The life and legacy of Amarillo Slim 1928-2012

Posted by Steve Ruddock on Apr 30, 2012 Posted in Poker News | No Comments »

The most famous poker player and gambler of the last 50 years missed out on the recent Poker Boom; this is the story why.

After spending the last week in hospice care after a long battle with cancer and heart disease, Thomas Austin Preston Jr., known as “Amarillo Slim” to just about everyone, passed away on Sunday at the age of 83. Slim’s family issued the following statement to

“We hope everyone will remember our beloved Amarillo Slim for all the positive things he did for poker and to popularize his favorite game, Texas Hold’em,”

It’s difficult to sum up Slim’s life as that of a poker player or even a gambler, as the man was so much more than this. The fact is, Slim did more to bring poker out of the backrooms and pool-halls than perhaps any man in the history of the game, but after a child-molestation charge in 2003, the legacy of Amarillo Slim has been forever tarnished, and the poker world is left with mixed feelings about the tall, lanky, hustler that was once the public face of the game and represented the entire community.

Born on New Year’s Eve in 1928, Thomas Austin “Amarillo Slim” Preston Jr. has worn many hats, both literally and figuratively, in his eight-plus decades on earth. Slim as he is called by his closest acquaintances, was famous for his signature “striking rattlesnake” hat-band that adorned his cowboy hat, but was equally as famous for being the 1972 World Series of Poker Champion, a Poker Hall of Famer, a proposition bettor extraordinaire, the unquestioned master of Texas colloquialisms, and the poker world’s first ambassador.

Nobody knows precisely what happened between Amarillo Slim and his 12 year-old granddaughter on that March day in 2003, when the alleged incident took place on Amarillo Slim’s ranch–Slim would later plead no-contest in court to a misdemeanor assault charge in what he called an effort to avoid the embarrassment of a trial and protect his family.

The accuser and the other family members that initially backed up her claims have since recanted, calling the situation a “misunderstanding”, and even if Amarillo Slim wasn’t able to make peace with the poker world before his passing, he was at least able to reconcile with his family.

Unfortunately, with an allegation of this kind, the accusation is often a death sentence in the court of public opinion, whether the charge is true or false, and for Slim the allegations haunted him throughout his final years. In the few times I caught site of Amarillo Slim playing poker on TV you could tell the entire situation had taken its toll on the old road gambler, who appeared worn-down, beaten, and dejected.

For a man who thrived on publicity and impeccable timing, the charges hit home at the absolute worst time for Amarillo Slim. With the poker boom in full swing Slim was for the first time forced to slink away from the limelight and the fame he had waited a lifetime to capture. The most famous gambler of the last 30 years was on the sidelines, watching his brethren grow rich and famous of the fruits of Slim’s labors.

Slim eventually came back to poker, but gone were the smiles, the dazzling tales, and the image of a man who had seen and done enough to fill ten lifetimes. Slim no longer sought the cameras; he sought to avoid them. The man who dazzled millions on the Tonight Show, and enthralled author Anthony Holden enough that Slim was used as the idealized poker player/gambler/hustler in his book Big Deal must have seemed like nothing more than a sad old man to the new crowd of poker players who sat at his table or passed by on the rail. Sadly, these young poker players have no idea that the old man in the funny suit and cowboy hat, who looks like he is about to break-down and cry, is likely the only reason they have a chance to make millions playing poker.

Anyone who came up in the game before the poker boom had a far different opinion of Slim, and wanted desperately for the charges to be absolutely false.

Amarillo Slim is what many people like to call an exaggerator, a man who takes a certain editorial liberty with his stories, but the details being embellished never amounted too much and were never at the expense of someone else. Anyone in the poker world knew what you were getting with an Amarillo Slim yarn; you were being entertained and told a story based on fact –how much fact was anybody’s guess! Slim would call the allegations against him an “exaggeration” in later interviews, perhaps the most ironic part of the entire account.

But it was these stories that gave Slim his charm and charisma, which he used to its fullest, appearing on the Tonight Show an impressive eleven times, 60-Minutes, Good Morning America, and other shows. Slim even landed a cameo role in the 1974 gambling movie California Split. And all through this time Slim was doing countless interviews and celebrity appearances, opening casinos and hosting poker tournaments. Slim used his name and his face to promote poker in a way it had never been done before, and without Amarillo Slim the poker world would likely not exist in the way we know it today.

Had Puggy Pearson won the 1972 WSOP (this was allegedly an impossibility since purportedly a deal was struck to let Slim win, in exchange for Doyle Brunson and Puggy Pearson receiving part of the prize-pool) there would have been no Tonight Show calls for Thomas Preston. The WSOP might have remained an eight to ten-handed game, played by only the elite players of the time. The following year, 1973 WSOP would probably not have been broadcast on CBS, with Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder doing the commentary. A reported 7,000 articles were written about the 1973 WSOP including an Amarillo Slim feature in Time Magazine, an altogether unlikely event without an Amarillo Slim title defense as the main storyline. Slim was the one gambler of this period who sought the limelight.

While his contemporaries feared that publicity would scare away their marks, Amarillo Slim was of the school of thought that more marks would come to him, valuing an Amarillo Slim story over their money.

Slim was supposedly Kenny Rogers’ inspiration for the hit song “The Gambler” and the less famous “Do you dare make a bet with Amarillo Slim” by John Lutz Ritter. Slim worked with author Greg Dinkins on his autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People –with a movie project based on the book put on hold in recent years. He also penned the book, Play to Poker to Win in 1973.

Time will likely see Amarillo Slim’s accomplishments and poker legacy come back to the forefront of his biography, and future poker historians will likely focus on Slim’s role in bringing poker to a mainstream audience. Nobody, not Doyle Brunson or Chris Moneymaker has had a larger and longer lasting impact on the game of poker. For decades the name Amarillo Slim was not just the first professional poker player a person could name, he was the ONLY professional poker player they could!


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