“OH, MAN,” HE SAID. DID I leave you with two dollars? I thought I’d bet it all. You better make a stand. Custer did, but of course you know that poor son of a bitch got massacred. So you can imagine what’s fixing to happen to you.”
Amarillo Slim was smiling when he said this, and I was laughing. We’d been playing his favorite poker game, no-limit Texas hold ‘em, one-on-one, and the inevitable was coming to pass: After an hour and a half, he was winning my money. I was losing more or less happily, partly because the result had been so obviously foreordained and partly because Slim is such a funny guy. He is a hustler, a gambler, maybe the most famous gambler ever, and he makes losing money feel like a recreational activity. He’s done that for most of his life, as a pool player, bookmaker, and seemingly random bettor on just about anything. He has cut cards with presidents Johnson and Nixon and says he won $400,000 from Willie Nelson playing dominoes. He has outrun racehorses, sort of. Once he beat a table-tennis champ while playing with Coke bottles.
Mostly, though, Slim, known by his mother as Thomas Austin Preston, Jr., is famous for bringing poker out of the smoky back rooms and into the mainstream, where it thrives—in Las Vegas, online, and at regular Wednesday night games across the country. Slim did it with a combination of smarts, corn pone, and shameless attention-grabbing. He’s been called the Bobby Fischer of poker as well as the Imelda Marcos of the game, for his closetful of showy cowboy boots, most of which are stitched with his nickname. As he himself will tell you, he is “a dirty bastard.” Slim has made a lot of money over the past six decades hustling people, some of whom didn’t know better and many, like me, who should have. “If I’m gonna win,” he writes in his memoir, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People, due out this month from HarperCollins, “I sure as hell want to break somebody doing it.”
During our game, played at his 6,800-square-foot Amarillo home in March, he kept saying it was me he was going to break. But he kept telling me a lot of things. Talk is Slim’s weapon of choice—distracting his opponents with his deep drawl, getting into their heads, telling stories from a colorful life of hustles good and bad, bets made and lost. The stories usually end with some hilarious bon mot, obviously spoken many times over the years, such as, “He had as good a chance of beating me as getting a French kiss out of the Statue of Liberty.” These folksy one-liners may be part of Slim’s shtick, but they somehow always sound fresh, which makes them even more outrageous. Indeed, Slim just delights in saying outrageous things. “Tighter than a nun’s gadget,” he declared at one point. “I don’t know what it means,” he added, “but I just said it.”
At six feet four and 170 pounds, Slim is defiantly slim. He’s 74, with longish, thinning hair, and looks like a character actor in an old western. Actually, he shares many features with Jimmy Stewart, especially the long, rubbery, perhaps deceptively kind face. Slim’s left eye is a little narrower than his right—maybe, I couldn’t help but think, from years of cagey winking. He wears a huge diamond ring on his left ring finger and a couple of gold bracelets. His belt, belt buckle, and shirt cuffs all bear his nickname. And he has soft hands, as you might expect of a man who has never held a job.
Texas hold ‘em, the game we were playing, is the one that serious gamblers play. Nobody’s certain where it originated; some believe it came from Brenham, others think Corpus Christi. The rules are fairly straightforward: Each player gets two cards facedown, followed by a round of betting, then three communal cards are turned up at once (called the flop), then a fourth and a fifth are turned up. After each new deal comes another round of betting. Players use the five communal “up” cards and their own two “down” cards to make the best five-card poker hand available. What makes hold ‘em so exciting is that attitude wins as much as cards; you can win with a terrible hand as long as you can bluff the other players. “Hold ‘em has the most action and requires the most skill of all poker games,” Slim told me. “Any two cards can be a hand. Any two cards can beat any other two.” This is especially true when two people play “head up,” or one-on-one. The real action comes when both have good hands. In no-limit, either player can bet every chip he has and try to, as Slim says, break the other. (I asked what happened to stud poker, which used to be the game of choice. “Stud is like bumpers and fenders on cars,” said Slim. “It went out forty years ago.”)
Head-up no-limit Texas hold ‘em isn’t only Slim’s favorite game; it’s his living. After years of seeking out people to hustle, now Slim waits for people to call him and try to con an old man. Recently, when he was in Vienna for a world head-up championship, he took some action on the side, traveling to Moscow, London, and Paris for another eleven games, at a minimum of $25,000 each. Of course, he won them all. I knew when I called that I stood about the same chance. The difference was, I had only $100 for my learning experience, fronted by my boss, with whom I regularly tussle at our weekly game.
So I went to Amarillo, where Slim lives with Helen, his wife of 53 years, works on one of his three cattle ranches, rides horses, hunts, and keeps tabs on the Preston family empire—four Pizza Planets, three Smoothie Kings, and two Swensen’s. We sat at a