Amarillo Slim died on April 29, 2012. Slim won the World Series of Poker in 1972, but he wasn't the best poker player around by a long shot; but he was the best at manipulating the media. Wherever there was a camera, a microphone, or a reporter with a notepad, Slim was there with some crazy story of winning thousands of dollars playing ping pong with frying pans, or golf with a hammer. As a teenager obsessed with gambling I couldn't get enough. He showed up in magazines, on Johnny Carson, and in Robert Altman's classic gambling film, California Split.
I wondered, when a guy like Amarillo Slim shows up and wants to bet $50,000 that he can hit a golf ball a mile, why would anyone bet with him? (He stole this proposition bet from Titanic Thompson, and hit the golf ball on a frozen lake.) You see I had grown up reading the stories of Damon Runyon, and one of my favorites was,The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown. In this story (which was the basis for the musical Guys and Dolls) a gambler, Nathan Detroit offers to bet Sky Masterson that Lindy's restaurant sells more strudel than cheesecake. Sky tells him the following story.
"Let me tell you a story. When I was a young man about to go out into the world, my father says to me a very valuable thing. 'Son,' the old guy says, 'I'm sorry that I am not able to bankroll you a very large start. But not having any potatoes to give you, I am going to give you some very valuable advice. One of these days in your travels, you are going to come across a guy with a nice brand new deck of cards, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not take this bet, for if you do, as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an ear full of cider.' "
In 1977 I moved to Las Vegas and got a job as a blackjack dealer at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas. I was in awe of the place. At that time it had the most popular poker room in Las Vegas, the World Series of poker was right across the street at the Horseshoe, and I would regularly see Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, and Puggy Pearson in the casino. Steve Wynn would wander through the pit in blue jeans and a sweat shirt, Kenny Rogers was the entertainment director, and Willy Nelson would play in the lounge for as long as people set tequila shots on the front of the stage.
I heard that a lot of the big poker players had taken up backgammon, and were playing it for very high stakes. My dream was to try to get into a backgammon game with one of these guys because at the time I considered my self quite a good player, and I knew that at this time none of them were playing at a high level. One day I get off my blackjack game for a 20 minute break, and walking down the hall toward me is Amarillo Slim. I stopped him, and told him how much I enjoyed reading about him, and that I had read his book on poker. He thanked me, and then I hit him with, "I hear you're quite a backgammon player. I'd love to play some time." Slim was about a foot taller than me, he looked down at me and started chuckling. I don't remember exactly what he said, but the idea was, Kid, I could smell cider about the time you entered the state of Nevada. I was young, and as green as they come, but I realized my chances of taking any money off one of these life-long gamblers were slim and none, and Slim was out.
Slim wrote a poker book back in the early 70s called Amarillo Slim's Play Poker to Win. The poker advice was not very good, but there are some great stories about proposition bets he made with people. In 2003 he wrote Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People: The Memoirs of the Greatest Gambler Who Ever Lived and this is quite an entertaining book.
I have one more story that doesn't have to do with Slim, but happened about the same time at the Golden Nugget. I was dealing one night to a very nice looking woman, and we started talking. It turned out she was Kenny Roger's wife. He was the entertainment director at the Nugget and he would soon leave because Lucille was exploding on the charts. She mentioned that she and Kenny loved to play backgammon. (Backgammon was very popular in the 70s.) I told her how much I liked to play, and she mentioned that she would have to introduce me to her husband some time, and we continued on having a nice conversation until I went on break. Later that night I had my lunch break, and the dealers ate at the counter in the coffee shop. As I was leaving I saw her, Kenny, and the assistant shift boss sitting in a booth. I stopped by the table, and she introduced me to Kenny, and I mentioned that I loved backgammon and if he was ever interested in playing I was always up for a game. I went back to the pit, and about 20 minutes later I was standing on a dead blackjack table. All of a sudden I felt someone grab a fist full of hair on the back of my head and jerk me back from the table. It was the assistant shift boss, his face red, and he says, "What the fuck do you think you are doing?" I said, "what?" He said, "You want to hustle Kenny Rogers at backgammon?" (And I thought I was so subtle.) I said, "I wasn't trying to hustle him, I was just trying to..." and he says, "I know exactly what you were trying to do. Just keep your head down and deal the fucking cards."
I have fond memories of those days at the Golden Nugget. It was the beginning of my education. I learned that those famous gamblers were not the men I thought they were. I learned that people were usually streetwise enough to sense when they were about to get an ear full of cider. We used to joke that in Las Vegas the streets were paved with gold. I learned that they are, but it takes a pick, and a shovel, and a lot of hard work to dig out those nuggets.