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Wednesday 17 January 2018

Wild card who had a big hand in changing the face of poker

Amarillo Slim, who died aged 83, was the World Poker champion four times and arguably did more than any player to popularise the game.

One of a cabal of rough and ready gamblers, mostly Texans, living on their wits in the days when the game was largely confined to dimly-lit, smoke-filled back rooms, Slim sprang from a Wild West tradition dating from the days of Billy The Kid. Many Americans frowned on poker, some even considering it a sin.

But in 1970 Slim's best friend, the one-time Dallas bootlegger Benny Binion, invited him to take part in the first World Poker Championships.

The venue was the Horseshoe, Binion's casino in Las Vegas renowned for accepting any bet, no matter how big. Playing a variant of poker known as Texas Hold 'Em, Slim did not win that year, but he returned in 1971, and triumphed in 1972, walking off with the $60,000 pot.

His victory proved transformative for the game. Slim embarked on a publicity tour, and soon detoxified poker's image. Drawing on Western folklore and characterising the game with an aggressive lexicon of "showdowns" and "shoot-outs", he became poker's most powerful ambassador.

A tall, lean, plain-spoken figure, invariably crowned by a cowboy hat adorned with a genuine rattlesnake head, Slim relished his reputation as one of the first poker superstars and enjoyed bragging about his prowess at the business of bluffing, raising, seeing and folding.

He often regaled American television chat show audiences with homespun words of advice for would-be high rollers.

"Look around the table," he would say. "If you don't see a sucker, get up, because you're the sucker."

Nor, it became clear, were his talents confined to the card table. He once reputedly relieved a drug dealer of $50,000 in the jail cell they were sharing by betting on which of five lumps of sugar a fly would land.

Thomas Austin Preston Jr was born on December 31, 1928, in Johnson, Arkansas. His parents divorced when he was 16 and he moved to Amarillo, Texas, to live with his father.

At 17 he joined the US army, served overseas and on his return met Doyle Brunson and Brian 'Sailor' Roberts, with whom he became fast friends.

The three soon formed a partnership, travelling across the south-western United States as the original Texas "road gamblers", playing poker and seeking out other wagers.

"We got to the point where we were gambling on just about every game there was -- golf, tennis, basketball, pool, sports betting," Slim recalled. "As long as we thought we had some sort of edge, we'd bet. And we made money."

Although the trio eventually broke up, having been robbed of their winnings in Las Vegas, they remained friends.

After his victory in 1972, Slim went on to win three other events at the World Poker Championships, the last being in 1990. In 2000 he narrowly failed to lift his fifth world title.

Slim also hosted the Super Bowl of Poker, which became one of the biggest tournaments in the US until it was cancelled in 1991.

In the course of his tournament career, his earnings amounted to an unimpressive $587,568. These days, players at the World Series stand to win as much as $10m (€7.6m). Meanwhile, online poker has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

He produced several poker books, including Amarillo Slim's Play Poker to Win (2005). In his autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People (2003), he claimed to have played poker with two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, and catalogued many of his proposition (or "prop") bets.

These ranged from winning $300,000 at dominoes from the country singer Willie Nelson to beating Minnesota Fats at pool with a broom, hitting a golf ball a mile across a frozen lake, and beating a world champion table tennis player with a Coca-Cola bottle.

As well as his television appearances, Slim also played himself in Robert Altman's gambling film California Split (1974).

In 2003 Slim was indicted in Texas on charges of indecency with a child, his grand-daughter Hannah.

Although he always protested his innocence, he pleaded "no contest" to reduced charges in order, he said, to protect his family. He was fined $4,000 and given two years' probation with counselling.

His reputation never recovered. Slim was robbed at gunpoint twice, insulted with names like "Amarillo Slime", and was to all intents and purposes abandoned by the American poker business. Plans to film his life were reportedly dropped.

Amarillo Slim was divorced. His three children survive him.

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