With today's growing acceptance of poker as a legitimate game of skill, it can be hard for some younger players to imagine that things were ever any different. Before the big media got involved with poker, though, the game was seen as something worthy of contempt. Most people unfamiliar with the game imagined poker to be the province of liars, cheaters, and murderers. Benny Binion's creation of the World Series of Poker was one of the biggest steps in legitimizing the game to the public at large. Even more so than the creation of the WSOP, though, the most important event in terms of helping the public accept poker was "Amarillo Slim" Preston's win in the 1972 WSOP Main Event.
Thomas Austin Preston, Jr., was born in Johnson, Arkansas, on December 31, 1928. He grew up in the north Texas town of Mineral Wells, but moved to Amarillo when his parents divorced. It was there that Preston first met Benny Binion, with whom he would share a close friendship throughout Binion's life. After stints in the Navy and the Army, where he served as a bookie for his fellow soldiers, Preston returned to Texas and met Doyle Brunson and Brian "Sailor" Roberts. As outlined in the introduction to Brunson's seminal Super System, the three formed a partnership and traveled around playing from the same bankroll and helping each other hone their games. They became known as a trio that would bet on just about anything, and they made a lot of money doing so.
Preston first came to the attention of the wider public after his win in the 1972 WSOP Main Event. Always the gregarious type, he made the rounds of television news and talk shows. He appeared on The Tonight Show, 60 Minutes, and Good Morning America, in addition to numerous other game shows. He became a bona fide celebrity - people loved to hear him tell wild stories in his down-home manner, and without a doubt he had more stories than the next hundred people put together. His newfound status helped to really put poker on the map, and over the next several years he continued to make television appearances and to act as an ambassador for the game.
After he became famous for his win, Preston began hosting tournaments. The biggest of these was Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker, which became for a time the second-largest poker tournament in the world behind the WSOP. (It was the SBOP that was the stage for Stu Ungar's first-ever tournament win.) He also hosted his own tournaments in Sun City, South Africa, and Adelaide, Australia. His name and fame took him to casinos around the world, including one memorable stop in Colombia. While visiting for the opening of the Casino de Caribe in Cartagena, he was kidnapped by henchmen of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. When Escobar found out who he Preston was he took him on a tour of the country. Preston had a set of buttons and cufflinks made for Escobar resembling his own, which were made of uncirculated $1 and $5 gold pieces; Escobar sent Preston his own set of buttons made of uncut, unpolished emeralds.
In his time, Preston made big bets with some of the most famous names in America. He once won a bet with tennis champion Bobby Riggs in a game of ping-pong played with iron skillets, and bested Minnesota Fats in a game of pool played with a broomstick. He took $2 million off Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, and won bets with Evel Knievel and Willie Nelson, among others. Some of his greatest stories were collected in his biography, Amarillo Slim In A World Full Of Fat People.
While his fame and fortune carried him far in life, it couldn't save him from a terrible mistake. In 2003, at around the same time the WSOP was going on, he was indicted on three charges of indecency with a 12-year-old girl (reportedly one of his granddaughters). Through a plea bargain he ended up being convicted on three misdemeanor counts of assault, paying a $4,000 fine and serving a two year deferred sentence. While in the law's eyes he will be clean at the end of the two years, the public will likely always remember him as a child molester. It's a sad fate for a man who did more than anyone else to make poker a legitimate pastime for millions of people around the world.