Titanic Thompson: America's Most Famous Gambler, Part 2 of 3

Titanic Thompson: America's Most Famous Gambler, Part 2 of 3

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

By Johnny Hughes

Titanic, Nick the Greek, and Hubert “Daddy Warbucks” Cokes were all in New York at the end of the 1920s, a golden time. Titanic and Cokes were backing a teenage New York Fats, later to become Minnesota Fats after the movie The Hustler came out in 1961. Cokes was called Daddy Warbucks after the character in Little Orphan Annie. He was tall, bald, very rich and had an ever-present cigar.

They taught Minnesota Fats "the conversation" and he became world class at it. The challenge, the proposition, the negotiation, the bragging, the con, the spots. They'd make the sucker really want to beat them and think he could. At pool and later golf, they'd go after the best pool player in any town and hope he had the biggest gambler to back him. Ty would win a series of bets. First he'd get a spot and win by one stroke, then play even, then give spots, bet on several trick shots, and play left-handed or one-handed.

Tommy Thomas, Titanic's son, wrote me this:

Hubert Cokes was my godfather and I spent time with him when I was growing up and knew him very well ... He was not a capable card man like Ty but used some of the gaffs. I still have a leather cup he gave me where you twist the bottom and the dice are switched. Used it playing backgammon, another cup just like it that was straight for your opponent ... I would go down to the Elks in Evansville and watch Hubert play one-pocket for hours. He would always get on Ty's case just like Ty would do when we were talking about him. Ty said Hubert was the most dangerous smart man he ever knew. He would carry two .45 pistols and walk into any pool hall and challenge anyone to a game of one pocket or a fist fight for any amount of money.

Over the years when I would call Hubert he would let me know he was following my career as a gambler and always seemed to know when I took off a big score. He did not teach me about cards but did teach me about life.

Hubert told me a story about Ty you might like. He said they were in Kansas City and he bankrolled Ty to go to Evansville … where they were playing poker for high stakes because of all the oil money. Hubert had not heard from Ty for weeks and thought he would call him to see if he was winning any money. He talked to Ty and he told him things were so bad everyone was soaking watches just to get by. Hubert knew Ty well enough he caught the next train to Evansville. He walked into the poker game and saw that Ty was winning thousands of dollars. They both took their winnings and bought up oil leases and became wealthy in the oil business. Cokes kept his, Ty ended giving my mother all producing income and half of all mineral deeds when they divorced. That was about ten grand a month for Mom in the forties.

Ty and Hubert were always going to kill each other but really were good friends. The last serious beef they had was in the McCurdy Hotel. Ty was so angry at Hubert he waited in the hotel lobby for him to come down the elevator and was going to shoot him. Cokes figured Ty would be waiting for him and came down through the kitchen and walked up behind Ty and said, "Slim, are you ready to go to the golf course?" After that they managed to get along.

In New York Titanic was courting the biggest mob boss and gambler, Arnold Rothstein. The two became close friends. Damon Runyon, one of America's most famous writers was also there, hearing all the Titanic Thompson stories. His character, Sky Masterson, patterned on Titanic, was in a short story that became the hit play and movie Guys and Dolls. Arnold Rothstein was the model for the Nathan Detroit character. Like Ty, Sky was a fabulous dresser, very handsome, a lady’s man, and a huge proposition bettor to whom the sky was the limit. Marlon Brando played Sky in the movie, while Frank Sinatra played Nathan Detroit.

Titanic once won a bet with Rothstein throwing a heavy peanut across Times Square. He had packed the peanut with birdshot, lead. He did this with walnuts, pecans, oranges, lemons, and he was always ready. He won a bet on license plate poker when the car he had pre-arranged had 333 and drove by when Ty doffed his fedora. Ty hired an ex-math professor to teach him the odds on many dice, poker, and prop bets. He won a bet from Rothstein betting two of the next thirty people to walk by would have the same birthday. Ty learned a great many props from the professor. At any game, Titanic kept up a steady stream of challenges that he could keep in his head, but made other gamblers dizzy.

On a train ride to the track the gamblers bet on how many white horses they would see. The next day, Rothstein had hired a man to plant extra white horses. Ty had hired a man to plant even more. Ty won the bet by guessing a number higher than Rothstein’s and then admitting what he had done.

Ty finally got Rothstein in a three-day poker game where everyone was cheating Rothstein, especially Nate Raymond, Ty, and Joe Bernstein, now in the Poker Hall of Fame. Rothstein lost $500,000 and was very slow to pay. The houseman for the game, George “Hump” McManus killed him. The publicity for McManus' murder trial made Titanic Thompson a nationally-known name. The public saw newspaper pictures of a rail-thin, 6'2" movie-star-looking, handsome, tall man, with thick, jet-black hair. Ty was immaculately dressed in expensive clothes, with big sparkling diamonds on several fingers. While testifying, Ty was asked if poker is a game of chance. “Not the way I play it,” Ty said.

The stock market crash sent Titanic roaming all over America in the 1930s, often with Hubert Cokes or Minnesota Fats. He came here, to Lubbock, Texas, from the 1930s until the early 1960s. Johnny Moss was living here in 1938, when Ty offered a proposition that Johnny could not shoot a 46 with only a four iron on nine holes at Meadowbrook, our local golf course. Moss had his four iron welded down into a two iron, but he couldn't sink putts because Titanic had paid a man to raise the lips on each cup. Moss snapped and had a man go around and tap them back down. Moss had his whole bankroll bet, $8300, and won.

At draw poker Ty's prop was that Moss did all the dealing, but Ty could cut anytime. He had the aces crimped and could cut to one as needed. In his biography, Moss said he won all his money back and a Cadillac after he figured it out.

When Ty returned to Meadowbrook when he was older, he'd have a top golfer as a partner or do prop bets of throwing half dollars into a cup, or pitching golf balls into a shot glass. He’d bet he could make two balls in three strokes from 25 feet. He'd hit both balls at the same time on the first stroke. At other golf courses, he'd bet he could chip into a row boat or bet he could shoot flying birds out of the air with his pistol. Like his peanuts, the pistol was loaded with bird shot.

I caddied at Meadowbrook as a teenager in the early fifties. Sometimes, on a full moon, called a Comanche Moon in Texas, the gamblers played by moonlight. Once, a rich-looking, tall man hired me to retrieve golf balls while he was trying to teach a Doberman Pinscher to catch balls he had lofted high into the air. The dog was trying, but would usually drop the golf ball. This guy would hit a hard, low line drive and hit the dog in the side. When I told people about this, they said it had to be Titanic Thompson, but I'll never know.

Johnny Hughes, is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom which is now available on Amazon Kindle for $3.99. His new book, Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories, will be published shortly.

Tags: Titanic Thompson, Johnny Hughes, Road Gambler, columnist