6 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 49

Winner takes all

Patrick Skene Catling

AMARILLO SLIM IN A WORLD FULL OF FAT PEOPLE: THE MEMOIRS OF THE GREATEST GAMBLER WHO EVER LIVED by T. A. 'Amarillo Slim' Preston with Greg Dinkin Yellow Jersey, £12, pp. 272, ISBN 0224071017 1 n The Biggest Game in Town, still the best book on poker in Las Vegas, A. Alvarez quotes Jack Binion, the proprietor of Binion's Horseshoe Casino, in justification of gambling:

In the free enterprise system, you have to assume that each guy is the best judge of what he does with his own money. . . . If a guy wants to bet twenty or thirty thousand dollars in a poker game, that is his privilege. Society might consider it bad judgment, but if that is what he wants to do, you can't fault him for it. That's America.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the Binion family enable pokerplayers to exercise the privilege of winning or losing unlimited sums of money disguised as poker chips. In this continuous demonstration of free enterprise, the most notable event is the annual World Series of poker. Alvarez, himself no mean poker player, made this event the subject of his book, writing as objectively as humanly possible as an outsider looking in.

Now Thomas Austin Preston Jr, known as 'Amarillo Slim," a close friend of the Binions and winner of their 1972 World Series, has written, or dictated to Greg Dinkin, the inside story. It is a definitive work on the life of a legendary gambler in the United States, an extravaganza of triumphalism, a masterpiece of Texan Miinchhausenesque braggadocio, outrageously immoral and wonderfully entertaining.

'Sigmund Freud,' Slim recalls, 'did research on gamblers and found that a true gambler is a loser. People who enjoy speculating — deep down — want to lose. I can't explain it as good as Siggy, but he had it right about certain people not feeling worthy of having any money.' Slim, however, says, 'I play to win, neighbour, and just as most people can't stand being around a broke gambler, they love being around a winner.'

Without giving away too many trade

secrets, he explains his success. 'You see, neighbour, there's two elements of the hustle — preying on a man's ego and preying on his larceny.' It never hurts for a potential opponent to think you're more than a little stupid. . . . It's the reason I wear a big Stetson, cowboy boots and western duds and play the country bumpkin.' I like to bet on anything — as long as the odds are in my favour.' The edge is usually enough, but he prefers sure things.

In past years I've bet big money that I could pick any 30 people at random and two of them would have the same birthday, that a stray cat could cam, an empty Coke bottle across the room, and that I could hold on to a horse's tail for a quarter of a mile. I even wagered $37.500 that a fly would land on a particular sugar cube.

I beat Willie Nelson for $300,000 playing dominoes right on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. I took Minnesota Fats for big money playing pool — with a broom. And I won too many wagers to remember from Eve! Knievel, but the one everyone likes to talk about is the time I beat that old daredevil in Rolf when I played with a carpenter's hammer.

He defeated the Chinese table-tennis champion, 21-0, 21-0, 21-0. Slim had insisted on using Coca-Cola bottles instead of bats. He has played poker with three American presidents and with Pablo Escobar, once Colombia's most feared drug baron, who gratefully presented him

with a set of chunky emerald shirt buttons. After Slim, to win a bet, rode a camel through the casino of the Hotel Mamounia in Marrakech, the King of Morocco made him an honorary sheikh.

Greg Dinkin represents Slim with apparent authenticity that suggests well-edited tapes. He comes on here as a good ole boy, who expresses himself in the oldfashioned, down-home vernacular hyperbole of Artemus Ward, Josh Billings and even Mark Twain. 'You could hardly breathe in that joint,' Slim typically relates. 'and the crowd had me more excited than a sore-tailed cat in a room full of rockingchairs.'

Reminiscing at the age of 74, Slim estimates that he has lost 'approximately $30 million playing poker (you wouldn't believe me if I told you how much I've won), and very little of it came from making a mistake. It's not like chess, where the best players win all the time.' As a rich man, he amuses himself by continuing to gamble, breeding cattle, horses and grandchildren on 3,000 acres, more or less, near Amarillo, in west Texas. He is gratified not only that he has won so much but also that at the same time he has left so many opponents utterly busted. His victims might call him sadistic. 'Playful boasting,' he disarmingly acknowledges, 'has always been my style.' His book very well complements Alvarez's.