Legendary gambler was so good, he could even con Capone  
 By BARRY HORN

SportsDay
The Dallas Morning News
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"Honesty pays ,but very little."

- Titanic Thompson

Legendary gambler Alvin Thomas, also known as Titanic Thompson, sits with his son, Tommy, in a 1940's photograph.  Later, Titanic became Tommy's mentor, refining his son's hustling skills.

He could sure do the hustle

Titanic Thompson's oldest son was 19 years old the day he rolled his shiny new 1964 Jaguar convertible into San Antonio to finally confront the father who had abandoned him.  Tommy Thomas drove down from Indiana to his father's house, hoping for a hug and whispered, "I love you."
     "Who are you?" the 71-year-old Titanic asked as he covetously eyed the new car before going back to putting golfballs.  "I'm your son," the teen replied.  The son had prepared much of his life for the moment.  He'd spent endless solitary hours learning to master a deck of cards.  He already had graduated into the life of a professional "card mechanic."  He also had mastered the art of handling a gun, hoping to please his father.  Following in his father's footsteps, he thought, would earn his father's love.
    
"Got any money?" the father asked, returning to the golf ball at his feet.
     "A little I won at the Elks Club," the son replied.
It didn't take Titanic Thompson and his marked deck more than a few hands of poker to relieve his son of his $400 bankroll.

     And so, Tommy Thomas' name was added to the long list of those who had been taken by Titanic Thompson.
     Odds are better than even that you never have heard of Titanic Thompson, who sailed through life as the greatest poker-playing, golf-gambling horseshoe-hustling, skeet-shooting con man of them all.
     Of course, it wasn't always smooth sailing. He did kill five men along the way. All were ruled self-defense. Just the price of doing business.
     Titanic's prime came in the Roaring '20s, Depression '30s and World War '40s. But when a stroke finally ended his run at a Euless nursing home in 1974, they found in his night table drawer a stack of social security checks he had finagled from his fellow senior citizens.
     Titanic, it seems, hustled to the very end.
     On the other side of the coin, the odds are good that you have heard of at least some of the folks with whom Titanic's hustles crossed paths: Al Capone, Harry Houdini, Ben Hogan, Minnesota Fats, Sam Snead, Nick "The Greek," Byron Nelson, Mysterious Montague, Lee Elder and Arnold Rothstein, the only man to ever fix a World Series.
     Titanic, however, preferred anonymity. He was convinced that too many headlines could ultimately affect a hustler's bottom line.

In Guys and Dolls, which starred Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine, Brando's character - a dashing womanizing gambler, was fashioned after Titanic Thompson.
In the movie Guys and Dolls, a young Marlon Brando played a character that writer Damon Runyon fashioned after his pal, the dashing, womanizing Titanic. It was only at his friend's insistence that the writer called his dashing, womanizing gambler by another name. In tribute, however, Runyon christened his romantic lead, "Sky Masterson," for the "master" Titanic, whose "sky's the limit" response was a sure thing whenever a wager was proposed.
     "When I go into advertising what I do, I might as well go back to Arkansas and finish out my life fishing," Titanic told Runyon. "Mine ain't a line of work helped much by publicity."
     Truth be told, Titanic Thompson was a nom de guerre, anyway.
     Titanic was born Alvin Clarence Thomas in the dirt-poor rural Ozarks in 1892. Although it remains cloudy on which side of the Missouri-Arkansas border he took his first breath, there is no debate that he left his home in Rogers, Ark., as soon as he was old enough to hustle on his own.
     He managed to live the high life for most of his 811/2 years. Millions of dollars passed through his fingers. He won and lost fortunes. Although he once bragged that he had never been broke for more than six hours, he died penniless.
     Not that Ti, as his friends called him, wasn't a sportsman with extraordinary skills. His hand-eye coordination was said to be second to none. He played golf well enough to once shoot a 29 on the back nine at Fort Worth's Ridglea Country Club going head to head with an up-and-coming Byron Nelson.
     He was the Arizona state trapshooting champion four consecutive years. It was said that he could throw a baseball from dead center field 400 feet to home plate without the aid of a bounce.
     His golf game was good enough that many students of the sport are convinced he could have been the equal of Nelson and Hogan and Snead had he been willing to play for relatively puny purses on the golf tour instead of high-stakes hustling.
     In his autobiography, an awed Snead recalled meeting Thompson on a golf course back in the 1930s. Snead could not believe the number of side bets Thompson made and won as the round progressed. It led Snead to a lifelong rule: "Never bet with strangers until they become friends."
     Titanic, who was naturally left-handed, but equally adroit playing right-handed, loved hustling golf. But the game was ultimately nothing but a means to an end. It provided entr€e into the toniest country clubs from coast to coast. Once inside, Titanic could always find rich men and far more lucrative poker games.
     By bending cards' edges and scraping minute indentations with his fingernails, Titanic could mark a deck to his liking within minutes. The strength of his steel blue eyes could make an eagle envious. He could palm cards with the same hand he was dealing off the bottom of the deck. His sleight of hand was so spectacular, it awed even the master, the Great Houdini, who swapped now-you-see-it, now-you-don't tricks with Ti.
     Bud Shrake, who co-wrote Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, once spent weeks with Ti in preparing a 1972 story for Sports Illustrated. Ti, who shunned writers and photographers in his younger days, did not speak to Sports Illustrated for glory. The magazine dropped a much-needed $5,000 on him for his first-person tale.
     "Ti's mind was so sharp that I am convinced that if he was born in Princeton, N.J. instead of Nowhere, Ark., and went to an Ivy League college," Shrake says, "he'd have spent his life giving advice to world leaders."

A legend is born
     Alvin Thomas, himself the son of a gambler who abandoned his family, set out of the Arkansas hills to find his fame and fortune when he was 16.
     But not before he could tame a deck and master a pistol for those inevitable tense moments when he might be accused of illegally manipulating the cards. His mother asked him to promise her only two things before saying goodbye - not to smoke or drink. Alvin remained faithful to that promise until the day he died.
     At 6-1, 160 pounds, he was known as "Slim" in those days. He wasn't christened "Titanic" until four years later in 1912. It was in a Missouri pool hall where Thomas had just beaten a fellow hustler by the name of Snow Clark out of $1,000.
     While Thomas was busy counting his winnings, someone asked Clark for the name of the fancy pool player with all the money. "Must be Titanic," Clark answered. "He sinks everybody."
     Titanic Thomas became Titanic Thompson after he had gravitated to New York and a newspaper there got his last name wrong. Titanic never asked for a correction.
     Titanic always referred to the bets he made as "propositions." He didn't win them all, but he won more than his fair share. What he could never beat was Minnesota Fats at a pool table and the horses. He lost millions at the track.
     Titanic once found himself with $960,000 in cash after a marathon poker game in San Francisco.
     Not wanting to hang around, Titanic put the cash in a shoebox and headed for the East Coast. By the time he hit Saratoga in upstate New York, he had donated much of his winnings to cashiers behind the betting windows across the country. What was left was lost in a failed attempt to fix a race.
     Titanic's worst day at trying to fix a race came at a track in Tijuana, when he decided to bet $150,000 on an 8-to-1 long shot. To ensure victory, he paid off every jockey in the race. As added insurance, he told the jockeys that he had stationed a sharpshooter with a scope on his rifle on top of the grandstand. The gunman's instructions were simple. Shoot any horse and jockey that crossed the finish line before Titanic's horse, Nellie A.
     Nellie A was 150 yards ahead of the pack when she fell and broke her leg down the stretch.
     Left on the track were seven jockeys desperately trying to hold their horses back.
     Titanic had better fortune hustling horseshoes. He once challenged the world champion. But instead of the regulation 40-foot long court, Titanic set up a court 41-feet long. That, of course, was after he spent months practicing at that distance. Titanic beat him out of $2,000.
     "I think I could have beaten him anyway," Titanic told Sports Illustrated. "But why take the chance?"
     Which is exactly the philosophy he used in betting Al Capone $500 he could throw an orange onto the roof of a five-story building. At the last minute, unbeknownst to Capone, Titanic substituted a lemon, which was smaller, harder and easier to throw. Capone happily paid off, after marveling at Titanic's arm. It may be left to the imagination whether Titanic would have looked more like a squashed orange or lemon had Capone learned of his treachery.

 
A violent sport
     Titanic Thompson never spent a day in jail for any of the five men he shot dead.
     He did, however, for a sixth killing that holds the most historical significance.
     Titanic was in the New York hotel room in 1929 when Arnold Rothstein, father of the Black Sox World Series scandal a decade earlier, was shot over a poker debt. Titanic was taken into custody as a prime suspect and released only after agreeing to testify against a third man in the room.
     On the witness stand, however, Titanic, who in a matter of seconds could remember the placement of every card in a deck, suffered a memory loss of extraordinary proportions. The defendant was ultimately freed.
     To the very end, Titanic swore no involvement in the murder.
     "Why would I shoot a man who owed me $250,000," Titanic would say, trying to appeal to logic whenever the subject of the still-unsolved crime was broached. "You can't collect from a dead man."
     Maybe so, but golf commentator Gary McCord, who has spent almost 20 years researching Titanic and is involved with a movie script about him, says he has uncovered strong evidence that Rothstein was indeed victim No. 6.
     "It's a story that will be told someday," says McCord, who is partnered in the movie project with among others, Ron Shelton, who co-wrote and directed Tin Cup.
     Titanic's skill with a deck and a golf club may have been surpassed only by his way with women. He married five times, but never to a woman past her 20th birthday. One of his ex-wives later married the gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. Tommy Thomas' mother was 14 on her wedding day.
     Titanic's last wife, Jeannette, was 37 when her 81-year-old husband of 19 years was placed in the nursing home. Jeannette bore Titanic his youngest son, Ty Wayne. Titanic's third son from one of his other marriages was placed for adoption.
     Titanic passed through Dallas often before finally settling here sometime in the 1960s.
     "Doc," he would tell his buddy, Jim Hill, a Dallas dentist whom he befriended late in life, "honesty pays, but very little."
     Hill, a devout golfer who loved to hear Titanic tell "yarns," helped take care of the aging gambler after his money ran out. One reason for that circumstance was Titanic's generosity.
     "What he really was," contends Hill, "was a sheep in wolf's clothing."
     Titanic's most famous hustles came on the golf course. He was almost 30 when he took up golf between poker games in California. His hand-eye coordination and athletic ability made him a natural.
     Titanic never played the legendary Bobby Jones. But only several years after he began playing, Titanic did beat George Von Elm in Los Angeles in 1926. That was only weeks after Von Elm beat Jones for the U.S. Amateur championship.
     In the early 1930s, Titantic temporarily set up shop in Dallas, quickly establishing himself as the city's premier golf hustler at Tenison Park Golf Course.
     One day, Titanic was approached by three gentlemen from Fort Worth offering a proposition. It would be Dallas' best against Fort Worth's best golfer. They would put up $3,000 for Titanic to play their man at Ridglea Country Club.
     Legend says that there wasn't a legitimate craps game or poker game to be found when the masters teed off that day. Every known gambler and hustler in Dallas-Fort Worth made the pilgrimage to Ridglea, where the side bets flew. It is said that master gambler Johnny Moss, who one day would win three no-limit Texas hold-em world championships in Las Vegas, actually took a leave of absence from a poker game in Oklahoma to watch the match.
     According to Titanic lore, he beat Byron Nelson straight up by one stroke that day.
     The 89-year-old Nelson's recollection is slightly different. Nelson says the gentlemen from Fort Worth agreed to give Titanic a three-stroke handicap for making the drive to Fort Worth.
     According to Nelson, he shot a 69 while Titanic, whose cardinal rule was never shoot better than needed to win a bet, shot a 71.
     Nelson's backers paid him $100 for his efforts. That's $2,900 less than they had to pay Titanic.
     Nelson says he never would have given Titanic stokes. "I knew Titanic was a good player. He was very straight, had a great short game and was a wonderful putter. I'm not sure how he would have done playing on the tour, but he always knew the percentages and what he had to do to win."
     Like the hustle just outside of Chicago, when Titanic won $1,000 betting he could drive a golf ball 500 yards. He collected after teeing off on a frozen lake and watching the bouncing ball ultimately slip-slide out of sight.
     Titanic religiously liked to lose the front nine at Tenison by one stroke while playing right-handed. He'd then demand to up the ante considerably for the remaining holes. To put his patsy at ease, he'd volunteer to play left-handed, never pointing out that he was a natural southpaw.
     Titanic loved to barnstorm around the country, stinging rubes with the aid of partners.
     Titanic would hit a town, lose playing right-handed and cajole a rematch for bigger stakes. To show his good faith, he would take his caddie as a partner while allowing his opponent to play with the club pro.
     In those days, the likes of Bob Hamilton and Herman Keiser often caddied for Titanic. Golf aficionados might remember that Hamilton graduated from playing with Titanic to win the 1944 PGA Championship over Byron Nelson in match play. Keiser shot 282 at the 1946 Masters to win by one stroke over Ben Hogan.
     In later years, Titanic hooked up with a golf-playing caddie he met at Tenison and employed a similar routine.
     The aging Titanic and Lee Elder, who would become the first black golfer to play in the Masters and the winner of four PGA Tour events, preyed on those who should have known better. But the patsies failed to see beyond Titanic's age and Elder's skin, mistaking both for an inability to play golf.
 

Tommy Thomas, the 57-year-old son of Titanic Thompson, sits in the backyard of his Bedford home with his dog Jake.  Thomas, who also was a professional gambler, gave up that life to become a minister.
Like father, like son
     Titanic Thompson did something he had never done before the day in 1964 his son pulled up in the Jaguar.
     Previously untapped paternal instinct nudged Titanic to give Tommy Thomas back his poker losses. The father then took the son skeet shooting and won back the cash again. One more time, he handed back the money.
     When they got together over the next few years, the father became his son's mentor.
     Titanic refined Tommy's poker mechanics, showing him almost everything he knew about reading opponents and cheating at cards. The son inherited his father's big hands that allowed him to palm cards with the very best. Titanic relied on his connections to include Tommy in games around the country. Tommy always sent his father a percentage of his winnings.
     Like his father before him, Tommy joined country clubs from coast to coast, using numerous aliases to get into high-dollar poker games. He became a top player on the European circuit.
     Tommy learned the art of implanting a miniature mirror under the fingernail of his index finger to allow him to see the cards he was dealing.
     Today, at age 57, Tommy Thomas says he no longer gambles. After a religious experience six years ago, he became a born-again Christian. He runs a prison ministry based in Tarrant County and preaches, among other things, against the evils of gambling - from card playing to state lotteries.
     He says his skills have eroded, but Tommy Thomas can still pick up a deck of cards and deal whatever hands he pleases.
     Tommy Thomas was still hustling when a nursing home became the safest haven for Titanic Thompson. Tommy was a regular visitor between trips around the country to play poker. Always, father and son spent hours playing pitch, the card game Titanic played best of all.
     During one game in the spring of 1974, Tommy admitted to his father that he was cheating him.
     "That's impossible," Titanic replied. "No one cheats me without me knowing it."
     "What if I can prove it?" the son asked.
     "You can't," Titanic said.
     And then Tommy Thomas showed his old man how he was indeed cheating him.
     "Son," Titanic told Tommy, "I'm going to die here soon."
     He then beckoned the boy to come closer. The old man put his arms around his 30-year-old son.
     "I love you," Titanic finally said.
     The next day, Tommy flew off to Cincinnati to play in yet another high stakes poker game. While he was gone, Titanic suffered the stroke that killed him.
     "His whole life, Titanic got up every morning looking for action," says Tommy Thomas. "The money was just the way of keeping score. He lived for that action until the day he died."

The headstone of Titanic Thompson, who is buried in Bluebonnet Hills memorial Park in Colleyville, TX.  Thompson died of a stroke in a Euless nursing home.

The Dallas Morning News - August 26, 2001

 

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