Good-bye Slim; thank you for the stories
Amarillo Slim passed away this past Sunday (April 29th, 2012) at the age of 83.
Those relatively new to poker might recognize his name only vaguely, which is a pity. He won the 1972 World Series of Poker, defeating seven - yes, seven opponents. Actually six because Doyle Brunson bowed out when they were three-handed.1
Slim took that win and parlayed it into national (and international) prominence. Unlike most other poker players (of his heyday or any time), he was a born extrovert and people loved to hear him talk. He was an old Texas road gambler and hustler; he was just doing what he always did - trying to make a buck. But while he was doing that, he yanked poker into the public spotlight. He appeared on the Tonight Show 11 times, and every major TV morning show of the time.
He was the face of poker for a couple of decades; an entire generation of Americans, when they think of a professional poker player, has a vision of Amarillo Slim, even if they couldn't tell you his name. But with his height, slender frame ("I look like the advance man for a famine"), cowboy hat, and boots, he became an icon of the game.
He could have - perhaps should have - gone on to be one of the grand old men of the game, the gambler emeritus invited to every major poker tournament, creating a wake of gawking and tweeting admirers in his path. But in 2003 he was arrested for indecency with a 12-year-old girl (his granddaughter). He pled guilty to misdemeanour charges, paid a fine, and that was that. The case was over, but so was his career. A movie about his life, with Nicholas Cage playing him, evaporated. Later, Slim said he pled guilty only to save his family the agony of a trial; he produced signed affidavits saying that the original charges were not true.
As Greg Dinkin, the co-author of Slim's memoir, says in a wonderful blog piece:
Because he had been telling his own version of the "truth" for so many years, no one knew what to believe. Including me. As well as I knew the man, your guess as to what really happened is as good as mine.
But that's not why I'm here. I want to thank Amarillo Slim for the stories, for two reasons. First, because those stories allowed him to spin a world that America found intriguing, and helped poker on its first tentative steps toward respectability. Second, because he told a great story and we need to be told stories. We are a race of story tellers and story listeners; Slim captivated us with his stories.
He ran black market cigarettes in Germany after World War II, looked down gun barrels in poker games, and almost died winning a prop bet involving rafting the Salmon River. He was from an older, wilder time and his adventures, forgive me, trump the coolest new sushi bar our SuperNova Elites are visiting.
Are all of his stories 100% true? Unlikely. But many of them are probably 100% true and there's a kernel of truth in most of the rest. But every one, bar none, is a wonderful tale. You forget where you are and are absorbed into Slim's story, his world. As my colleague, Nick Williamson, pointed out, "You're entertained - that's what matters - not the absolute truth of the story."
The other thing about Amarillo Slim was that he knew one of his jobs was to promote poker (a lesson that wouldn't go amiss with many of today's superstars). I met him only once, in the late 90's at a tournament at the Orleans. People wanted to talk to him, get autographs, have their picture taken with him. He worked the crowd, shook hands, and cracked jokes. He never forgot that he was, first and foremost, a salesman.
Go read Slim's memoir, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People. The stories, almost without exception, are fantastic; the book flies by.
Whatever, whoever Amarillo Slim was, we owe him a debt of gratitude for growing poker and for leaving us with a wealth of tales interweaved into our game.
1 The circumstances around that departure are unclear; poker was a lot less transparent then.