Amarillo Slim Introduction
If there’s anything worth arguing about, I’ll either bet on it or shut up. And since it’s not very becoming for a cowboy to be arguing, I’ve made a few wagers in my day. But, in my humble opinion, I’m no ordinary hustler. You see, neighbor, I never go looking for a sucker; I look for a champion and make a sucker out of him.
I knew that I wasn’t going to get an amateur to play me in Ping-Pong for money, but Bobby Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champion, now that was a man who might be interested in making a wager. Shoot, if a man doesn’t think he’s hustling you, then you got no shot of him making you a bet.
Not only was Bobby one of the best tennis players going, but he was also a personality, a celebrity who was recognized the world over. He was so famous that he had been asked by Uncle Sam to give tennis exhibitions for the troops during World War II and used it as an opportunity to hustle. At Pearl Harbor in 1944, some unfortunate stranger, who had no idea Bobby was a champion, challenged him to a high-stakes tennis match. Without hardly breaking a sweat, Bobby walked away with all the man’s money, his car, and his quaint little bungalow in Honolulu. As the story goes, Bobby felt bad for the cat, blew his own cover, and gave everything back–except $500 that he said was for “advice.” Now, that’s pretty expensive advice, but I reckon it could have been a lot worse for Bobby’s unsuspecting victim.
Bobby was also known for his tennis proposition bets. To entice suckers who wanted a shot at him but knew they couldn’t beat him even up, he’d come up with the craziest of things. He’d play with a poodle leashed to each leg, or he’d play in a raincoat and galoshes while carrying an open umbrella in his left hand. I’m telling you, this boy had some imagination, and he didn’t slow down one bit as he got older.
In May 1973, at age fifty-five, Bobby took on the world’s number-one women’s player, Margaret Court, in a challenge match at the San Diego Country Estates that was billed as “The Battle of the Sexes.” Somehow that old hustler came up with enough tricks to beat her. Well, Billie Jean King, the number-two player in the world, whom Bobby had called the “real sex leader of the revolutionary pack,” didn’t like Bobby running his mouth about the superiority of the male race and came up with a challenge of her own. In front of more than thirty thousand spectators at the Astrodome in Houston, in September 1973, the twenty-nine-year old woman beat the fifty-five-year-old man in straight sets. And it made news all over the world.
Because it was an event where the outcome was in doubt–in Texas no less–you can be sure that I was there, and it’s likely I made a little wager as well. I had met Bobby briefly the year before in Las Vegas at the World Series of Poker, and when I talked to him after the tennis match, Bobby told me I was welcome anytime at the Bel Air Country Club in his hometown of Los Angeles.
The poker was good in Southern California back then–still is today–and on my next trip out there, I paid old Bobby a visit at his fancy country club. It didn’t take long for him to try to hustle me, and since I wasn’t a tennis player, he tried to set me up to play Ping-Pong. We both knew he was the much better player, but after that incident in Pearl Harbor, Bobby had wised up and learned never to give anything away. In other words, he wasn’t looking to make no five hundred dollars for advice; he was looking to bust my skinny country ass.
Like you’d think two gamblers would do, we went back and forth trying to find a fair bet, but Bobby kept refusing to give me a spot. So finally I told him that I’d play him straight up with one stipulation: that I got to choose the paddles.
“We both use the same paddle?” Bobby asked.
“So when you show up with two of the same paddles, can I get my choice of which one of them?”
“Yessir, so long as I can bring the paddles.”
Bobby thought I was pulling a schoolboy’s scam–that it was a weight thing or that one of the paddles was hollow or something. But once I told him that he could choose whichever of the two paddles he wanted to use, he couldn’t post his money fast enough.
We bet $10,000 and agreed to play at two o’clock the next day. Before I left, just to avoid any misunderstanding, I confirmed the bet: We were to play a game of Ping-Pong to twenty-one, each using the paddles of my choosing.
I showed up the next day at the Bel Air Country Club ready to wage battle. When Bobby asked to see the paddles, I reached into my satchel and handed him two skillets, the exact same weight and size, and told him he could use either one. Now, Bobby was about as coordinated an athlete that ever lived, but he was swinging that skillet like a fry cook on speed. It wasn’t until I had him buried that he started to get the hang of that skillet, but it wasn’t soon enough. I won the game 21-8, and it could have been much worse.
Once again I proved that you can make a living beating a champion just by using your head instead of your ass. The easiest person in the world to hustle is a hustler, and Bobby had taken the bait like a country hog after town slop. You see, I had been practicing with that skillet since I saw him in Houston, and after I collected the money, I shook Bobby’s hand and we both had a good laugh.
Naturally, word spread like wildfire about old Slim fleecing Bobby Riggs, and seven or eight months after it happened, I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, at an American Legion club, to play some poker. There were quite a few wiseguys there, including a man named Lefty, who said to me, “Slim, that was a pretty good thing you did, playing Ping-Pong with Riggs.”
So we bantered back and forth about it, and finally Lefty said to me, “I’ve got a buddy that can beat you at Ping-Pong.”
“You haven’t got a buddy who can beat me if I choose the paddles,” I said.
Now, this guy knew how I beat Bobby. The whole world knew how I beat Bobby. And I knew he knew it, so I couldn’t just set up a match to play with skillets, now, could I?
So I told Lefty, “Well, I’m busy here playing poker, and then I have to go back to Amarillo.” But in the back of my mind, I knew I had to find a way to relieve old Lefty of his money. I left for Amarillo the next day, wondering how in the hell I was going to find a way to beat Lefty’s pal at Ping-Pong. About a month later, I was doing a promotion for a charity in Amarillo with my old buddy Wendell Cain at the television station where he worked, and we started playing Ping-Pong between takes.
Since I don’t drink alcohol, I usually drink coffee when I want something hot and Coca-Cola when I want something cold. That day I was drinking a Coca-Cola from one of them six-ounce glass bottles while we were playing, and just as I finished it, I reached down with the bottle and hit the Ping-Pong ball and it went plumb over the net.
“Holy cow, Slim!” Wendell said, “Do that again.”
I started trying, but I couldn’t. You see, there’s only an area of about a sixteenth of an inch on a bottle that will make the ball go over the net. So I practiced and practiced until I could hit the ball over the net every time, and right then I knew that Coke bottle was going to make me a boatload of money.
My only problem was that I couldn’t just show up in Tennessee looking for Lefty–that would have awoken the dead–so I had to find me a reason to go back to Tennessee. I waited a few months for the next big poker game up there, and when I showed up, Lefty didn’t waste any time approaching me. “I guess you’ve been practicing your Ping-Pong back in Amarillo,” he said.
“You said it, Lefty. I’ve been playing Ping-Pong all day, every day, for thirty hours a day.”
“That right? My friend will be here in two days.”
“Well, I’m gonna do a little bit of fishing as soon as I bust these poker players. If he wants to play me some, let me choose the paddles and he’s got him a game.”
“What if he’s a good player?”
“I don’t give a damn if he’s a good player or an aviator. If I get to choose the paddles, we’ll play.”
“Oh, I’ll guarantee you he’ll play.”
So I went fishing for a couple of days, and when I came back, boy, they didn’t disappoint me with their ringer. Wouldn’t you know it, but they had gotten themselves the world-champion table-tennis player from Taiwan, and he was there waiting for me, licking his chops like a dog at a luau.
“Let’s get it on,” Lefty said.
“No,” I said, savoring the moment. “Let’s post our money and play thirty days from now. I need to practice a little, now that I see you got yourself a real-life Ping-Pong champion.”
While I can play a fair game of Ping-Pong with a skillet, I’m not interested in speculating, nor am I interested in making a small score. You see, friend, when I make a wager, the bet has already been won. And if I’m gonna win, I sure as hell want to break somebody doing it.
Even though Lefty and the rest of them wiseguys had suitcases full of money, I knew that if I stalled, word would spread that old Slim was going to receive his comeuppance–and Lefty would have the rest of his rich buddies there to get a piece of me, too. So we agreed to hold the match in thirty days–and then we’d play for real money. Not only did I want to give Lefty an opportunity to tell all his associates, but I also wanted to give that champion even more time to practice with his skillet.
Before I left town, just like I had done with Bobby, I made sure that we were clear on the bet: We were to play a game of Ping-Pong to twenty-one, each using the paddles of mychoosing.
About a month later, just a day before the match, I got a call from one of my associates saying that the champ was practicing with the biggest frying pan this side of Texas. That wasn’t news to me–I knew that was their intention all along–but I suppose they underestimated this here country cowboy.
The next day I arrived in Tennessee, and it looked like the marines had landed–there were eleven private planes that hit that tarmac. Every rounder and hustler in America was down there to bet on this guy playing me in Ping-Pong. Knowing that this champion was gonna fleece me, those gamblers brought enough hundred-dollar bills to burn up thirty wet mules.
I bet with everybody who wanted to bet against me at even money, and when I couldn’t get any more action, I bet everything else I had laying 6 to 5, which meant that if I lost, I’d pay them suckers $6 for every $5 they bet me. Now it was time to play, and everyone was standing around waiting for me to pull out those skillets. They figured I was just stalling when I went over to a vending machine, put in a dime and bought a bottle of Coca-Cola. Then I put in another dime and bought another one. I opened both bottles and walked over to a wastebasket and dumped the Coke right out.
Lefty and the rest of the crowd were getting impatient, but I didn’t say a word. I simply walked over to the Ping-Pong table with the Coke bottles and I said to that champion, “It’s your choice of paddles, son. Which one will it be?”
“Paddles?” he asked.
“Yeah, these here Coke bottles are our paddles. Have your pick.”
Well, that boy looked like he couldn’t swallow boiled okra!
Once he grabbed one of the bottles, I said, “I’ll even give you the choice–do you want to serve or return serve first?”
This champion glanced over at Lefty, who didn’t look so good himself. “Well, goddamn,” Lefty said, “take the serve.”
“Okay,” I said, “let’s go.”
On his first round of serves, he never even hit the ball over the net. Not one shot. So it was love-5 when he threw me the ball. When I served it over–I’ll give that boy some credit–he did hit it every time, but it would go either straight up in the air or right into the net. He never did return one of my serves.
I’d rather not say how much I had on the match, because it caused a severe audit when word got around. But suffice it to say that no one ever challenged me to a game of Ping-Pong again–not even a world champion.
I like to bet on anything–as long as the odds are in my favor. In past years I’ve bet big money that I could pick any thirty people at random and two of them would have the same birthday, that a stray cat could carry 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. At the fanciest casino in Marrakesh, Morocco, I bet that I could ride a camel right through the middle of it. I won every one of those bets, and, if you pay attention, I’ll let you know how.
The more I won, the more people wanted to beat me, and let me tell you, partner, the bigger they come the harder their money falls. 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 from Evel Knievel to remember, but the one everyone likes to talk about is the time I beat that old daredevil in golf when I played with a carpenter’s hammer.
I once made a well-publicized bet with Jimmy “the Greek Snyder” that I could go raft down the “River of No Return,” a twenty-nine-mile stretch of rapids in northern Idaho–in the heart of winter no less. I had Jacques Cousteau make me a special wet suit to keep from freezing to death, but even that wasn’t enough to convince Lloyds of London to insure me–and they insure anything.
Kenny Rogers came to me in 1978 with his hit song “The Gambler,” and we sat down right in the poker room at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas to practice. Country singer John Lutz Ritter wrote a song about me–”Do You Dare Make a Bet with Amarillo Slim?”–and when Robert Altman made California Split in 1974, that great gambling movie with Elliott Gould and George Segal, he cast me in a role that suited me just fine: Amarillo Slim.
A reporter named Ted Thackrey from the Los Angeles Times caught my exact feelings when he wrote in a story about me, “He plays constantly, devotedly, joyously, wholeheartedly, and with passion–as certain consecrated artists practice their art.” He might have added that poker is my nourishment since my six-foot four, 170-pound frame doesn’t require much grub to keep it going. I’m so damn skinny that a friend of mine once said that I looked like the advance man for a famine.
I’ve played poker with presidents–Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon–and George Bush Sr. considers me a friend. And while I’ve never taken a drug in my life, I have rubbed elbows, for better or worse, with Texas drug king Jimmy Chagra and Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar (who almost killed me). And the mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, has a picture of me in city hall. Me–a gambler!
As you probably can figure out from my name–and if you can’t, I reckon you’re welcome to play poker with me whenever you’d like–I settled in Amarillo, Texas, where at age seventy-four, I still live with my beautiful wife. I raise cattle and horses on a 3,000-acre ranch, and still stay active riding horses, roping calves, or digging postholes. Amarillo’s a good town where the population has been 173,000 for the past fifty years, never varies–every time some woman gets pregnant, some man leaves town.
I do most of my globetrotting during the winter months, while I spend summers with my family. Our home in Amarillo has a swimming pool in the backyard and a flock of young ones (three children and seven grandbabies) who love to go swimming. When I’m in Amarillo, I lead an ordinary man’s life. I’ve even coached Little League baseball (no, I didn’t take action on the games). My lovely wife of fifty-three years, Helen Elizabeth, has never played a game of chance in her life. She still thinks a king is the ruler of a country and a queen is his bedmate.
Now, ordinarily, I’d rather see early frost on my peach trees than write some book giving away my secrets to success, but as I said, I’ve got seven grandbabies and it’s about time they learned my life story. So grab yourself a cup of coffee and hold on to your britches. I’m fixing to tell you a few things that I’ve been keeping to myself for a lot of years. If you’re not careful, you just might learn how to get rich without ever having a job.