Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I just read Kevin Cook's Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet On Everything. (It came out four years ago, but Thompson died in the 1970s so there haven't been any new developments since.)  Considering how famous Thompson was, I'm a bit surprised I'd never heard of him.

In fact, when Damon Runyon created characters based on the denizens of Broadway in the 20s and 30s, his Sky Masterson, the biggest gambler of all, was based on Titanic. The musical version of Runyon's fables, Guys And Dolls, has Sky as the lead.

Thompson was born Alvin Thomas, growing up in the Ozarks at the turn of the last century. When he left home he promised his mother he'd never drink or smoke, and he stuck to that, but he did pretty much everything else.  He got the nickname "Titanic" for how he'd sink everyone else in his bets.  Thompson was a misprint in the papers, and Thomas didn't mind people not knowing his proper name.

He was a natural hustler, and would gamble on anything.  He spent countless hours training in such special talents as tossing cards across a room into a hat, or even tossing a key across the hall into the lock.  But he also learned other skills--poker, dice, golf, billiards and numerous other games.  He could beat people straight up if he had to, but he was always looking for an angle, and had no compunction about cheating--marked cards, loaded dice--if he could get away with it.  And he loved to pretend he wasn't good at something to up the odds along the way.

He traveled the country for decades, making millions. One of his talents was staying cool--others would wilt when playing for big money, but he only got better in such situations.  He also ended up killing five people--to be fair, they were generally trying to kill him, but he did put  himself in the position where such things would happen.

He also married five times, though he only seemed to have loved one (who died in an accident)--he met her on the street trying to steal his wallet.  Like all his wives, he gave her a nice house to live in, but would spend most of his time on the road, often not in touch.  He didn't want kids--they'd just get in the way--and when two of his wives had babies, he divorced them.  He didn't know his son growing up, but Junior looked him up when he turned 18, and dad took him along on his trips as a partner.

Titanic got in the papers--not a good thing for someone who liked to keep a low profile--when famous gambler Arnold Rothstein was murdered.  Rothstein, best known for fixing the 1919 World Series, got in a high stakes poker game. He thought he was partnering (i.e., cheating) with Titanic, but Thompson turned the tables on him and Rothstein lost big to secret compatriots of Titanic.  When he didn't pay up soon enough, he was rubbed out (though Thompson had nothing to do with that). The DA had to call in a lot of gangsters to find out what happened, but they were on the wrong path. Their theory was Rothstein was killed by people whom he'd cheated, so it was easy for Thompsons and others to testify there was no truth to that.

Not that they wouldn't have lied.  And that's one of the things that make it hard to be charmed by Thompson. Sure, some of his proposition bets were fun.  He's bet a prizefighter they could both stand on a newspaper and the heavyweight couldn't knock him out, and then Thompson would open up the paper so it was on both sides of a doorway, shut the door, and tell the boxer to have at it.  But too often he was just cheating people. He'd tell them, say, he could take a lemon from a fruit cart and toss it on top of a six-story building.  Hard to do, but made a lot easier by the fact he'd earlier filled a particular lemon on the stand with buckshot.

Chapter after chapter is filled with such stories.  One at a time they're entertaining, but by the end, it's hard to admire the guy.  He could have been an honest gambler and still made a living, but that didn't interest him. For instance, he was good enough to have been a professional golfer, but he always wanted that edge (and turning pro would have meant a pay cut)/

So his legend lives on, and deservedly so, I guess.  But this isn't exactly someone you'd want to emulate.

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