Love him or loathe him, Amarillo Slim is a bona fide hard-gambling, poker legend
I’m tempted to bet Slim he can’t tackle the steak. Slim has never been backward about taking a bet; he once rode a camel into a hotel in Morocco because someone bet him he wouldn’t dare. But I decide not to tempt him; you don’t hustle a hustler. So when he arrives in a battered-looking old pick-up truck, we settle for bacon and eggs. He piles his plate high. How, I wonder, does he remain so slim when he eats so much? The answer is, he doesn’t: he picks at it, while we size each other up.
We’re both a bit edgy. I’m anxious that he feels relaxed and talks freely, while he’s clearly deciding whether he can trust me. He’s right to be wary. I have a hard question to ask… but I’m keeping that for later. In the meantime he finds it reassuring that I want to help him feed the horses on his ranch, and soon we’re on our way.
As we climb into the battered pick-up, he points out some bullet holes in the door. Just a couple of days earlier someone had apparently tried to rob him at gunpoint. Slim flatly refused to hand over the money. The bullet holes are eloquent testimony to the way he lives life on the edge. (A few weeks after I spend this day with Slim he is robbed in his home and some money and his prized ‘Amarillo Slim’ belt buckle are stolen. All this he takes in his stride, filling several local newspaper columns with caustic comments about his attackers.)
Now he settles himself behind the wheel and we’re bumping up and down across his ranch – approximately 3,500 acres. Clad in a yellow golf shirt, jeans and a baseball cap, he’s soon feeding me his well-worn one-liners, each followed by a loud cackle and vigorous tooting of the horn.
‘The cattle were costing me a fortune – don’t ever have a hobby that eats.’ (Cackle, cackle. Toot, toot.) ‘Hell, I was so slim I looked like an advance man for a famine.’ (Cackle, cackle. Toot, toot.) ‘You can shear a sheep many times, but you can skin it only once.’ (Cackle, cackle. Toot, toot.) I’m trying to stay objective about Slim, because I’ve heard bad things about him, but I like this. It’s a performance, but not just a performance – I doubt if it matters whether I’m there or not. This man in this beat-up truck on this dusty road is doing the two things he loves most – talking, and looking at land that he owns as far as his ageing eyes can see. Slim is much more than a poker player; he has a life.
What do I know about Slim? That he’s 79 years old and has lived all but a few childhood years in Texas; that he’s always been tall and thin; that he became a pool hustler when he was 16; that he’s now been outwitting lawmen and taxmen to survive as an illegal bookmaker, gambler and poker player for more than 60 years; and that, unlike his peers, he has invested his winnings and, truth be told, is these days probably happier with his horses than human beings.
In the 1950s he formed a bookmaking and poker-playing partnership with Doyle Brunson and Sailor Roberts, and all three went on to become Hold’em world champions by winning the Main Event at the World Series of Poker – they were that good.
Slim won the world title in 1973 and altogether won four World Series bracelets and around half-a-million in tournament prize money, but most of his winnings were from guys who had more money than sense and were willing to pay up just to say they had played him; two such were the drug-dealing brothers Lee and Jimmy Chagra from El Paso.
Then one night he appeared on the famous Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and became the first celebrity poker player. He appeared on the show 11 times and did more than anyone else to make the game respectable.
What have I heard about him that’s bad? That Slim only cares about Slim; that his hustling doesn’t stop short of those who believed they were his friends. There are even those who say he wasn’t ‘that good’ a poker player, instead more of a conman at the table. There are three kinds of Slim-watchers: there are some who like him; there are some who good-naturedly say, ‘Well, Slim is Slim,’ and can take him or leave him; and there are some who really don’t like him.
Two of the ‘dislikers’ are Bobby Hoff and Carl McKelvey. They were close friends of Brian ‘Sailor’ Roberts (who became their partner after he split with Doyle and Slim); in fact, they loved Sailor Roberts. And they claim that Slim let Sailor down badly.
McKelvey says: ‘Sailor was having some problems with the law and he was on probation, so Slim set him up in El Paso in a bookmaking operation with two of the local people there. The FBI uncovered it and it was a big case and they linked Slim to it, but Slim got himself out of it and Sailor ended up getting three years in a federal prison. Bobby Hoff had a little money and I had no money at the time and I think it cost us $5,000 to help him out so we scraped it together, but Slim didn’t lift a finger to help him. Slim dumped Sailor in El Paso.’
I hear a number of ‘Slim the hustler’ and ‘Slim the hard man’ stories. Naturally he rejects them all. He knows he has critics – even enemies – but puts it all down to jealousy. Anyway, it’s time I let him talk for himself, because we’re way out on the ranch now. There are no buildings. It’s just rough scrubland and cactus and mesquite; the occasional windmill. He has recently sold most of his cattle and all he has left are his horses. He has a name for all of them, carries them pails of water, unloads bags of feed from the truck, talking all the time – whether to me or the horses I’m not clear.
Walking and talking
So, does he live on the ranch? ‘No, I live in Amarillo in a 6,800-square foot home with a mountain out the back. There’s a king-size electric swimming pool, four holes of golf in the back yard and a professional tennis court in the corner. It has an illegal fence around it – 10 feet and solid. I’m inside the city limits but I got my own well and water. I’m not supposed to, but a lot of public officials can take a bribe.’ (It does not appear to cross his mind that this sounds bad.)
And the ranch? ‘It would be in the top 20 in this part of Texas I guess. I have some others – two in Texas and three in New Mexico. Some are bigger and some are smaller. And I have a stable of racehorses in California.’ He also owns four 18-hole par-three golf courses in Amarillo and Dallas, Alabama and New Mexico, and from time to time he’s owned pizza places and ice-cream parlours. On the way to the ranch we had passed what he described as ‘a little tract of land I’m buying’; this ‘little tract’ is 790 acres.
We begin to talk about the hijackings in Texas. Was he actually playing in a game when they came in with guns?
‘Goddamn, yes – a lot of times. Last time we got robbed in Austin they made everybody drop their trousers and told us to scratch the ceiling. Doyle’s kind of crippled and he couldn’t raise his arm so they said, “Say, fatso, we said scratch the ceiling.” Doyle tried to explain and they slapped him on the side of the head with a shotgun, and then Doyle got his arm up, no problem – in fact, he damn near climbed that wall.
‘I remember we were playing at Killeen. That was a big hold-up. They came in jumpsuits and Halloween masks with sawn-off shotguns and they got a big score down there.
‘There was probably $150,000 lying on the table. Their introduction was a string of bullets across the ceiling with a machine gun. I was in the kitchen having a bowl of soup and I had a big stack of money and I just put it in my soup and covered it up with some crackers. They never found it.
‘Then there was a bad experience in Atlanta, Georgia. They stripped me naked and wired me up. They tore my handkerchief in two and put half of it in my mouth and then put duct tape over my mouth. Of course I thought they were going to give me the water treatment… At that time a lot of the hijackers, if a guy didn’t come up with the money, they’d hold him under the water and, believe me, you will give it up. And that’s what I thought they were going to do. The guy said, “We’re going to take a 30 minute head-start and we’ll call back to the hotel and tell them you’re here and they’ll come up and let you loose.” But I still thought they were going to put me under the water, so as soon as they left I naturally struggled to get loose and that wire cut me. Blood on white enamel looks scary and I was bleeding like a stuck hog in the bathtub, naked. And I heard a key or somebody opening my door and I thought, “Goddamn, there’s a maid.” So I started banging my head on the side of the tub and finally she came to the door and opened it and screamed and you could have heard her for 20 miles.’
He tells me about the partnership with Doyle Brunson and Sailor Roberts – how they met at a game in Midland, and how Sailor and Doyle a few weeks later went to Slim’s house for a three- hander. Slim claims he won all the money and had to lend them some to go home. What impressed him was that they actually mailed him what they owed. He decided that these were men he could trust.
So they got together and combined poker with bookmaking and it all lasted for years. They roamed Texas together. They would fix the game they were going to by phone, or on their way home from last night’s game. They would either take Doyle’s car or Slim’s station wagon, with Slim usually driving – ‘I drove fast and I knew the roads.’ They would drive hour after hour, Sailor usually sleeping, Doyle and Slim talking poker. They would check into the best-looking hotel or motel in town, Slim and Doyle sharing a room, and Sailor sharing one with the girl of the moment (and there always was one, even if the moment was just an hour). Some of the games lasted all night, some three days. Security in Slim’s case was a Smith .38, carried in his pocket to the game, mainly in case of attack when he was leaving with money. Doyle carried a gun, too. After a time they knew where every game was, who would be playing, and what kind of stakes they could expect. The bankroll, expenses, buy-ins, winnings and losses were shared.
In the meantime the bookmaking became big business. Doyle and Sailor ran an office in Midland and Slim ran a branch in Fort Worth and also looked after San Antonio. Slim also did most of the handicapping. They had eight people manning the phones and taking the bets. This went on for over a decade.
‘We were efficient at it, and all three of us were knowledgeable about sports. We had a good, clean reputation. If you won something from us you got it. This was all illegal but I had judges and district attorneys and sheriffs in the can. Everywhere I went I went under a fix.’
Is he still doing it? ‘No, but I let a guy lay off to me. There are some books which are pretty good-sized books and any time he gets over $20,000 for a game he calls me and gives me $15,000 of it because he doesn’t want to take a chance on losing that money on one game.’
The partnership with Doyle Brunson and Sailor Roberts finally broke up when the three of them went to Las Vegas full of confidence, only to have their bankroll wiped out in a humiliating debacle of a game involving Puggy Pearson at the Dunes [Casino]. Whether each blamed the other, or the team just had the stuffing knocked out of them, who knows, but they went their separate ways – Sailor to link up with Hoff and McKelvey, Slim to become a ‘personality’, and Doyle to build a career in Las Vegas that would eventually make him a giant – the giant – of the game.
While Slim has been chatting away it’s got real hot under the Texas sun and he’s sweating and suddenly he appears to gasp for breath. I give him my bottle of water and he gratefully gulps some down. Then he points to the skeleton of a heifer – just white bones lying in the dust. ‘It must’ve been sick and the coyotes got it. It wasn’t there a day or so back so they must have stripped it of meat overnight. That could have been me. I fell off my horse one day and I couldn’t get back on my feet; I was just lying there in the heat of the day and I thought, “I’m going to die out here,” but, luckily, one of the men who was working the ranch for me was driving by in a truck and saw the horse standing there and guessed what had happened. If he hadn’t picked me up, the coyotes would have got me, too.’
This reminds me that Slim is an old man and not a particularly well one. As we begin to drive back to Amarillo I ask him about it.
‘I went into critical care three times and intensive care twice in the last year-and-a-half. I had five so-called specialists and one of them said, “It’s obvious he isn’t going to make it so let’s get him out of intensive care and put him in critical care.” I came to for a minute and I cursed his ass. I ran him out of the emergency room and then I said to the other four, “I bet all four of you exorbitant goddamn thieves that I walk out of here.” Not one of them could look me in the eye.’
Then he adds: ‘Of course, they probably could have won as they make you get in a wheelchair when you leave.’ We both laugh. (Cackle, cackle. Toot, toot.)
It’s time to ask the difficult question. I know that Slim has always been proud of his family, and that three years back it was shattered by a big row that caused his wife of 50 years to divorce him and one of his children to go the police. Slim ended up before a grand jury and was indicted on three felony charges of indecent assault (the charge being that he inappropriately touched his 12-year-old granddaughter). He later pleaded guilty to three misdemeanour charges and was given a two-year suspended sentence and fined a total of $4,000.
The word spread throughout the poker community and Slim’s world fell apart. ‘It almost killed me because it intensified all my health problems. It got me a divorce and it cost me a few business deals and a couple of million dollars. But I could stand that… I’m not complaining about that. What was bad was that it damaged my family.
‘I never said one word to anyone at the time. And I never said a word after. Don’t you find that curious… that I didn’t try to defend my name? And the only reason I didn’t was that there was nothing to it. I was charged with a felony when it was not a felony; that’s what they eventually decided – they decided it was at worst a misdemeanour – that’s like getting a parking ticket. There was nothing to it. And I only got that verdict because I preferred to plead guilty than hire smart-assed lawyers who would have beat up on my family, and would have made my granddaughter out to be a liar. It was heartbreaking because I had a choice whether to take it on the chin or tell the whole world what really happened, and I didn’t want to do that and get my granddaughter into it. So I took it on the chin and for a while I stayed away. Spent time with my horses.’
As far as poker was concerned, he became a relative recluse. He was shunned at the World Series in 2004 and stayed away the following year. Then, in 2006, he returned, slipping quietly into Las Vegas, a shadow of the showman of the past. At the World Series, Nolan Dalla sometimes identifies famous players and introduces them to the crowd. I was there in 2006 when he spotted Slim taking his place unnoticed in the far corner of the huge room at the Rio. There were more than 3,000 players and spectators packed in. He took his microphone over. Then he paused. Should he introduce Slim? What was the level of antagonism out there? Finally, he leaned over and said to Slim, ‘I’m going to introduce you in a moment; just stand and raise your hat.’ He took a deep breath and said, ‘Folks, in this corner we have one of the game’s legends. He did more than anyone else to publicise and popularise our game. Let’s have a big welcome for Amarillo Slim.’
For a fleeting moment there was silence. Then the whole room broke into warm and prolonged applause. Slim just sat there, nodding at Nolan in gratitude, a glimmer of a tear in his eyes. In poker there’s always another game, another hand, another chance. So it was for Slim. Some three years after his fall from grace, at least the world of poker was forgiving him his sins.
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