One of a kind: Legendary gambler Amarillo Slim has played his final hand

Texan renowned for his outrageous bets and who reinvigorated a sport has died aged 83

New York

There really wasn't anything Amarillo Slim wouldn't bet on. Elections and sports games, for sure, but crazy stuff too, from whether a cat could pick up a Coke bottle to which sugar cube a fly would land on. He challenged the motorcycle ace Evel Knievel to a game of golf, using only carpenter's hammers, beat a Taiwanese table tennis world champion using Coke bottles as paddles, and took the singer Willie Nelson for $300,000 in a game of dominoes.

Yet it was as the man who popularised poker, and who brought Texas Hold'em to the masses, that Slim will be forever remembered, and it is the world of poker that is mourning his passing at the age of 83.

The five-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) champion passed away from colon cancer on Sunday in Amarillo, Texas.

"Slim will forever be remembered as the most famous poker player of the 20th Century. But he was much more than just a poker player and gambler," said Nolan Dalla, WSOP media director. "He was a real life character, stealing just about every scene on which he appeared on the greater stage of life. There will never be another quite like him."

If it hadn't been for Thomas Austin Preston, standing six feet two with a stetson on top of that, poker may still have been the preserve of down-at-heel hustlers. He took his nickname from the Texan town where he grew up, and parlayed his early success travelling from town to town playing pool and poker into fame at the earliest poker tournaments.

He was the first to achieve the mix of mathematical genius and outrageous showmanship that has defined poker ever since, and his bets and challenges became as famous as his skills around the poker table.

"If there's anything I'll argue about, I'll either bet on it or shut up," he once said. "And since it's not very becoming for a cowboy to be arguing, I've made a few wagers in my day. But in my humble opinion, I'm no ordinary hustler. You see, neighbour, I never go looking for a sucker. I look for a champion and make a sucker out of him."

Along the way, Slim played against presidents and powerbrokers, among them Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and the drug baron Pablo Escobar. He also claims to have taken Larry Flynt, the pornography tycoon, for $1.7m in a grudge match, though Mr Flynt denies that and damns his old adversary as a liar.

Certainly Slim was not shy of telling a tall tale, as any reader of his autobiography Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People would be able to judge.

It is likely to be just a matter of time before his life story – or some version of his telling of it – appears in movie form, and his death caused a resurgence of speculation that Nicholas Cage could be asked to play him in the biopic which was first planned, and dropped, in 2009.

Slim's family said they hoped, "everyone will remember our beloved Amarillo Slim for all the positive things he did for poker and to popularise his favourite game – Texas Hold'em".

The stakes are wry: A bettor's life

* Known for his extravagant proposition bets, "Amarillo Slim" bet that he could beat tennis champion Bobby Riggs at ping-pong. The catch? Slim could choose what they used as bats. After months of practice, Slim beat Riggs – with both using iron skillets to play. He later repeated the hustle against a Taiwanese ping-pong champion, this time with Coca-Cola bottles.

* Slim beat "Puggy" Pearson to take the 1972 World Series of Poker title, $80,000 prize money, and the first of five 22-carat-gold bracelets he would win.

* Betting legend says Slim once claimed he could outrun champion racehorse Seabiscuit over 100 yards – if he could choose the track. He selected a 50-yard course and in the time it took the jockey to slow the horse and turn around, Slim had sprinted to victory.

* In his autobiography, Slim claimed he was kidnapped from a Colombia casino in the 1990s by the henchmen of drug lord Pablo Escobar. He said it was only their last-minute realisation of his identity that stopped them from throwing him out of a helicopter. He said the cartel boss apologised before sitting down to enjoy a game of Texas hold'em with him.

Michael Pooler

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