“Amarillo Slim,” the Texan gambler who changed the face of poker, died Sunday morning in Amarillo at 83. Thomas Preston Jr., four-time World Poker champion, helped bring the game out of “dimly-lit, smoke-filled back rooms” and into the spotlight, according to his obituary in the Telegraph. With his telegenic presence, Slim “set the cast for the modern era’s branded poker star” at the 1972 World Series of Poker, poker star Gary Wise opined at ESPN.com.
Slim had “the golden voice … and helped people realize the game was not just full of gangsters, thugs and leg breakers,” Crandall Addington, a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, told CardPlayer.com. He became the card game’s “most powerful ambassador” by “drawing on Western folklore and characterizing the game with an aggressive lexicon of ‘showdowns’ and ‘shoot-outs,’” the Telegraph obit continued.
But his Western image was no act. “He was cowboy at heart,” his eldest son Bunky Preston recounted to Kevin Welch of the Amarillo Globe-News. “He used poker to make money, but he enjoyed chasing cows.” Slim famously wore a Stetson (complete with a rattlesnake head) and custom-made cowboy boots (stitched with his nickname) wherever he went. He even asked for the latter while he was in hospice care, “in case [he got] a chance to ride,” his daughter Deane Preston told Welch.
During his long career he played cards with everyone from drug lords (Pablo Escobar, Jimmy Chagra) to presidents (Richard Nixon, Lyndon Baines Johnson). Slim, who earned his nickname during a game of pool against Minnesota Fats, had a colorful life that contained more than just poker. In his 2003 autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People, he recounted some of his other exploits, including winning $300,000 in a dominoes game against Willie Nelson and beating Evel Knievel at golf using a hammer instead of a club.
TEXAS MONTHLY’s Michael Hall, who played a game of Texas hold ‘em with the poker great for a 2003 magazine profile, wrote that Slim made “losing money feel like a recreational activity.” Hall summed up Slim’s poker-playing style this way:
Contrary to popular wisdom, poker isn’t so much about luck but about math and psychology—calculating odds and intentions, watching faces and listening to voices. In other words, says Slim, “poker is a people game.” The main way to figure people out is to watch their eyes (one reason Slim wears a hat). And talk to them. Slim plays poker the way Michael Jordan plays basketball—aggressively, talking trash the whole time, rattling his opponents, confusing them, manipulating them, trying to figure out what they have.