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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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