Before all the bright lights and legitimate businessmen showed up, the gambling scene was dominated by a handful of flamboyant and mostly unsavory characters. The face of that scene: a cantankerous Texan by the name of Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, who lost his battle with cancer just last week. He was a pool shark, a rounder, a proposition bettor, a bookie and a four-time WSOP champ.

The man would wager on anything and stack the odds in his favor whenever possible—he once talked a Wimbledon champ into a one-on-one tennis match, then insisted they use skillets instead of racquets (and won). He played poker with the likes of LBJ, Nixon and Pablo Escobar. He wore a ten-gallon Stetson with everything. He was a recurring Johnny Carson guest. And along the way, he took gambling from its smoky backroom roots to the mainstream. (It’s no coincidence that the most televised and popular form of poker today is his beloved Texas Hold’em.)

Here’s a look back at some iconic photos of the gambler in the ten-gallon hat.

As a youngster, Preston worked his way up the billiards ranks, learning how to bend the rules in his favor whenever he could. He challenged the most famous pool shark around, Minnesota Fats—who gave him the name “Amarillo Slim” and, we are to assume, that double-breasted suit—to play a round with broomsticks instead of cues. (Slim won.)

Shortly thereafter, he moved on from the billiards racket (leaving behind the pool-hall-slick chalk stripes) and returned to his Texan roots with a sort of oil-baron look: flashy suit and cowboy boots. By the ’60s he’d become a rounder, assembling a crew of rambling poker stars to travel the country playing high-stakes games. (Slim’s in the center.)

By the ’70s, with his World Series of Poker wins, outlandish prop bets (here are his most famous) and big-as-Texas charisma, Slim experienced a flash of celebrity—with appearances on Johnny Carson and a few bit roles in gambling movies. (This snap comes from his cameo in California Split.)

And finally, here he is in his steely old days. He’d become even more Texan, adding a bolo tie in with his Stetson. This image of a leathery old veteran is how most people came to know of Amarillo Slim—when suddenly the sports world became fascinated with poker and ESPN began televising tournaments.

Nobody did it any better—even if there was an ace up his sleeve.

—N.B.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • Najib Benouar