Titanic Thompson: America's Most Famous Gambler, Part I
Monday, 2 April 2012
By Johnny Hughes
Titanic Thompson, aka Alvin C. Thomas (1892-1974), grew up in rural Arkansas in a gambling family. As a child he pitched pennies at the line, hunted small game with his .22 rifle, threw rocks at targets, hunted birds by throwing rocks and played poker, dominoes and checkers.
He invented his own proposition bet, where he threw pennies into a small box. As he would his whole life, Titanic spent hours practicing and always looking for a gaff, a gimmick, or a way to cheat.
He’d practice long hours cheating with a pair of dice or a deck of cards. He could do the standard mechanic’s moves, but it was his supernatural vision that made him millions at poker and golf; millions he lost on the horses and baseball bets to bookmakers.
With the sharpened nail on his little finger, Titanic could make marks, dents and crimps on paper playing cards that only he could see with those amazing eyes. He could bend the cards where the slight wave would catch a glint of light. Titanic was able to play in the largest poker games all over the country and mark the old paper playing cards during the game against some top gamblers who were very alert to cheating and the standard mechanic's moves.
Titanic left home at age 16 to haunt the pool halls, domino games, bowling alleys, dice games and poker games. He learned to cheat at dice. He'd start with the aces or sixes, or any combination of those touching, give a few false shakes that made a sound, and then roll stiff-wristed, straight down the table to avoid craps. If you were accurate twice in a hundred times you had way the best of it. Titanic made most of his money from dice and poker before he took up golf, and he made millions. He was cheating top gamblers.
As a teen, Titanic got a job as a trick shot artist with a travelling medicine show, which helped him learn the con. He won $2,000 and a small river boat shooting dice but killed a man in a fight on board in self-defence. Within a few short years, Titanic had made a huge fortune. He'd travel in a huge, nickel-plated Pierce-Arrow automobile with the tools of his trade in the trunk: right and left-handed golf clubs, a pool cue, a bowling ball and horseshoes. He was ambidextrous, and had many proposition bets to make all through any game. After winning at many changing props, he'd offer to bowl, play golf, shoot targets or shoot pool left-handed. He was a natural lefty.
Titanic wore loose custom-tailored suits, made to partially conceal the .45 pistol he carried in a shoulder holster. There have been three poker robberies here in Lubbock Texas recently, and gamblers are carrying guns inside gambling joints as they did back in Ty's day. Titanic hired a bodyguard to drive and carry an extra gun for 10 per cent of his winnings. When a dice game owner set Ty up for a robbery, he killed two more men, shooting the masked and armed robbers, even though he had a bodyguard. Later, an alarm bell at a poker game alerted them. Ty turned over the poker table to use as a shield. He and his bodyguard each shot a robber dead.
In 1932, in Tyler, Texas, Titanic killed his last man. When a man in a ski mask pointed a gun at him, Ty dropped to one knee, presenting a smaller target, and shot him twice. It turned out to be his 16-year-old caddy. The caddy lived long enough to tell the police he was a robber in his spare time. Unlike the first four men he had killed, Titanic felt deep remorse over the death of the young caddy, but the fact that he had killed five men made Titanic most fearsome around the gambling halls of America.
In Missouri, he trapped two of the biggest gamblers on a proposition bet by moving a road sign that said “20 Miles to Joplin” five miles closer to town, and betting the sign was wrong. These propositions became tales shared by gamblers, who love to swap stories, and Ty became famous.
Ty married five women, all teenagers at the time of the marriage, so the age gap between him and his wife kept getting bigger. The gamblers and the women could tell you that Titanic Thompson's dark eyes could be gullible, child-like, confused, bemused, charming, magnetic, penetrating, predatory, all-knowing and scary when need be.
In the early twenties, Titanic went to Chicago where he met Nicholas "Nick the Greek" Dandalos, America's most famous gambler at the time. He asked the Greek to flip a coin for $15,000 at the first meeting. He sent his two-headed quarter into the air and grabbed it when the Greek called heads. Later, he tried to bet Nick Greek on the weight of a large rock they saw when out driving. The Greek pointed out that this rock looked very different to all the others and Titanic admitted he had pre-weighed it.
Al Capone was the absolute mob boss of Chicago and a big admirer of Nick the Greek. This was in prohibition when the mobsters had tons of money. Capone got Nick the Greek and Titanic in some large poker games and they played partners. It was in these games that Titanic announced he could drive a golf ball five-hundred yards, when he “felt like it”. After one poker game, Titanic bet Al Capone $500 he could throw an orange over a tall building. He palmed the orange and threw a lemon filled with lead bird shot. This was one of Titanic's regular propositions. When winter came, Titanic took the gamblers out to a golf course next to frozen Lake Michigan when “he felt like” driving a golf ball 500 yards. He turned toward the lake and sent his golf ball flying unto the ice. Reportedly, he won $50,000. With Titanic, the myths, legends, and stories may or not be precisely true.
Nick the Greek and Titanic went to the lucrative poker games in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. As partners, they made a fortune. It was here Ty took up golf, and very quickly he was terrific at it. He won $56,000 his first day gambling at golf. The Greek could get them into the poker games, and Ty's eyes would beat them. However, Titanic lost millions on horses and sports bets. He followed the horses that followed the horses.
In Tijuana, Mexico, Titanic attempted to fix a six-horse race. He bribed five of the jockeys, but one refused to go along. Titanic told him he had a man in the grandstands with a high-powered rifle and a scope. He would shoot any jockey whose horse got in front of Nellie. With Nellie nearing the finish line with a comfortable lead, she fell and broke her leg. That cost Titanic $1.5 million and broke him. He had bet with bookies around the country. Nick the Greek sent a fresh bankroll, and Titanic was playing poker that night. He bragged he never stayed broke over six hours.
Titanic would sit in a hotel lobby kicking his house shoe up into the air and catching it on his foot. He had some props! He could throw the hotel keys into the lock, and Doyle Brunson swears he saw him do it. He would bet on how many cards he could throw into a hat at 20 paces. Of course, he could always throw what he needed to win a bet, right or left-handed. Titanic would set the horseshoes stakes 41 feet apart, when regulation was 40 feet. The longer distance would fool champions at horseshoes. When future legendary gambler, Hubert Cokes was 14-years-old, he assisted Titanic by hiding in a hotel room next to his. Titanic would bet he could throw cards under the hotel room door and have them bounce into a hat. Hubert was hiding in the closet to place the cards in the hat. These two became lifelong friends.
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.