"Look around the table. If you don't see a sucker, get up, because you're the sucker."
May 1, 2012 3:52 PM   Subscribe

"I never go looking for a sucker. I look for a Champion and make a sucker of of him." - Thomas Austin Preston Jr, aka Amarillo Slim, poker's first celebrity, has died at age 83.

Although he became famous as a poker player - he won the World Series of Poker Championship in 1972, as well as four other preliminary WSOP events and other poker tournaments over the years -- he was also a pool hustler, ping pong hustler, golf hustler, and general sports betting hustler who would bet large sums on anything when he felt he was getting the right price.

It must also be said that his last decade was filled with controversy and sadness: In August 2003, a grand jury in Randall County, Texas indicted Slim on multiple counts of indecency with a child. The felony charges were later dropped, but Slim eventually agreed to plead "no contest" to misdemeanor assault charges to protect his family, he claimed, and avoid the embarrassment of a public trial. His reputation forever tarnished, Slim spent his last years out of the spot light, watching from the sidelines as a new generation of poker players rode televised poker to new heights of fame, fortune, and celebrity.
posted by mosk (19 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

posted by bbuda at 3:58 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

He was also highly quotable: "Look around the table. If you don't see a sucker, get up, because you're the sucker."

A lesson I knew, but still had to learn the hard way at the Mirage in Vegas. Only cost me $100, but without his words, I probably wouldn't have learned it at all.
posted by Phredward at 4:08 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

He was such a fascinating character. He once beat the world table tennis champion at a high stakes game of ping pong using a coke bottle as a racket. And then beat him again using a frying pan. (As a racket. At Ping Pong.)

I hadn't heard about his recent legal troubles. That leaves a bit of a bad tastes.

If you've been putting off buying a copy of his incredible book on account of not wanting to give an alleged sex offender money, well now you can do so in clean conscience. And you really should, it's the best gambling book I've ever read. And I've read quite a few.
posted by 256 at 4:52 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by humanfont at 5:10 PM on May 1, 2012

I was one of the people who shunned him after the child abuse accusations came out and even if you accept his version of events, his conduct was troubling at best. Right now, I choose to remember the better side of Slim. There is an art in poker of keeping people entertained and happy while they lose -- something that many of the current generation of folks who grew up online don't really appreciate. Playing at a table with Slim was always entertaining. I don't think I ever met a man who had more cornball expressions for every possible situation or more funny stories for every possible straight line. My favorite thing to do was to get him on a roll with stories about shooting pool. He was a pool hustler back in the day and had a way of describing the people he played and the exploits he had in getting out alive with his money that would leave everyone who heard them breathless with laughter. One of the poker memories I will always treasure is playing a cash game with him when he finally came back the WSOP a couple of years ago and he had the table roaring with laughter and the waitlist a mile deep. He was deep into another story about a golf hustle and we were in a hand that was shaping up to be a big one and I knew I had the best of him, but was trying not to disturb his flow. When I raised him on 5th street (this was a stud round), he said "I remember you, Blondie -- always laying in the weeds like a big ole gator" and folded to me without missing a beat in his story. Even though the last time I played with him was 5 years prior, he remembered our last hand correctly and I was stupidly pleased to have made an impression, even if I didn't get any more of his money.
posted by Lame_username at 5:14 PM on May 1, 2012 [22 favorites]

He once beat the world table tennis champion at a high stakes game of ping pong using a coke bottle as a racket. And then beat him again using a frying pan
The guy he beat with the skillet was actually Bobby Riggs, of Billie Jean King fame.
posted by Lame_username at 5:17 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

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

[Looks around. Backs out of thread slowly.]
posted by jabberjaw at 5:28 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

I didn't know about the child abuse issues. I always enjoyed him as a talk show guest--what a colorful way with words he had.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:32 PM on May 1, 2012

Amarillo Slim was the master of the "Proposition Bet" and he'd sometimes spend months doing things like learning to play golf with a hammer, just so he could surprise unwary marks with seemingly foolhardy bets.
posted by ShutterBun at 5:32 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

The proposition bets are really interesting, though I have to say, Sky Masterson said it best:

"...One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice, brand new deck of cards on which (Sky snaps fingers) the seal has not yet been broken. This man is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of that deck and squirt cider in your ear. Now son, you do not take this bet, for as sure as you stand there, you are going to wind up with an earful of cider."
posted by jquinby at 5:36 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

A few years back, Slim and Doyle Brunson spent downtime at the World Series racing their Rascal scooters down the hallways of the Rio (and, of course, laying bets). There's something about guys like that - men in their 70s and 80s who were on break from sitting at poker tables with people a third their age, and who still got more press coverage for Rascal racing than the Internet millionaires.
posted by catlet at 5:38 PM on May 1, 2012

"no one knows where the hobo goes when it snows"

amarillo slim dealer's choice is the best poker game i've ever played - you can run it in dosbox and find it on abandonware sites
posted by pyramid termite at 6:43 PM on May 1, 2012

I saw the headline yesterday and it gave me a twinge of sadness to realize that we're losing the poker greats.

I've been reading Card Player Magazine for about two decades now and Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson and David Sklansky and Mike Caro and I. Nelson Rose's column on gambling and the law and all the rest are important parts of my vision of poker. A lot has changed since Card Player got its start and I think the most emblematic part of the change is how its cover went from featuring casinos to featuring players about a decade ago as the game began to have superstar players.

The poker player in the family is my dad and he's really the reason I've been reading Card Player and going on trips to Vegas and Alaska (that latter being a poker cruise) and watching the scene with an insider's view since both Las Vegas and poker started exploding in the early 90s. He's also the reason I got a job at a casino a few years back; that job helped finance my first year of library school.

My dad's been playing poker since he joined the Army Reserves sometime in the '60s (he said he made a bet with himself: join the Reserves and have them be called up or wait for the draft and get out of it by being in the Reserves. He won the bet: the President initiated the draft and he got to spend a few years Stateside courtesy of the US government). He learned to play poker there at Ft Dix, about an hour north of Atlantic City.

He's only a decade younger than Amarillo Slim (though he'd be furious if he knew I'd mentioned that fact in public) and he grew up in an America where kitchen table poker was not that common and in most places poker was still illegal to play in public. He made his way to California and played in some of the legal card rooms there (few and far between back then, even in laidback SoCal) and in the meantime made quite a few trips to Vegas (as you might expect).

He still talks about the Vegas where mobsters were quite open about their affiliations and the Strip hardly even existed. By the time I was in my teens, we'd vacationed in Vegas more times than years I'd been alive (those were the years when the Strip was touting its 'family friendly' status) and I got a front-row seat to the absolute explosion of legal gambling, poker especially, and the bloated growth of Las Vegas itself.

After all these decades, my dad is a pretty darn good player: he texted me just now to let me know he won a $5000 pot yesterday and he regularly wins enough money to cover vacations and small expenses. He'll never be Amarillo Slim good and he'll never be WSOP bracelet good, but he's SoCal casino good and he had an awesome time picking clean the college kids who started playing in droves in the early part of the 2000s. A decade in, some of those college kids have gotten pretty good and he's not reeling in the easy money anymore but he's got the time now to concentrate on his game and he's enjoying having some quality players these days (well, unless you ask him about his latest bad beat!).

People like Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson and yes, my dad, have a huge amount of poker history in their blood. They experienced the 'suburbunization' of poker first hand. Today, if you tell your mother that you want to be a professional poker player she might frown a bit but she won't necessarily think you're bound for a life of degenerate criminality.

When Slim got his start, people did think that (as Brunson said in the linked obit, "People equated us with being some kind of gangsters or outlaws or something, and all we were doing was playing poker."). Poker, through my dad, has brought a lot of people into my life--among many other things I got my second car, the one I still drive over a decade in, thanks to a poker buddy of my dad's--and it's brought a lot of one-of-a-kind experiences, too (that trip to Alaska meant I got to see a glacier calve, f'ex). Poker has been a force for good in my life and I'm sorry to see this particularly colorful icon of poker pass on.
posted by librarylis at 8:08 PM on May 1, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'd never heard about the legal issues either. The weird thing is that that was around the time of the TV/Internet poker boom, and he probably got more famous than ever because of it, as newbies (like me) started learning about guys like him, Brunson, and Reese. In retrospect though, he certainly wasn't on TV as often as the others, esp at the "feature table."

Favorite quote was something to the effect of how the population of Amarillo never changes, because every time a baby's born, a man leaves town.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:10 PM on May 1, 2012

RIP Slim.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:31 PM on May 1, 2012

I do wonder how good Slim actually was at poker. Weren't there like, 12 people playing the year he won the WSOP?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:14 AM on May 2, 2012

Slim was a professional gambler for his entire life. He may not have known even a lick of math, but I guarantee he was good at poker, or at least at real poker, aka mixed cash games.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:23 AM on May 2, 2012

I do wonder how good Slim actually was at poker. Weren't there like, 12 people playing the year he won the WSOP?
The year he won the main there were 7 players, actually. But he won a 5k PLO bracelet in 1990 when the fields were bigger, probably like 100-ish. Its difficult to make absolute statements about the skill of his generation. Almost all of those guys are no longer competitive, including many from the next couple of generations of players. The way people play changes over time and strategies that were universally effective 10 years ago are a joke now. You could argue that strategies that were effective 5 years ago are no good now. Some players adjusted better than others. Slim didn't play regularly in the days when things were changing the fastest, so I think the aggression and mathematical thinking that followed left him behind. But had he been younger or playing regularly, he may have stayed competitive. Its really impossible to say. I think you have to agree that he was one of the best in his prime -- in a time when mistakes got you shot and collecting your winnings was uncertain in the extreme. I have nothing bad to say about the guys who got rich in those days, even if I'm happy to find them at my tables today. He won at the games that were on offer when he came up in the game. If he came up 5 years ago, he'd probably have played totally differently, but my bet is that the 20 year old Slim would be just as good today as he was then.
posted by Lame_username at 8:47 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

This notion that Player X from one era couldn't possibly compete with Player Y from another era is interesting to discuss but ultimately it's going to be a fruitless conversation, in much the same way that saying "Babe Ruth would never have hit so many home runs if the leagues he played in were integrated, and he were truly facing the top baseball players of his times, not just the top white baseball players." If, if, if. The truth is, the game was different then, but that doesn't mean a top player then wouldn't necessarily be a top player now. This man made his living for years driving around Texas and other parts of the country trying to fleece the locals and still leave town with his head intact. That's a skill, brother, and if you can do that week after week and still get invited back to take another shot, you're a pretty damn good poker player. The internet era of poker sanitized a lot of what made the game so challenging to play in a live setting, while heightening other aspects of the game that are important but not necessarily the only skills necessary if you are sitting across from a guy with a large stack of actual, physical cash, that you want for yourself. ]

Poker is, by definition, a game of situations. From what I've read -- and I can only go by that, as I only met the man once in a cardroom (and not across the table) -- Slim was absolutely the master of his situation at almost any given moment. The man commanded the center of attention, as ably told by Greg Dinkin, his ghost writer for his 2003 memoir (the first of the "More Inside" links). The man may have been an amoral or immoral SOB, but he had a master's ability to read a situation and calculate how to best spin it to his advantage. Would he fare well at a table full of tough, math and stats savvy young phenoms? Perhaps not, but he survived (if not thrived) in much more rough and tumble circumstances. And even in his 70's, he did well against some pretty stiff competition.

I dunno. I've played and obsessed about poker for the last 30 years or so. Although I've never played at the top level, I've played enough mid-limit poker to feel comfortable talking generally about the game and its players. A player like Slim will always be able to earn a living playing poker. A player like him may not be able to take down the top level games like he could have back when Slim was in his prime, because the games have gotten much tougher, but to say that a player with his abilities couldn't adapt if he had to is a severe underestimation of the man and his abilities.

RIP, Slim. The game was better for your presence, even if you were a tough and distasteful SOB.
posted by mosk at 10:22 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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