This time the story is about Alvin Clarence Thomas, mostly known as Titanic Thompson, a famous American gambler and golf player who could be rightly called the greatest hustler of the previous century. He was ambidextrous and so skillful that some even compared him to Merlin. Thompson was famous for traveling around the states and betting on almost everything, from horse racing and dice games to golf and shooting.
Thompson was born in Monnet, MO in the year 1892. He never knew father’s love – his father was a compulsive gambler and so occupied with playing at a nearby salon that he was absent even at his son’s birth. Titanic’s parents got divorced when he was a small baby, and his “loving” father gathered all the assets of the family and left forever.
Alvin’s mother, Sarah, married another man from the Ozarks, Missouri, and the boy spent his early years there. So the story of a lucky gambler starts like most of them do, with a really unlucky turn of events. He didn’t get to have a happy childhood, since he wasn’t highly welcomed by his stepfather. His new family was devout Christians and the mother accepted such lifestyle. Every Sunday they would go to church and follow the Lord’s way. However, our hero decided to choose a different path.
Alvin had two stepbrothers and two stepsisters and the whole family lived in a small house, that looked more like a cabin, with only three bedrooms. Not getting enough love and support, Thomson always searched for an excuse to spend some time away. He couldn’t have been called a brilliant student and dropped out of school, in fact he was almost illiterate. But right about that time he discovered something that he was actually good at.
His life of gambling began with such games as domino and checkers but quite soon he found out about another game − poker. He created a pretty simple but extremely effective system of marking cards which made him almost unbeatable. Yeah, basically he was cheating already, remember about not choosing the Christian path.
The boy couldn’t bear living under the family’s rules anymore and at the age of 16, Alvin left the house with a single dollar on him. He actually managed to gain quite a large sum, all from not an honest job I might say. If he didn’t have money for a dinner at a restaurant, he would go and get at a gambling table.
Earning the Name
At first sight, there seems to be little in common between a horrific story of the ship crashing into an iceberg and a gambler who earned his living through hustling people. But the answer will surprise you.
The story started in Joplin, MO when Thompson was playing at a pool hall owned by Snow Clark. Alvin bet each player daring to compete. So naturally, the hall’s holder, who was considered unbeatable back then, got interested in him.
So Thompson was offered to have a round of billiards with Snow at a bet of $500, a considerable sum of money at those times, I might say. Thompson came out the winner, but he didn’t stop at liberating the hall’s holder out of a hefty sum.
There was a notice at the place offering $200 to a person who would manage to jump over a pool table that was 2.7 meters long. Thompson said he could do that, but his statement, despite the men’s fascination with his mastery at the table, raised only laugh. Thompson went out but in less than ten minutes came back with a shabby mattress -– he used it for leverage, helping Thompson launch off of the table and land on its other side. Thompson came out the winner again with the $200 prize. After the gambler left, someone inquired about his name and Snow answered that he didn’t know but it should have been Titanic as he was able to sink everyone.
And so, our hero got himself a nickname.
Hitting the Road
Even while serving in the army Titanic didn’t quit gambling, he taught his comrades gambling. During the years of service, he saved up $50,000 and spent some of this sum on buying a house in Monett, Missouri for his mother.
After he accumulated a good starting capital, he decided to start traveling around the states again. He placed bets on whatever he could and did everything possible to win. Once he wagered to throw a walnut over a five-storied building – and he won, but only because he had put some lead in it before placing the bet to add more weight to the walnut, thus making the throw more plausible.
His cheat was even more elaborate: he assured some folks that he was capable of guessing the number of fruits in a passing-by truck. The locals were surprised as Thompson was almost right – he miscalculated two watermelons. However, they were not aware of Titanic’s paying the driver for counting the fruits and driving past him right at the agreed hour.
There’s even a legend saying that one day Thompson wagered to drive a golf ball past 500 yards although by that time the record was only 200, and Thompson would hardly break it if he didn’t play a trick. His clever plan consisted in waiting for winter to come and have the ball roll past a slippery icy surface of a frozen lake – and it was a success.
Thompson was also a mentor to many upcoming gamblers. You can say that he helped to bring up people like Byron Nelson or Harvey Penick, quite interesting for a person with clear father complexes. Also, some of his protégés can be found in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Although he usually won every wager he made, he was not so lucky at horse racing, his major weakness, and could lose several million dollars in a night. Yeah he wasn’t much of a cautious guy.
During his travels, Titanic Thompson was fearless to hustle anyone he met. That included of the greatest magicians of all time, Harry Houdini. Then came the inspirational and controversial genius, Howard Hughes. But perhaps most memorable was his encounter with Al Capone. Yes, he also hustled the most infamous gangster of his time.
Thompson was known to have killed five people. The first incident occurred in 1910. It was actually the most brutal one, as his victim drowned to death. That man suspected that Thompson was swindling and pushed the hustler overboard. When Titanic climbed back, his offender intimidated to kill his girlfriend with a knife. Thompson got so frustrated that he hammered the man on the head and returned the favor.
All other cases were alleged self-defense. In 1919, he murdered two bank robbers and was even called a hero. One more man was shot during his working as a bodyguard, and the fifth murder occurred when a guy tried to rob Thompson at gunpoint.
In 1928, a famous American racketeer and businessman Arnold Rothstein was killed after refusing to redeem his poker debts. The organizer of that fatal game was George McManus who was later accused of Rothstein’s death but was lucky to be acquitted. Titanic took participation in that game. Moreover, it was Thompson who together with another gambler cheated so that Rothstein lost and was left with a debt of half a million. Although Thompson was absent at the crime, he gave evidence that McManus killed the gambler. However, after some time he confessed that he knew that Rothstein was actually killed by his own bodyguard.
Passion for Golf
Thompson was introduced to golfing in his late 30s and got fascinated by the game right away. He learned from experienced players and after he gained enough mastery, Thompson started playing with wealthy golfers. Usually, he could win $30,000 over the course of a week, and some of his bets equaled $15,000.
Thompson was a success because his opponents didn’t know he was ambidextrous which means he could use his both hands in a game. He often beat with his right hand and after that, he offered to have a double-or-nothing round with his left hand. His competitors thought they stood a chance, but, unfortunately for them, they were mistaken.
Thompson was far from the ideal husband – he had five marriages and numerous affairs with women around the globe. He would typically marry a girl, spend several months with her, get back to gambling and then wait until she got fed up with his lengthy absence and asked for getting a divorce.
He had three sons from three different wives, but surprisingly he provided them with financial support, guess the old wounds never really heal. Titanic was very close with one of his sons, Tommy, and spent several years with him gambling across the country.
Our hero traveled around the states and hustled people until the day he couldn’t do it anymore. He then was sent to a Dallas rest home to spend there the rest of his life. Thompson died 1974 at the age of 82.
Thompson inspired several books and even Damon Runyon’s character in Guys and Dolls.
Perhaps the most interesting turn of events is that his son Tommy, who at one point became a skillful player and then decided to give it all up. He chose the path of a preacher, speaking about the harm of addiction to gambling. I guess the story ends where it began, sort of.