventually, Slim went on to win four WSOP gold bracelets, the coveted championship prize (along with his winnings).
Amarillo Slim’s last WSOP win was in 1990. After that, he lost his enthusiasm for the big game, even though he never stopped gambling. “These new guys play like robots” he lamented. For Slim, all of the joy in the game was in the tall tales, the witticisms, and the jovial swagger. Slim loved the psychology behind playing poker, sizing up his opponents, and then cutting them down to size. After a rich life of hustling, gambling, and playing poker with the best, Amarillo Slim died at age 83 on April 29, 2012.