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Amarillo Slim:  A Life in Gambling


He is known as Amarillo Slim, and has been called the world's greatest gambler. The 74-year-old Texas native tells his life story in a new autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People.

Wearing his trademark Stetson hat and cowboy boots, Amarillo Slim Preston leans back in his chair and asks for some coffee.

"Boy, I would like about a fourth of a cup in a dirty cup," he says and - armed with a little coffee and even less encouragement - Slim talks about his life as a gambler, beginning with his origins in the Texas town of Amarillo.

"Our population has been the same the last 30 years. Never varies. Every time some woman gets pregnant, some man leaves town. So it just stays like that," he joked. Slim, who is said to be built like a Texas toothpick, is a teller of tall tales, but he swears the stories in his new book are all true.

Slim is a born competitor, says co-author Greg Dinkin, an expert on gambling and a columnist for Card Player magazine.

"Rather than going after someone and trying to take the guy's paycheck, he goes after millionaires," said Mr. Dinkin. "And millionaires have a big ego. And Slim has a way of playing to people's ego, finding their weakness, and getting them to make a bet."

Slim took thousands from the legendary pool shark Minnesota Fats, after Slim challenged him to a game of pool, with a broomstick.

"I had practiced with it for a long time," he confirmed. "And no one in the world thought you could play with a broom. They are that big around. You could not put chalk on the end of it. You could not draw your ball, you understand? So I tried to play my position where with every shot, I would have some kind of an angle. Then I can go anywhere."

He once challenged country singer Willie Nelson to a game of dominoes, telling a mutual friend, casino-owner Steve Wynn, he could beat the musician in a game he was known to be good at.

"I said, no guitar picker can beat me doing anything," recalled Amarillo Slim. "So I knew he [Steve Wynn] was a tattle-tale. He ran and told Willie what I said, so we made a match. They roped us off in the middle of the casino. They televised it and everything, and I beat Willie out of a pretty good-sized figure. I felt it was good for him. It builds character. He did not feel that way about it."

Another time, Slim won $10,000 from tennis pro Bobby Riggs, playing a game of ping-pong using frying pans as paddles.

An annual competitor in the World Series of Poker, Slim says he has played cards with U.S. presidents Johnson and Nixon, and once hustled Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar.

Back home in Texas, Slim has had some brushes with the authorities. In his early years, he took bets on sporting events. "I was a bookmaker," he admitted. "I mean, I speculated on the outcome of sporting events. Whoops." Bookmaking may be legal in some places, but not in Texas. Later, tax officials suspected Slim's income was higher than he admitted. But he says that is all part of the life of a gambler.

Slim says he wins some games and loses others, but knows when to cut his losses and quit playing.

At times, he hits the jackpot. How much has he earned in a single competition? "That I will acknowledge," he said. "I beat a local man here out of $1.7 million."

But Slim says, for a gambler, money is just a way of keeping track of who is winning.

Greg Dinkin says Slim is not a gambler in the usual sense of the word. "A gambler is by nature a loser," he said. "Amarillo Slim is a competitor. And what people do not get about him, they see this folksy Texas way of dealing with people, he is an intelligent person."

Slim still lives in Amarillo, Texas, on one of his three ranches, with his wife of 53 years. From there, he runs a mini-empire of pizza and ice cream parlors, and fast-food restaurants.

Greg Dinkin says Slim's life story, as told in his autobiography, has a moral. "The moral of the book is, if you live by your wits and understand human nature, you can live an incredible life. Here is a man who really never had a job, traveled all over the world, became an international celebrity, is a multi-millionaire, and really has not worked a day in his life," explained Mr. Dinkin.

Slim's autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a World of Fat People, is coauthored by Greg Dinkin and is published by HarperCollins.