Alvin Clarence Thomas, a.k.a. Titanic Thompson, was a gambler and golf hustler who died at age 82 on May 19, 1974, but whose outlaw career really flourished, as Kevin Cook records with breezy relish in his biography “Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything,” between 1920 and 1950. That period was a golden age in the history of the American confidence game.
It sometimes seems that it’s always a golden age for fraudsters and hucksters, and the idea that looking at their lives offers a kind of shadow history of the culture’s greedy essence isn’t new or original, but Cook explores it nicely here. Titanic Thompson is as emblematically American as Babe Ruth or Mark Twain; it’s just that if you met him he’d steal your wallet and probably make you thank him for his skill in doing it.
“Tall and thin with a bland mask of a face, he had close-set eyes that looked a little dead, or at least until he offered you a bet,” Cook writes. “Then those dark eyes sparkled and he smiled like he had good news.”
During his life, Titanic killed five men, always successfully pleading self-defense. He also married five women, all in their teens when they tied the knot. He was restless, cool, dangerous … a specialist in the short con, a proposition man. He’d suggest improbable wagers, having first engineered or prepared the scenario to guarantee he’d win. He once bet Al Capone that he, Titanic, could throw a lemon onto the roof of a five-story hotel. The lemon was loaded with buckshot, having been previously planted on a fruit-vendor’s stall. Capone, in the dark, took the bet and lost $500. A near-genius as a poker player, Titanic rigged the fabled all-night game that led to the death, in 1928, of Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series (and the inspiration for Meyer Wolfsheim, the sinister gambler in “The Great Gatsby”).
Titanic would tackle anybody; for him, the game wasn’t about money but winning, putting one over. “He had pricked the arrogant Capone,” Cook writes. For several years Titanic owned a house in Beverly Hills and dreamed of taking down Howard Hughes, but he could never get him out onto the golf course. Golf, once Titanic discovered the game, became his preferred theater of operations. He’d bet $15,000 a hole and then edge a guy just by a shot to encourage him to play for more. An amazing thought, today, but Titanic saw that golfers and people around golfers loved to gamble. He’d beat an opponent, then propose double-or-quits and even offer to play left-handed. Unknown to his marks, Titanic was a natural lefty. He teamed up with professionals before they were famous and took them on the road to hustle. Ben Hogan said Titanic was the best shot-maker he’d ever seen.
In 1965, Titanic bankrolled the young Raymond Floyd in a mano a mano against Lee Trevino, then an unknown Texas caddie and locker-room boy with a slashing swing. The Floyd/Trevino contest turned into a three-day epic and would be remembered by both men long after they became Hall of Famers. Cook goes to town on this episode, which would indeed make a terrific movie:
“Moments later the eighteenth green was ringed with gold carts, pickup trucks, Horizon Hills golfers, course workers and other locals who had heard about the match. Some were drunk, others just festive, but everyone and everything — every gambler, dog, crow, and cowboy-hatted driver — went quiet as Floyd studied the green between his ball and the cup.”
The two men fought each other to a standoff, and Titanic turned to his real goal, the fleecing of the Mexican moguls who had backed Trevino. “They were flush, happy — ready to cut the cards,” Cook records, and Titanic had arranged a crooked hold ‘em session in an underground card room in Juarez, Mexico. But the scam produced no gushing El Dorado, and Titanic’s last stand was a bust. He died broke, like most gamblers. In his life he went through at least $10 million yet as an old man he had no investments, no insurance, no checking or savings account.
“The hustler who had driven through the Holland Tunnel with a satchel stuffed with $960,000 in cash now counted on a monthly Social Security check for $109.20.”
This should, perhaps, be sad and salutary, a twisted Horatio Alger tale with a stern moral warning. Cook doesn’t see it that way; rather he sees the romance of an uneducated boy, born in an Ozarks log cabin, who grows up to cheat the good, the bad and the great. Cook lays out the work that Titanic put in, the discipline needed to learn skills and odds and human nature; he writes with barely suppressed glee, relying on interviews with living witnesses and previously published sources to pick a path between truth and legend.
Damon Runyon, no less, mythologized Titanic Thompson as the gambler Sky Masterson in the stories that formed “Guys and Dolls.” Cook gives us the real deal, or as close as we’re ever likely to get.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age.”