Only a fool would wager that a cat could pick up a Coke bottle. Well, make that a fool or an insatiable gambler named Amarillo Slim Preston.
The legendary Texan - and self-proclaimed greatest gambler who ever lived - will bet on anything, anytime, anywhere.
And he has; as Preston would say, it all makes for quite a tale.
It was New Year's Eve of 1928 when Thomas Austin Preston Junior was born in Johnson, Arkansas, a small town sandwiched between Fayetteville and Springdale. The blue-collar family packed up and moved shortly after, putting down roots in Turkey, Texas, when Preston was 9 months old.
They made tracks around the state for the next several years, before the couple divorced when Preston was 11. From then on, the gangly only child was ferried back and forth between his mom's place in Arkansas and his dad's new home in Amarillo, Texas.
Preston excelled as a student - particularly in mathematics - and breezed through third and fourth grades the same year. He was also an athlete, playing basketball and setting his long legs in motion to break track and field records in the 50- and 100-yard dash, as well as the relay event.
But Preston's mother, Pearl, had his academic, not athletic, interests at heart when she enrolled him in the Peabody Academy, a prep school on the University of Arkansas campus.
Despite being elected president of his sophomore class, Preston was no lover of academia. He dedicated his free time to the snooker table; coming from a non-gambling family it was the first time he'd ever picked up a cue.
Arkansas didn't suit Preston well, and after his sophomore year at Peabody, he decided to move in with his dad in Amarillo. There, much to Thomas Preston Senior's displeasure, the budding gambler started frequenting the local pool halls. Eventually he would find haven at the snooker tables in the city's segregated Mexican district.
There, he learned to hustle pool. After stuffing his pockets with more cash than would ever pass through the hands of most 16-year-olds, he piqued the interest of Amarillo's two boss gamblers. The men proposed that Preston travel with them on a pool hustling trip, promising the high school junior serious money.
Their word was good. Not long after, Preston had a teeming bankroll and an ego to match. His success at pool and snooker is what got him started as a rightful gambler, and what earned him what would become his lifelong nickname.
Legendary pool player Minnesota Fats - a portly gambler who became famous after adopting the persona of a character from the novel and movie, The Hustler - befriended Preston in 1945. Standing next to the five-eight, 300 pound man, the lanky teenager looked particularly lean and people started to call him Slim. Taking a cue from Fats, Preston tacked on Amarillo.
Even though he was making cash hustling pool, Preston still excelled at academics. So, when a Navy recruiter came to his school at the end of his junior year and offered any students with a "B" average the chance to graduate early to join the service, he didn't hesitate to sign on the dotted line.
He graduated in December 1945 from Amarillo High, turned 17 days after, and one month later he was on his way to San Diego for boot camp as a sworn member of the U.S. Navy.
A weary sailor's life it was not: Preston was assigned the job of captain's yeoman and chauffeur. He performed clerical duties aboard a ship based near Honolulu and later volunteered to witness the testing of the atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll. Luckily enough, he landed a second yeoman's job at a naval air base near Portland, Ore., one that afforded him enough free time to play pool, learn poker at the Criterion Club, get a few dice games rolling.
In 1947, Preston was discharged from the Navy and headed home to Amarillo after a spell hustling pool in California and Oregon. Arriving back in Amarillo at the age of 19, Preston had more than $100,000 in cash thanks to his gambling. The money was breeze through his bank account though, as he lavished gifts on women, bought horses and helped out his parents.
Three months later, the money was gone. And at the beginning of 1948, Preston and a friend enlisted in the army. His aptitude test for the service revealed the young man’s exceptional math skills, leading officials to push him toward a career in the FBI.
Preston declined - "Honor among thieves, I guess you'd call it," he says in his autobiography, - and was deployed to Germany.
Once again, his pool skills came in handy. His game impressed an army colonel, who suggested Preston put on pool exhibitions to entertain the troops. Later, he was assigned to special services, a designated entertainment division of the army, where he traveled to bases with the likes of Irving Berlin and Bob Hope.
In Germany, Preston made a fortune selling black market goods - cigarettes, gasoline, medicine - at a gross markup. He also got in on some big poker games, before calling it quits and heading back to the U.S. a millionaire.
Arriving in New Jersey, he started hustling his way back to Amarillo. At one stop in Hot Springs, Ark., he sat down for a cash game of poker with $70,000, of which the regulars kindly relieved him.
When he did finally arrive in Amarillo, someone was there waiting for him: Preston's future wife, Helen. The couple met at a dance in 1949 and married the same year. In 1951, they had their first child, Thomas Austin Preston III, nicknamed Bunky.
For the next eight years, Preston toured the U.S. hustling pool, often joined in the family station wagon by Bunky and Helen. The family expanded in 1959 to include a daughter, Rebecca.
Family Man, Gambler
With a growing brood, Preston figured he couldn't continue traipsing from pool table to pool table across the country. In an effort to become more of a family man, he decided to settle down and only bet sports and play poker.
Just prior to the his daughter's birth, Preston found a quality cash game above a feed store in Brenham, Texas, where he met Doyle Brunson and Sailor Roberts.
The threesome respected each others' game and shared a gambling spirit, teaming up for bookmaking operations in Midland and Fort Worth, Texas. With Bobby Kennedy as U.S. Attorney General, times were tough for illegal bookmakers; Preston had been indicted twice for bookmaking and in 1961, he quit the business for good.
That left poker.
Poker Player, World Champion
He traveled with Brunson and Roberts around the southern U.S. states, catching good cards, taking bad beats and trying not to get hijacked or thrown in the clink. The early '60s, for Preston, were spent in search of a game.
"There's an old expression that your character is defined by the company you keep and how you keep it," Preston says in his book. "In poker, it's much simpler: The company you keep will affect your bankroll."
In between liaising with the poker greats, Preston's wife gave birth to their son and last child, Tod, in 1964. The same year, he and Brunson traveled to Las Vegas for the first time, with more than $100,000 between them.
By the trip's end, the city had got the best of the men and they returned to Texas with only lint in their pockets.
Vegas was kinder to Preston in 1972, when he became the World Series of Poker champion after beating Puggy Pearson with a king-jack to make a full house, eights full of kings. The prize was a now-paltry $80,000.
He would add a second gold bracelet to his wrist in the $1,000 No-Limit Hold'em event in 1974, another in $5,000 Pot-Limit Omaha in 1985. He scored a fourth in the same event in 1990.
In fact, with the exception of a $97,000 second-place finish $2,500 Pot-Limit Omaha in 2000, Preston has won all the World Series events at which he's made the final table
TV Star, Celebrity
Preston parlayed his reputation as a golden-tongued gambler with Texan charm into lucrative sponsorships that followed his World Series of Poker championship. He also made appearances on national television shows such as, The Tonight Show, 60 Minutes and Good Morning America, a rare occurrence in the gambling world at that time.
Fame was also useful in landing Preston a book deal that resulted in his 1973 guide, Play Poker to Win, not to mention a cameo in Robert Altman's classic poker film, California Split.
He met celebrities - Oprah, Kenny Rogers, Larry Flynt are just a few - and was inducted into the World Series of Poker Hall of Fame in 1992, but professed his most cherished memories are those spent coaching his children's sports teams in between excursions.
Slim was also renowned for his epic prop bets, among which were:
- Preston bet he could beat a racehorse in the 100-yard dash; his only stipulation was he could pick the track. After getting tons of takers he picked a course that was 50 yards out, 50 yards back. He won.
- Preston bet that he could beat a Taiwanese table tennis champion as long as he picked the paddles. Slim showed up with two Coke bottles; he'd already be practicing with them for months. He won.
- Preston bet he could beat tennis champ Bobby Riggs in ping pong with a frying pan.
- Preston bet he could hit a golf ball over a mile - and did, over a frozen lake
- Preston bet he could beat Evel Knievel in golf with a carpenter’s hammer and did.
Amarillo Slim, Poker Boom Absentee
In May of 2003 Preston released his autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People, but as Chris Moneymaker was about to change poker history forever later that summer Slim was facing a decidedly different future. In August he was accused of indecency with a child and eventually pled no contest to misdemeanour charges.
He was never sentenced to any jail time but obviously his reputation was never the same. Writer Nolan Dalla sat down with Preston in 2009 for an exclusive interview where he explained we he should be exonerated but he was never formally accepted in poker again.
While his legal troubles caused him to fall out of the good graces of the poker community, the senior citizen who once promised that he would gamble on anything with anyone, anywhere, age hadn't quelled his risk-taking nature or wagering habits.
He lived out his final years in Amarillo overseeing his family's businesses, which include chain restaurants and a golf course; he spent his time with plenty of horses around, hunting, going to major sporting events and even popping into Bobby's Room in Las Vegas to visit his pal from the old days, Doyle Brunson.
Amarillo Slim Preston died on April 29, 2012, after succumbing to colon cancer.