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

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

Thursday, 31 May 2012

By Johnny Hughes

In 1939, there was an oil boom in Evansville, Indiana, and the poker game at the McCurdy Hotel had $25,000 pots. Name gamblers playing included Titanic Thompson, Hubert Cokes, Minnesota Fats, and high roller Ray Ryan.

Both Cokes and Ryan got very rich from oil royalties, while Titanic made a lot of money on royalties but gave his mineral interest to his wife when they divorced. Neither Titanic nor Ryan could ever beat Minnesota Fats at one-pocket, however, and they lost a lot of money. In his delightful biography of Titanic, The Man Who Bet on Everything, Kevin Cook said Fats won a million dollars from Titanic playing pool.


It was in Evansville that Titanic made a famous prop bet. He hired a farmer to count the watermelons on his truck and park near the McCurdy Hotel. He got the gamblers on the porch involved in the conversation and bet he could guess very near the exact number of watermelons on the truck. As he did in golf, pool or horseshoes, he only won by one. Just one, as always.

Golf was Titanic's best game and, without cheating, he was one of the very best in the United States. He never entered golf tournaments, saying he could not afford the pay cut, because he played for more on one hole than top pros made in a year. When Nick the Greek got him in the country clubs of California, Ty beat some the well-known golfers. He stayed one of the best for 20 years.

The conversation never stopped. A million props: the math props he’d learned; the eye-hand coordination props he’d practiced hours on end. He'd bring in a “ringer” – a pro such as Ben Hogan, Raymond Floyd or Lee Elder – after he had worked up the bet.

Ty always put grease on the club face to improve distance and control, and when Jack Binion had a professional gambler’s golf tournament, they allowed grease.

Ben Hogan, one of America's greatest golf legends, said Ty was the best shot-maker ever and also the best short game player, and that he could beat anyone right- or left-handed. Ty would join a country club, lose on the small, appear a braggart, and work up a really large bet. It might take weeks.

When Lee Trevino refused his invitation to go on the road, Ty came back to El Paso with Raymond Floyd and he “barely beat” Trevino. This was when Ty was old and had $20,000 on the match.

Next Ty played Byron Nelson, then America’s leading pro, in Dallas in 1933 for some big money, with many people betting on Nelson, while Ty “moved in” to take all bets. The conversation had Ty getting a three-stroke handicap. Nelson shot a 67. You know what Ty shot? Exactly what he needed to win the bet, a 69.

At times he was near the course record, if he got in a jam. His years of throwing and practising hand-to-eye coordination came in handy. He used slices and hooks as he needed them, and put a lot of “English” down when he needed it too; be it in pool, golf or capturing another teenage bride.
Titanic Thompson played partners with some of the most famous golf pros.

He’d try every kind of bet with Lee Elder as his caddy, the first prominent African-American pro golfer. Elder would wear overalls and appear a little slow, then Titanic would offer to take his caddy as partner and play the best two golfers in town, and Ty would play left-handed. To his credit, Titanic made Elder a full partner and gave him an even split of the money.

As Ty became older and more famous, folks would ask if he was Titanic Thompson whenever he laid out a proposition, and gamblers would make small bets against him just to see him do his legendary throwing props. And when plastic cards replaced paper cards, his big poker advantage vanished, while casinos, with their long dice tables, could prevent his control of the dice.

And so, like many of the great gamblers who had a lot of gamble in them – Johnny Moss, Nick the Greek and Minnesota Fats – Ty didn't have much money at the end of his life.

Tommy Thomas, Titanic's son, was born in Evansville in 1944. After Titanic left, Tommy read about him as he grew up and began to practise long hours with a deck of cards. He became a master-cheater, travelling the country, practising hours and hours until he became an even better card mechanic than his father. Ty and I both said so. I caught Tommy cheating in a huge Hold’em game in 1975.

When Tommy and an ageing Titanic were finally reunited, they began to play against each other for the remainder of Ty’s life, and to cheat each other. Ty helped his son get in poker games and sent him back to Evansville to be tutored by Hubert Cokes. I asked Tommy about the end of Ty's life, spent in a nursing home. He wrote me this.

Every week I was in town he would call every day, saying, "What time will you be here?" I rarely missed a day being with my dad. Ty and I loved to gamble with each other, playing heads up poker. Whoever won the other's stack of chips got a hundred dollars.

The only difference was Dad didn't have much money and we played his best game, Pitch. I reminded Dad he had loaned me money to go to Tyler Junior College when we first met, and, after all the years of gambling with each other, I felt like I still owed him $500.

If Dad lost [the game], I would take it off the $500; if he won, I would pay him. We played for $25 a game and he was very sharp and the best player. Make no mistake, Dad and I took no prisoners and would win at any cost. If we could cheat and get away with it, so be it.

I remember our final game and the last time I would see Dad. Over the months, the $500 I owed Dad from college had been reduced to $200. Dad knew he was the best player but couldn't figure out how I was winning. Later that night I would be on my way to Cincinnati to play poker for several weeks and knew Dad would miss me. But there was something different about today.

I knew Ty had the cards on the bed waiting for me. I don't think he knew that, weeks before, I happened to look in the empty card box and saw that he had left two tens in the box. This gave him a big advantage in the game of Pitch. As I walked into the nursing home, he walked up and put his arms around me. He said, "Son, I think I am going to die here." Then he said what I had been waiting my whole life to hear. "Son, I love you." We hugged each other and went to the bed for what would be our final game. While I was gone Ty had two strokes and died.

During that final game we were sitting on the bed and I dealt the cards for both of us. Knowing the advantage he had with the two tens in the box, he said, “Son, something is not right. You should not be winning.”
I said, “Dad, I have been cheating you.”
He said, “Impossible, no way.”
I said, “If I can prove it, can we call the debt I owe you after 12 years all even?

We agreed and, after showing him, we were now even for the first time since he helped me go to college. What a day. Dad said he loved me and the debt was cancelled.

By the way, it’s easier to cheat the greatest gambler in the world when he is in his eighties with failing eye sight. Ty was the best hustler the world has ever known. He would win all your money and turn around and give you the shirt off his back. It was always about winning, not the money.
For the last 16 years I have ministered in the maximum security prisons and know most of the men there have never heard the words that I have come to cherish, "Son, I love you."
Thank you Dad, I love you too... Tommy Thomas

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