Titanic Thompson: Introducing America's Greatest Ever Gambler

Many people have claimed to be America's greatest proposition gambler, but the all pale against Titanic Thompson, the murdering, gambling, rootin' tootin' legend...
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Many people have claimed to be America's greatest proposition gambler, but the all pale against Titanic Thompson, the murdering, gambling, rootin' tootin' legend...

By the time Titanic Thompson was called as a witness in the 1929 murder trial of Arnold Rothstein - the ‘Moses’ of Jewish gangsters responsible for fixing the 1919 ‘Black Sox’ World Series - he had lived a life that was far beyond the realms of accepted possibility.

Fuelled by a combination of apocryphal and gospel tales that centred on his outrageous proposition betting (see Propositions below), he was well on his way to becoming the most infamous and itinerant hustler in American history. He’d won millions playing poker and shooting craps, had slain four men, wed three women and earned his Sergeant’s stripes in the army. He’d gambled with gangsters, danced with dames and had conned, wrangled, lied and fled in every state in America. What's more, he'd done it without booze or fags, having promised his Mother he would never smoke or drink.

So when Assistant District Attorney Ferdinand Pecora asked him to explain to the courtroom what he did for a living, the answer, “I play a little golf for money,” is perhaps one of the biggest understatements of the 20th century. It is not, however, a direct lie. Somehow, in between all of his countless shenanigans, Thompson did play golf for money. Shedloads of it.

Titanic Thompson was born plain old Alvin Clarence Thomas in rural Arkansas on November 30 1892 (see Raising Titanic). Still awash with the detritus of the Wild West and the American Civil War, it was a pitiless era where the men drank and gambled with abandon and the women, if they knew what was good for them, kept their mouths shut. Ti’s father Lee - himself no stranger to moonshine and seven-card stud - skipped town when Ti was five months old and left him to be brought up by his god-fearing stepfather, who used him as cheap labour on the farm until the day, aged 16, when he packed up his meagre belongings and headed off in search of caper.

Ti had left school at 14 and, in that sense, the next decade on the road became his university. Though he worked as a travelling shot and encyclopaedia salesman, these jobs, itinerant in their nature, were taken so he could move from town to town sniffing out people who loved to part with money. Missouri, Kansas, Texas, all across the south he roamed for wealth with a zeal fuelled by his impoverished childhood, and in every saloon, poker-bar and whorehouse, he asked one question. “Does anyone know of a gambler named Lee Thomas?”

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Ti was desperate to look his father in the eye, and found him in Oil City, Louisiana in 1910 (see Father Time below). By the beginning of 1925, Ti had spent 18 months in near permanent residence at the Kingston Club in San Francisco. With his skills at counting cards honed from years on the road, he and fellow legendary gambler, Nick ‘The Greek,’ Dandolos, had won two million dollars in high-stakes poker games against lawyers, politicians, bootleggers and bankers. The games were lengthy, often going on until dawn, though rather than sleep during the day, Ti would be out on a local municupal practising his new favourite pastime; golf (see A New Hustle). And he didn’t have to wait long for it to become an earner.

With his San Franciscan victims less and less willing to part with their cash – and a growing taste for diamonds and tailored suits– Ti and his second wife, Alice (see Loves, Labours, Lost), moved to Beverly Hills. There were three reasons for this. Normally, the desire to first mix with and then fleece wealthy businessmen and actors would be the driving forces. But Titanic was hooked, and wanted to gain tutelage under Ed Dudley – then the finest teaching pro in the world - at Hollywood CC.

Arriving in LA fresh from the Brainer hustle (see The First Golf Hustle), Ti purchased a rambling, Spanish Colonial house from a left-handed golfer named Ed Jones. A keen, if average, golfer himself, Jones was soon on at Ti to tackle him over 18 holes at Hollywood. The pair played several times, with Ti playing righthanded and failing to break 100 on every occasion. At dinner one night, with the bait in place, Ti began needling Jones over the paucity of his game. “Ed, why in the hell do you keep trying to play golf? I mean, the cold, hard fact of the matter is that you can’t play a crying lick. I honestly believe I could take your own clubs and beat you left-handed.”

“You’re hardly a goddamn champion yourself, if you’re serious about playing me left-handed, I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I got $5,000 says you can’t beat me with my own clubs,” came the reply.

The next morning, Thompson hammered him by 15 strokes, and word quickly spread of his ambidextrous exploits. Unfortunately for Ti, word spread in the wrong direction, and a few days later he was hijacked by two masked gunmen as he left the range. The pair robbed him of $12,000 and, despite his protestations, Alice told an LA Policeman that her sister was friendly with and he tracked the hijackers down to a nearby apartment. Holding the pair at gunpoint, the officer called Thompson and told him, “that they were working for a man named Ed Jones…”

Racing to Jones’ house waving a pistol, Ti found only removal men and a ‘Sold’ sign in the front yard. To compound his anger further, the officer did a runner with the $12,000. People, as he would often say, just aren’t to be trusted. But he couldn’t be down for long; he was raking it in at the card-tables and his game was shaping up nicely under the watchful eye of Dudley. And as ever with Ti, it wasn’t long until the next big hustle came along.

At dinner one night, with the bait in place, Ti began needling Jones over the paucity of his game

Despite word-of-mouth exposure of Titanic’s exploits, it was a cocky amateur called George Von Elm who’s name graced the sports pages that year. He’d beaten the legendary Bobby Jones for the 1926 U S Amateur title and, on returning to the coast, was miffed to find another golfer as the darling of LA. He’d heard the stories of how Ti would always beat his opponent by a stroke or two, whether it took 100 or 65, and he wanted to prove that Thompson was nothing but a lucky hustler. Ti also knew of Von Elm, and though he had little reason to play the U S Amateur Champion, he did want a way into the pockets of Von Elm’s friend, the Hollywood director, Howard Hughes.

Sitting in the pro shop one day, Von Elm noticed Ti on the driving range and turned to Ed Dudley. “Ed, I hear you’ve given Titanic Thompson some lessons. How good is he? Really?” “George,” he replied, “for my money that skinny fella’ out there is one stroke better than any golfer in the world. Annoyed at the perceived slur, Von Elm marched out to the practice tee. “Hey Ti, why don’t you throw away those beat up old sticks and let me buy you some new ones?” Ti didn’t even bother to turn around. “I’ve been doing pretty fair with these. Wanna play?”

“Listen, mister,” spat the cocksure tyro, “I’m one of the best golfers in the country. I keep hearing you’re pretty good, but don’t see you playing no tournaments. Hell, yes I want to play. We’ll play eighteen and I’ll spot you nine shots. Hundred dollars a hole.”

Finally, Ti looked up. “Get your sticks boy, we got us a game.”

By the time the match got to the ninth green, the pair were level. Ti faced a three-foot putt while Von Elm was thirty-feet away.With no shots used, Von Elm knew that he had to win that and every other hole to defeat his nemesis. After studying his line for a minute, the man who had beat Bobby Jones threw down his putter and stormed off to the clubhouse. It was the one and only time they played. Weeks later, Von Elm tried to get one over on Ti by shipping in a pro from Omaha who proceeded to play badly for days before approaching and offering him a challenge.

Ti found time to lose $1.2 million on a fixed horse race in Tijuana, break even with Howard Hughes at the craps table, and fleece some unsuspecting golfers out of $10,000

Had Von Elm not walked to the first tee with a grin on his face, Ti may have lost. Von Elm should have listened to Ed Dudley; Ti shot 65, one off the course record, to beat the pro by a stroke. Ti had enjoyed his spell in LA, but notoriety - a disease for a man of his ilk - was beginning to follow him around, and he hankered after another spell on the road. The big money was now in New York City, and on his way there Ti found time to lose $1.2 million on a fixed horse race in Tijuana, break even with Howard Hughes at the craps table, and fleece some unsuspecting golfers out of $10,000 by turning up at a course with his arm in a sling before beating them out of sight.

Arriving in New York in 1928, Ti quickly saw that there wasn’t much action to be found that wasn’t already fixed in one way or another, and decided that the Big Apple was a proposition town. To his mind, if he could not control the game, he wanted no part of it. And golf was a game he could control. One night at a poker game, he met Leo Flynn, who’d managed Heavyweight Champion, Jack Dempsey. “There’s a pro called George McClean out in Westchester County,” drawled Flynn, “thinks he’s the best damn golfer alive.”

With Ti confident he could beat anyone, Flynn said he’d put up the money, and the plan was set. Two days later, after sending word to McClean that he’d be coming,  Ti turned up with sticks in hand. McClean had heard the legend, but thought that Thompson mustbe a far better hustler than golfer, and he was proved right when he beat him by ten strokes for $2,500. Showering his opponent with praise over an iced-tea, Ti played the role of gracious loser to perfection. “You’re a good guy, Thompson,” said McClean, “and if you ever want a chance to get your money back, let me know.”

Ti set the bet at $20,000 and beat McClean on the last hole with a cracking display of gamesmanship; forcing McClean to have side bet on every hole and never letting him settle into his rhythm. “Ti,” said Flynn as they got into the car, “god knows where you’d be today if you’d put this kind of planning into something honest.”

“Probably too broke to pay attention,” came the reply.

Both in New York and on the road, the next few years were good to Ti. Aces and double-sixes came regularly, and his golf hustling was still of the highest order. He beat one long-drive champion out of $20,000 by allowing the man three drives on every hole, leaving him too tired to swing. He hooked up with future World Series of Poker Champion, Johnny Moss, to fleece $50,000 out of a group of high-rolling country club members, and won a sizeable amount through the infamous icy lake bet where, after betting another group of rich buffoons that he could drive a ball 500 yards, he teed up left of the fairway and watched it roll for a mile over the ice.

Writer Damon Runyon was transfixed with Ti, and immortalised him in Guys n’ Dolls

The Rothstein trial though - of which he was informed he had no further part to play while incarcerated for ‘making golf too hard’ for the members of a country club - had bought even more notoriety. Writer Damon Runyon was transfixed with Ti, and immortalised him in Guys n’ Dolls, as Sky Masterson, a high stakes gambler who was played in the 1955 film version by Marlon Brando. His ego may have loved this attention, but it was bad for business, and he set off on a four-year jaunt of racecourses and had to rely heavily on his cardsharping and chipping to offset the losses of a pursuit that would ultimately be his undoing.

Ti returned to Fort Worth, Texas in 1934. With his fifth killing (see In Cold Blood) still playing heavily on his mind, he was a little out of sorts but still up for action, and he soon found it. After finishing a profitable round at the Tennison Golf Course one afternoon, he was approached by three strangers who asked if he would like to play Byron Nelson for $3,000. Though Nelson was still three years away from claiming his first Major, every clubhouse in the South rang with tales of his extraordinary shot-making ability.  Ti had heard the same stories, but he had yarns of his own, and doubted that Nelson had much experience of hustling.

On the day of the match, every known gambler in Texas turned up to see the pair lock horns. Johnny Moss even left a poker game in Oklahoma to make it. After nine holes, Nelson was two-strokes to the good. To all in attendance, it was clear this was more than just a money match; it was about pride, and the galleries were as silent as the players. That is until Ti shook himself down and began to play like a man possessed. On the back-nine, he posted six consecutive birdies, and finished in a record 29 strokes to beat the future best player in the world. If the true golfing ability of Titanic Thompson had been in question before the match, it was never questioned thereafter.

With Ti constantly trying to avoid publicity where possible, any re-telling of his story will always contain gaps, and in that sense, it’s probably best to imagine the next 20 years of his life as the montage section of a period film, where flickering, black and white images are accompanied by jaunty music. With America in financial meltdown, he continued to make millions throughout the Great Depression. He moved to Illinois in the late 30s and made $3 million dollars on the oil boom, only to lose most of it chasing lame horse after lame horse. He married third wife Joanne and became a father aged 52, before leaving her for fourth wife Maxine in 1946.

He moved to Arizona and became a champion trap-shooter, and was at relative peace until being sentenced to two years for ‘contributing to the delinquency of a minor,’ when one of the hostesses at a party he’d thrown was found to be underage. He was released in late 1954, and headed straight to New Mexico with fifth wife Jeanette to tap into the latest oil boom. After making, and losing, another boatload of money he fathered another son aged 67 and they moved back to Fort Worth in 1962. They were soon joined by Ti’s first son Tommy who, after losing $400 to his dad on the first day they met, stayed around long enough to learn every trick in the book and become one of the best poker players in America.

He played left and right handed, blindfolded, in a sling and even once turned up in a wheelchair.

If there is no mention of golf across these decades, it’s because it was his one constant. Women, kids, oil and cash would enter and leave his life in a trice, but he always had golf. He played left and right handed, blindfolded, in a sling and even once turned up in a wheelchair. And if he wasn’t hustling, he’d be in his yard practicing his short game.

In 1968, aged 76, Ti moved to Dallas. Even though he still played, age and ill-health had taken 50 yards off his drives, and his last jaunt saw him fly down to Mexico to back future four-time Major winner, Ray Floyd, against a then unknown named Lee Trevino. Over the course of four days, Ti lost $40,000 as Supermex showed the skills that would win him seven majors. At this time, Ti was taking pills for his heart conditon and sleeping pills to cure his insomnia.

On the way back from Mexico, he and his travelling partner, a man named Ace Darnell, stopped at a country club in El Paso for onelast hustle. It was to prove a disaster. Ti took the wrong pill and, at one-point, completely missed a chip shot. “Goddamn it Ace,” said a dejected Ti, “I’m 76 years old. There was a time when I beat Byron Nelson. Hell, I helped Sam Snead straighten out his backswing and Ben Hogan said I was the best shotmaker he’d ever seen… and now I can’t even whip that sonuvabitch.”

In 1971, Ti was asked to compere the World Series of Poker, which was won by his old friend Johnny Moss. One night, he and Jeanette were playing dominoes and he began to ruminate on the money he’d seen at the World Series. “I’m a man who doesn’t have many regrets,” he told her, “but I wish now that I’d been a little smarter and saved something. I wish I’d have been able to see down the road, beyond the next game. Yeah, I regret that most of all.”

It was a regret that resulted in his fifth and final divorce. Jeanette was no longer able to care for Ti and hold down a job and,unless they divorced, the state wouldn’t pay for the care that he needed. In August 1973, Jeanette filed for divorce and drove her husband to the rest home on the outskirts of Fort Worth. “I love you slim,’ she cried, ‘don’t you ever forget that.”

He never let his victim walk away without telling him he’d been beaten by Titanic Thompson

It goes without saying that he gambled with his fellow patients. When the weather was warm, he would hassle one of the nurses into taking him to a nearby pitch ‘n putt course where, for old times sake, he would hustle a two-dollar game and then amaze everyone present by shooting the course in par. He never let his victim walk away without telling him he’d been beaten by Titanic Thompson.

In May 1974, aged 82, Ti suffered a stroke. The man who had hustled through two-world wars, slain five men and married five women was found dead in the bedroom of his nursing home. 50 miles away, on Tennison Golf Course in Dallas, four gamblers were playing when a teenage caddie approached in a golf cart. “Fellas,’ he shouted, “Titanic Thompson has died.” After a pause, one of the men spoke. “You ever know Titanic Thompson, boy?” “Can’t say that I did sir,’ he replied. “But you say he’s dead?” “That’s what I heard.” “Well son, likely he is dead. But take my advice and don’t go betting any money on it.”

If that sentence is a fitting epitaph, then the man himself should apply the full stop. In his hustling heyday of the mid 1930s, someone asked Ti why he had never had a crack at the professional golf circuit. “Well son,“he said, shuffling his deck of cards. “It’s because I couldn’t afford the cut in pay.”

RAISING TITANIC

In 1918 in Illinois,he was on a five-day winning streak in a pool-hall that bought him close to $10,000. With all the gamblers refusing to wager any more against his pool skills, he offered them the chance to win it all back by betting that he couldn’t jump the pool table from a standing start. He did it with ease, and one gambler turned to the next and asked who he was “Who knows,” said the other, “but he should be called Titanic the way he’sbeen sinking us.” He liked the sound o f it, and when ahotel clerk misspelt his surname as Thompson, he never corrected it.

A NEW HUSTLE

In 1919, Ti was on one his regular criss-cross trips across the south. Stopping at a gas station, he spied the attendant hittingballs and asked if he could have a go. His first drive sailed 250 yards; the eye-hand co-ordination gained from practicing his sleight of hand tricks was also pretty useful at golf. Not only that, but he found he could strike the ball just as well right or left handed. It’s estimated this trick won him close on a million dollars throughout his lifetime.

The judge ruled Ti guilty of murder, yet told him to give up all of his winnings and ‘get his ass out of town before it rots in jail.’

PROPOSITIONS

Before he left home, Titanic became adept at a variety of skills that could win him money; shooting the hole from a silver dollar, pitching coins into a hat, and throwing horseshoes at a post to name but a few. His first proposition came as an 11-year-old,when he trained his dog to retrieve things from the riverbed. After an afternoon spent marking 100 rocks with a white ‘x’, he bet a local fisherman that the dog could fetch any rock he threw into the river. The man agreed to put his rod up as a stake, but insisted it had to be marked with an ‘x’ to ensure it was the right rock. Of course the dog brought it back, Ti had spent the evening before marking hundreds of rocks with an X.

FATHER TIME

Ti walked into a saloon in Oil City in 1910 and instantly pegged the man dealing stud as his father. Rather than reveal himself, he proceeded to win $3,600. “There’s your money,” he said, ‘I’m giving it you back because you never had a chance. See, I’m your son, Alvin.” The old man laughed while pocketing the cash, and the pair spent three weeks breaking the local oilmen at poker before going their separate ways and never meeting again.

IN COLD BLOOD

Ti was responsible for the deaths of five men. In 1909,he was gambling on a riverboat on the St Francis river
in Arkansas. After winning all that proprietor Joe Green had, a Memphis gambler named Jim Johnson came to tryhis luck. Johnson got steaming drunk and began hassling Ti’s then girlfriend. After a skirmish, Ti was knocked overboard. When he got back aboard, Johnson started again and pulled a knife, but was dispatched with two hammer blows to the head and died. The judge ruled Ti guilty of murder, yet told him to give up all of his winnings and ‘get his ass out of town before it rots in jail.’

Five years later, he’d won $15,000 playing cards in Missouri. He was about to leave when he saw the barman make a discreet signal. Wrapping his hand around his pistol, Ti kicked open the door and, on seeing two masked men, shot them both. He turned himself in, yet was commended by the Sheriff for ‘dispatching with two of the meanest men in the county,’ and given a medal and a gun licence.

In 1919, two hijackers burst into a card game in Kansas City, he and a fellow gambler shot them both, and he gave Missouri a wide-berth for years afterwards. Though It was the fifth killing that weighed heavily on Ti. He was hustling in Dallas in 1937 and gave a young caddie $500 as way of thanks for helping him win $5000. Later that night, he was sat in his hotel room when he saw something move by his car and crept out. A gunman jumped from behind a tree shouting, “get your hands up, Mister, or I’ll blow your head off.” Ti pulled his pistol first, and shot the man twice. It was only when he moved closer, that he realised it was the same caddie he had befriended that day.

LOVE'S LABOURS, LOST...

All of Ti’s brides were under 18 when he married them... The first was 16-year-old Nora Trushel in 1917, they divorced when she got sick of his lifestyle. Bizarrely, she went on to marry gangster ‘Pretty’ Boy Floyd. Second wife Alice lasted the roaring 20s, and was killed by a tram in San Francisco in the 30s. Joannne came next, and lasted until son, Tommy, was two in 1946. He inadvertently married fourth wife Maxine when she was 14, yet lost her - and a large amount of cash - when he went to prison. Fifth wife Jeanette was the only one who really lasted, bearing him second son, Ty, and staying with him until he was forced into a retirement home through ill-health

FIRST GOLF HUSTLE

Before he left San Francisco in 1922, a golf pro called Buddy Brainer would regularly come into play cards and boast of his golfing exploits. “There’s not much to golf,” said Ti, “I reckon I’d do pretty well at it myself.” The pair played for ten dollars a hole, and Titanic put on a fantastic show of playing like an arse. He then asked Brainer for a rematch, on the proviso that he got three shots a hole. Ti covered the $1000 a hole match with innumerate side bets, and when his first drive sailed 50 yards further, the young pro sensed trouble, and he got it in spades, failing to win a single hole. Ti won $56,000 that day ($560,000 in todays money) and the die was cast for his move to LA.