Amarillo Slim Remembered
Friday, 29 June 2012
By Johnny Hughes
Amarillo Slim Preston was one of the pivotal figures in poker history, a colorful Texan full of old sayings and gambling wisdom. When he won the World Series of Poker in 1972, he suddenly became a household name and the most famous gambler in the world, making 11 Tonight Show appearances with Johnny Carson, as well as featuring on several TV game shows. He even had a part in the Robert Altman movie California Split.
Slim was just born for self-promotion. I recently re-watched the video of the 1973 World Series. At the final table were several men who would win the Main Event of the World Series later, some of whom would make the Poker Hall of Fame. Puggy Pearson defeated Johnny Moss that year. Treetop Straus and Sailor Roberts were there, as was Crandell Addington, my favourite – the flashy, good-looking, fashionably-dressed gambler they called “Dandy” was the guy I cheered for at the early World Series. With his Stetson, fine suit, and boots, Addington would be Hollywood's idea of what a Texas road gambler looked like. He still holds the record for the most final table appearances. But Amarillo Slim kept walking up to the table, wise-cracking, joking with the players, even though he was knocked out already.
I had played poker with Amarillo Slim around Lubbock as early as 1961. He was not all that great a player or winner. A little later, he began to travel and share bankroll with Doyle Brunson and Sailor Roberts. They made a lot of money, and ended up busted in Las Vegas. I play a little poker now with Shaun Rice, Amarillo Slim’s protégé and traveling partner. He says Slim was the best hustler of his generation, and I believe that too. He used his celebrity to play doctors, lawyers, and square Johns heads up, easy marks. Amarillo Slim was a true road gambler, a damn proud term that I admire.
I first went to the World Series in 1975. Slim and I sat together on the plane going out. As usual, we told funny stories about the West Texas gamblers we knew. We had our picture taken in front of the million in ten thousand-dollar bills at Binion's. For many years after that time, if I saw someone with a press badge, I'd point them to Slim, and tell them truthfully he was the best interview there. I didn't tell them that only half of what he said was true and I didn’t know which half.
In the 1980s, Slim would reach millions of people in his interviews. I listened in a few times. I still have what he said in an interview with an Englishman: “You're an Englishman? Most Englishmen couldn't track an elephant in four feet of snow if the beast had a giant nosebleed.”
Amarillo Slim was quoted repeatedly on his old sayings: “If you are going to be a sucker, be a quiet one.”
“Sometimes the lamb slaughters the butcher.”
“I'd just as soon have my dick caught in a meat grinder as to bluff at him.”
In the last years of the Shop, the legendary Lubbock poker game, Slim came down and played a lot. He would wear shorts or golf clothes. In Las Vegas, he was always in costume: finely-tailored Western suits, a Stetson hat with a rattlesnake with its mouth open as decor. He bought, at one time, ten pairs of boots in different colours. They had vents in the side and he'd wear matching socks. He was as skinny as his name suggests. One wag said he was “he advance man for a famine.”
Slim would tell people, very truthfully, that he had done a whole lot for poker. For many years, he was the most famous gambler in America, not just poker player. And gamblers should be entertainers; the light players should be treated as customers, and Slim would always be “on”, in the show business sense. At the World Series, all the tourists wanted to see him. He was most gracious, always laughing, always smiling and coming with the old sayings for everyone. Like Benny Binion, he treated the little man like a big man, talking to everyone.
The first day I met him was at Reverend Pruitt's poker game in Lubbock. We were sitting around waiting for enough players to start and Slim was “on”, entertaining and bull-shitting. He was also going for a tough guy image. He said some guy pulled a gun at a poker game, and he already had his six-shooter pointed at him under the table. Then he went to his car and brought in this enormous, long-barreled six-shooter that would have been totally impractical for a gambler.
Some years back, Slim's granddaughter accused him of inappropriately touching her. She has publicly recanted, and said she made it all up. All members of Amarillo Slim's family, including her parents stand behind Slim. They have signed, sworn and notarised documents backing Slim's total innocence of these charges.
On the advice of his attorney, and using common sense, Slim pled no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge on a plea bargain. This was not a sex charge in any way and did not require him to be listed as a sex offender. Some bargain! You would have to know how it works in West Texas. They told him this: Option one: plead no contest to a lesser charge, pay a small fine and leave the building. Option two: be charged with felony sexual assault, face a jury and possible life in prison.
Life or a fine? Choose.
Amarillo Slim had pled guilty or no contest to gambling and vagrancy charges several times, as had I. When we pled guilty to vagrancy by association, it didn't mean we were broke, didn't have a residence or anything much. For a gambler, it was the cost of doing business. In Tulia, Texas, one lying rogue undercover narcotics officer framed scores of black people. Many pled guilty when they were innocent on plea bargains to get a lighter sentence. Later this was all discovered and the governor gave pardons.
None of Slim's friends ever believed that he had become a child molester after turning 70. Doyle Brunson, one of the most respected men in poker and one of Slim's best friends and old road partners, spoke out on Slim's behalf early on, as did any Texan I know of. Shawn Rice had known Slim for 25 years. They travelled together and shared a bankroll. Like Doyle and I, Shawn is very outspoken in defense of Slim’s innocence.
Nolan Dalla, Media Director for the World Series of Poker, did an interview with Slim pointing to his innocence. Nolan himself has maintained journalistic neutrality. It is illogical to believe that Amarillo Slim was guilty of this when his whole family and his Texas friends agree that he was innocent.
This is an excerpt from Johnny Hughes' upcoming book FAMOUS GAMBLERS, POKER HISTORY, and TEXAS STORIES. He also wrote Texas Poker Wisdom, available on all Amazons