When Amarillo Slim won the World Poker Championship the Vietnam War was in full swing, Richard Nixon was pounding George McGovern in the presidential race, Watergate break-ins were ongoing and Credence Clearwater Revival was breaking up.

It was 1972 and I was a sophomore in college at a church school in Oklahoma – but I knew about Amarillo Slim. After all he was from a city not far from where I went to high school in Hereford, Texas. Out in the Panhandle of Texas we didn’t have very many heroes and when Amarillo Slim won the World Series of Poker it was big news.

Not that all the God-fearing folks in West Texas liked the fact that Slim was a gambler – but they did like the fact that he was a winner. A big one.

Amarillo Slim is probably the world’s most famous poker player. He’s considered the father of Texas Hold’em, the game that has come out of obscurity to be a major hit in the gambling world and on national TV. I credit him with bringing poker out of the backrooms and making it the hottest gambling activity in America.

“Poker is a game of people,” Slim told me in a telephone interview a few years ago. “It’s not the hand I hold, it’s the people that I play with.”

It was a line, Slim liked to repeat over and over again. I believed him. There are few gamblers who can work people or other players like Amarillo Slim. Long before he became a famous poker player, he was a famous gambler – whipping Minnesota Fats at a game of one-pocket using only a broom as a pool cue, holding a horse’s tail for a quarter of a mile in San Angelo and allegedly beating Willie Nelson out of $300,000 playing dominoes in Las Vegas.

Slim wasn’t always a winner. He also lost a few. When he appeared on the TV show I’ve Got A Secret in 1972 – his untold tale was that he had lost $190,000 in one night of playing poker. He won a lot more than he lost and in 1992 he was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.

Amarillo Slim Preston is a true poker legend. He is a member of five halls of fame, winner of five World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, including the WSOP Championship in 1972. Besides poker, he is also known as a world class billiard player and one of the most publicized proposition gamblers in history.

Although his poker skills were legendary, Amarillo Slim’s skills in marketing himself were just as good. He ended up in a couple of movies and appeared on numerous television shows becoming a household name.

When I last talked to Amarillo Slim by telephone, he was almost 80, a self described country bumpkin from Amarillo still wheeling and dealing and enjoying life despite some nasty family problems that almost sent him to jail. He was working with friends to set up a poker tournament at the Country Club in Littlefield. He said there was a $300 entry fee and people from all over the state were calling to try to get in on the action.

He didn’t want to do a in-person interview unless I would donate $1,000 to the Meals on Wheels program in Amarillo. I told him it was a good cause, but that most journalists weren’t dealt a winning hand when it came to their pocketbook.

He laughed and kept talking.

Actually, Slim was born in Arkansas but his parents soon “saw their error of their ways” when he was nine months old and moved to Texas. He considers himself a Texan and made good use of the swagger and the accent in marketing himself as the world’s top poker player back in the 70s and 80s.

Slim said he couldn’t believe the big pots that exist today in the World Series of Poker and he lamented the fact that some forms of gambling still aren’t legal in Texas.

“The state ought to legalize it,” he told me. “Then the state could own the poker houses and hire people in the poker business to run it. It would make the lottery look like a pussy cat. That’s a revenue generate where you couldn’t spend all the money.”

In fact, Slim offered to run the poker houses for the state. “It would be wide open,” he said. “There wouldn’t be any secrets. The state could put in about 10 big card games all over the state, and I’d oversee all ten of them.”

The offer is unlikely to ever come through.

But that didn’t dissuade Amarillo Slim, who said he had survived three hold-up attempts even though his pickup got hit by a bullet . “Now I’m not patting myself on the back,” he said. “But the people who are for legalized gambling in Texas ought to retain me to show the legislature why we could do it.”

Maybe he was right. After all this is the guy who beat Penthouse Publisher Larry Flynt out of “six figures” and remained his friend while the porno king was still in prison. And at 78, he was still cracking jokes and trying to talk people into betting the farm that he couldn’t do one thing or the other.

I didn’t try it, but Slim likes to brag that all you have to do to send him a letter is address it to Amarillo Slim, Amarillo, Texas, and he would get it. I wouldn’t doubt it. We were almost through with the interview when Amarillo Slim had to sound off on his hometown and use one of his best known lines.
“Amarillo’s a good town,” he says in his best Texas drawl. “But the population has been the same for the last 50 years. Every time some woman gets pregnant, some man leaves town.”

I laughed at his old joke. And then he gave me a piece of sage advice.

“You want to know about poker?” he asked. “Look around the table. If you don’t see a sucker, get up – because the sucker is you.”

 Amarillo Slim’s Top 10 Keys to Poker Success

  1. Play the players more than you play the cards
  2. Choose the right opponents. If you don’t see a sucker at the table, you’re it.
  3. Never play with money you can’t afford to lose.
  4. Be tight and aggressive; don’t play many hands, but when you do, be prepared to move in. 
  5. Always be observing at a poker game. The minute you’re there, you’re working.
  6. Watch the other players for “tells” before you look at your own cards.
  7. Diversify your play so others can’t pick up your tells.
  8. Choose your speed based on the direction of the game. Play slow in a fast game, fast in a slow game.
  9. Be able to quit a loser, and for goodness’ sake, keep playing when you’re winning.
  10. Conduct yourself honorably so you’re always invited back.

Steve Ray is a longtime journalist and public affairs consultant. You can find out more about him at www.steverayassociates.com. For more of Steve’s stories on gambling and entertainment go to www.bingointexas.com , www.gambleongreyhounds.com or www.gambleontexas.com