When I first attended the World Series of Poker (WSOP) there were no corporate sponsors, no scantily clad models hawking online poker, and no TV cameras. The big action was found downtown on Fremont Street at Binion’s Horseshoe, a gambler’s gambling hall. Some of the rounders wore cowboy hats and most went by colorful nicknames like Puggy and Texas Dolly.1
Despite all those colorful names, the biggest name in poker was Amarillo Slim.
This was not 1972, the year Slim won the WSOP. This was 1 B.C.M. — the year before Chris Moneymaker’s improbable run to win the Main Event bracelet in 2003. Rick Reilly, who was at Sports Illustrated at the time, was one of the few mainstream writers to write about the WSOP, and his column was all about Amarillo Slim. HarperCollins reached out to Slim to write a book, and as both a literary agent and author (I was in Vegas promoting my book The Poker MBA when I met Slim), I began my journey with the living legend.
Within the next year, the WSOP was running seemingly every minute on ESPN, the World Poker Tour had a regular time slot on the Travel Channel, Jim McManus’s poker narrative, Positively Fifth Street, was on the New York Times best-seller list, Internet poker was growing exponentially, and Phil Ivey was looking to build on the three bracelets he won in 2002. When Moneymaker parlayed $39 from an online satellite into $2.5 million to win the Main Event in 2003, the poker boom was in full swing.
The biggest name in poker was still Amarillo Slim.
Slim’s four WSOP bracelets contributed to his induction into the Poker Hall of Fame, but he had an even bigger impact off the felt. He appeared 11 times on the Tonight Show, once on the TV shows I’ve Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth, and What’s My Line?, and had a role in the 1974 Robert Altman film California Split. He made national headlines when he won a bet with Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder for rafting down the “River of No Return” in Idaho. His poker adversaries over the years included presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and his partners/foes in grift ranged from drug lords Pablo Escobar and Jimmy Chagra to Las Vegas pioneers Benny Binion and Johnny Moss.
In May 2003, the memoir Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People (HarperCollins) was flying off the shelves. Everyone wanted a piece of the lanky Texas legend who, in his own words, is “so skinny that I look like the advance man for a famine.” At age 74, Slim was wooed by talk shows and dazzled the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Carson Daly, and The Best Damn Sports Show, Period. Companies wanted to hire him as a pitchman, and others, like investment firm Legg Mason, paid him just to show up to be mined for wisdom. He was also courted by Nicolas Cage to make a movie about his life.
I was Slim’s co-author and agent. We practically lived together for the next month. I drove Slim to The Best Damn Sports Show, Period, and he couldn’t stop talking about how he wanted to convince former coach and current TV analyst Jimmy Johnson to bet him a million dollars picking NFL games on the air. When we met Michael Irvin, one of Johnson’s former players, Slim laid out his proposition. Irvin yakked it up and said, among other things, “Oh yeah, Jimmy’ll do it.”
From that day forward, I heard Slim tell the story dozens of times of how Jimmy Johnson agreed to the $1 million bet. I think his mind worked in such ways that even he couldn’t differentiate his version of reality with actual reality. If he told a story long enough, at some point it would take on a life of its own and by then he might be convinced it was true. This made me wonder if — as detailed in the memoir — Slim really had beaten Minnesota Fats in pool with a broom, Evel Knievel in golf with a hammer, and Bobby Riggs in Ping-Pong with a frying pan.
This gets to the core of our tragic hero, who was born Thomas Austin Preston Jr. on December 31, 1928, in Johnson, Arkansas,2 and died on April 29, 2012, in Amarillo, Texas.3
I spent years trying to figure out when Slim was telling the truth. I slowly learned that the tough part is defining truth. We’re all clear that bluffing in poker is acceptable, just as marking the cards is not. But with Slim, you never knew how he interpreted reality. From my vantage point, it was clear that Slim did not have a bet with Jimmy Johnson. But who knows exactly what went through Slim’s mind?
Anyone who had ever met Slim knew he could talk the nuts off a motorcycle. When he set his mind to something, he really couldn’t shut up. I had been working with producer Norm Golightly, Nicolas Cage’s former partner at Saturn Films, to develop a film that Academy Award winner Milos Foreman would direct, Cage would star in, and Saturn Films would produce.
On May 22, 2003, Slim and I arrived at Cage’s house in Bel-Air. The butler seated us in the living room and offered us a beverage. Slim ordered his usual. “Cuppa coffee in a dirty cup.” By this time, I had heard that line a million times, but Golightly seemed to get a kick out of it, especially when the coffee was served in china with a glossier shine than Slim’s snakeskin boots.
Cage, sporting a cowboy hat, joined us a few minutes later. WSOP media director Nolan Dalla had asked me to offer Cage a complimentary seat in the WSOP main event. I passed along the invite and told Cage that Edward Norton and Matt Damon played in 1998 to promote the film Rounders.
“Matt Damon!” Slim interrupted. “That boy’s lighter than a June frost!”
Right on cue, in that great Nic Cage voice, Cage said, “He only went to Haaaarvard.”
Slim and Cage were a perfect match. Slim never stopped talking, and Cage, the observant actor, never interrupted. After about an hour of telling stories, Slim was ready to get down to business. He not only wasn’t intimidated by a $20 million-a-picture movie star, he seemed to revel in shaking Cage down. When Slim was in a room, he had to be the alpha male.
Since Cage was not only set to star in the movie but also produce with Golightly, Slim seized the advantage. Mind you, films can take more than a decade to get made and we had only been in talks for a couple months. That didn’t stop Slim from imposing his will on the situation. He looked Cage dead in the eye and said, “Well if you’re a producer, what the fuck are we waiting for?” The tension built. Without as much as even looking at Golightly, Slim said, “And that Do-Lightly, or Do-Little, or whatever the fuck his name is.”
Again, right on cue with that fabulous voice, Cage said, “He actually prefers Do-Hickey.”
Even at age 74, Slim always had the most energy in the room and could outlast anyone. I had been in several meetings in which all the other parties felt so drained just listening that they could hardly keep their eyes open. Like a parasite, Slim sucked the energy right out of people. Just as taking their pride or money was what gave him life, he could energetically rob people of their life force, drinking it in through his lungs. After about 90 minutes with the duo from Saturn, I was ready to end the meeting. We had brought a copy of the memoir, so I handed Slim a pen and asked him to sign it for Cage.
Slim grabbed the pen, looked Nicolas Cage dead in the eye, and said, “How do you spell ‘prick’?”
Cage loved it. And there Slim was, still as sharp as ever, about to be the biggest of all winners in the poker boom. Phil Gordon was the host of Celebrity Poker Showdown and his book sales far exceeded Slim’s. Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Gus Hansen, Phil Ivey, and Phil Hellmuth Jr. were making fortunes on and off the felt. But none of them were considered larger than life and were being courted for a major motion picture.4 Slim was on top of the world.
Then, just as we were about to finalize the movie deal, in August 2003, Slim was indicted on charges of indecency with his 12-year-old granddaughter.
He went from icon to pariah faster than a bad beat on the river. And because we could never decipher the real truth from Slim’s truth, no one — particularly in the poker community — gave him the benefit of the doubt. Slim loved to say that the only two things in the world on the square are Coca-Cola and wrestling. And then he would add, “And I’m a little dubious about Coca-Cola.” Slim believed everything was fixed because often he was the one doing the fixing. When the news broke, how could we have started believing him then?
The film, the endorsement deals, and the appearance fees that would have earned him millions were replaced by legal fees, headaches, and heartbreak.
Losing the money hurt him, but it was the shame and the lack of attention that hurt him more. He couldn’t show his face at the World Series of Poker for several years, never mind the issues it caused with his family. The downward spiral worsened.
For years, I had been trying to figure out if Slim was lying or not. Remember that Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People is a memoir. It’s simply the stories Slim wants to remember — how he wants to remember them. Given that he’s a hustler and a con man, I felt it was understood that Slim’s truth doesn’t necessarily reveal the truth. I heard several accounts about how the 1972 World Series of Poker was fixed so Benny Binion could profit from turning Slim into a pitchman. I kept those stories in mind when I interviewed Slim (as well as Brunson and Puggy Pearson — his final two opponents at the 1972 WSOP), though because I was collaborating on Amarillo Slim’s memoir (as opposed to writing a biography or historical account), I recounted his version in his book.
When Slim got arrested in 2003, his ability to keep you guessing was part of what did him in. Because he had been telling his own version of the “truth” for so many years, no one knew what to believe. Including me. As well as I knew the man, your guess as to what really happened is as good as mine. What I do know is that Slim’s tragic flaw cost him millions and the eternal fame that would have come from a major motion picture — at least while he was still alive.
I spoke to Slim four months ago on his 83rd birthday. He was still hustling, talking about building pool halls in Macau and other ventures to capitalize on the worldwide poker boom that he helped create. The only problem is that he kept blacking out and the doctors couldn’t figure out why. Not that he would have listened to them anyway if they told him to slow down. How could he, when his entire life depended on sucking the energy out of others?
He continued to badger me about the movie. I’d known him nearly 10 years, so at last I figured out that when he said, “Now, I don’t give a fuck one way or another if we make that movie,” he cared more about that than about anything in the world.
I spoke to Slim on the phone on April 17 while he was in hospice. He continued to ask me about the movie. Then he said that it probably fell apart because of Cage’s financial issues. True to form, even while fighting for his last breath, Slim created his own version of the truth. In between telling me his basketball bets (his money is on the Miami Heat to win the NBA championship), he also told me that “women and children give up, and I’m neither one of those.”
Thomas Austin “Amarillo Slim” Preston Jr. is the most entertaining raconteur I’ve ever met. He’s also the most ornery and energy-sucking. You have every right to assume the worst and condemn him for a crime for which he pleaded guilty. Or, you can choose to remember him by his “book voice” and cherish the stories of one of the most brilliant, fascinating, and colorful characters the world has ever known. Whether his tall tales are the truth or just Amarillo Slim’s truth, he has now taken them to his grave.
I’ll miss that old cowboy, even if on his deathbed he would still put a rattlesnake in my pocket and ask me for a match.
Greg Dinkin is the co-author of The Poker MBA (Random House) and Amarillo Slim’s memoir, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People (HarperCollins). His next book, You Want Answers, I Got Questions, will be published in the fall.