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.

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