Amarillo Slim: Poker player in the vanguard of the game's surge in popularity since the 1970s

From fewer than 10 entrants in its first few years, the World Series of Poker now boasts thousands

Amarillo Slim was one of the greatest poker players of all time, a founding father of modern poker and instrumental in the rise of the game's popularity from the early 1970s. The author of Poker Nation, Andy Bellin, said, "If poker is truly America's game, then Amarillo Slim is the last bit of living American history there is. Part Wild West sheriff, part hustler, Slim is one of a kind."

Amarillo Slim was born Thomas Austin Preston Jr in 1928 in Johnson, Arkansas but moved to Turkey, Texas as an infant. "When my folks split, Mama went back to Arkansas and Daddy moved to Amarillo to run some restaurants and later a car lot," he once recalled. "And it's a good thing he did, because Amarillo Slim sounds a heckuva lot better than Turkey Tom or Arkansas Austin."

He had shown an early aptitude for mental arithmetic and took to gambling to provide extra pocket money. With a school friend he would skip lessons and go off to play pool for bets in the Mexican immigrant area of Amarillo. At the age of 16 he embarked on a road trip with two older players, pretending to his father that he had gone hunting with a friend. Such was the players' confidence in the young poker player that they advanced all the stakes money in return for two-thirds of the winnings. He recalls the departure from their first stop, in Texas: "...when I left Prairietown, I had the first hundred-dollar bill of my life. In fact, I left with $800, which was more money than I'd ever seen."

The arrival of Slim and three other Texas road-gamblers in Las Vegas in 1967 would signal a change in the fortunes of the players and of the city itself. The group convinced the Golden Nugget casino to host tournaments of Texas Hold'em poker, a variant of community card poker in which each player's incomplete hidden hand is combined with shared face-up cards. A player such as Slim, with his combination of good memory, arithmetical ability and psychology, could soon gain the upper hand.

Three years later the inaugural World Series Of Poker (WSOP) tournament was created by Benny Binion, fabled owner of the Horseshoe Casino. It was at the third WSOP in 1972 that Binion struck on the idea of a Texas Hold'em freeze-out competition, requiring a $10,000 buy-in from each player. Slim won the event, taking the $80,000 top prize, and revelled in the considerable media attention that followed, including appearances on CBS Sport and The Tonight Show.

Explaining the dramatic change in the image of the game, he said, "Before 1972 poker players were stereotyped as a bunch of backroom bums, people of low character and low morals, who sat around a smoke-filled room waiting for some sucker to show up so they could cheat him out of his money." One player, Jack Doyle, described the players as "mental athletes". Slim and Bill G Cox took advantage of the game's new-found fame to write the best-selling Play Poker to Win (1973).

Poker was now, thanks to Binion, Slim and their colleagues, a respectable and popular activity, with a growing following of professional players and fans. From fewer than 10 entrants during its first three tournaments in the 1970s, by its peak in 2006 WSOP brought together more than 8,700 players, with a first-place prize of $12 million and over $100 million on offer in total. The numbers were down slightly last year, but the tournament still hosted nearly 7,000 players in Las Vegas.

The film California Split (1974), directed by Robert Altman and starring Elliott Gould and George Segal, as out-of-luck gamblers, brought poker betting and its accompanying issues to the cinema-going public. Altman remarked how the use of Slim, who played his own character, gave "... drama to the poker game for the actors and crew", adding: "He elevated the game to a very high professional level."

The 1988 legalisation of Texas Hold'em in California gave another major boost to the game, causing it to spread across the US. By 1990 Slim had carried off his fourth WSOP win and he was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame two years later.

Slim never retired from the game, living in recent years on a 3,000-acre ranch outside Amarillo, and still travelling to tournaments all over the world. He featured in the documentary All In – The Poker Movie, by Douglas Tirola, which was released in the US in March.

Slim didn't restrict his gambling to poker. "I like to bet on anything – as long as the odds are in my favour", he said. His autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a world full of fat people (2003), tells of betting on games of table tennis played with frying pans or Coke bottles, and pool played with a broom and on a camel-ride through a Marrakech casino. Greg Dinkin, who co-write the memoir with Slim, said: "I consider Slim to be the world's leading authority on human nature. Here's a man who, simply by understanding basic human psychology, was able to travel all over the world, achieve celebrity status, and live life by his own rules."

Thomas Austin Preston Jr (Amarillo Slim), poker player and gambler: born Johnson, Arkansas 31 December 1928; married Helen (divorced, three children); died 29 April 2012.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions