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Men of Action: Titanic Thompson

Master Card Sharp and Godfather of the Hustler’s Hall of Fame

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: Dec 01, 2013


Titanic ThompsonAs far as a pure American character, it’s hard to beat Titanic Thompson, who won and lost more than $10 million during his long life as a top-notch gambler, confidence man and hustler.

While our grandfathers used wrenches, welding torches and hammers in their jobs, Thompson’s tools were much different: Both right and left handed golf clubs, throwing rocks, a bowling ball, a pool cue, horseshoes, a shotgun, target pistols, decks of cards and cash. Lots of cash.

Born Alvin Clarence Thomas dirt poor in the Ozarks in 1892, Thompson used his wits, athletic ability, guts and guile to become one of the biggest players during the 20s and 30s. His marks included the biggest gangsters of the time, including Al Capone, as well as some of the best golfers who ever lived. He took Thompson after a newspaper misprint. Titanic was given to him by a man who lost a bet to him.

In the days when poker was a game people played at their own risk, Thompson was one of the best. He could mark and set a deck in seconds and had more ways to cheat a game than a politician has to ask for money.

Although Thompson never played in a World Series of Poker event, he was the co-host along with actor Chill Willis, at the first one. They used to give trophies to the players back then. Thompson’s read World Series of Poker — Living Legend — “Titanic.” He was 78 at the time.

An amazing slight-of-hand artist, he learned some of his skills from Houdini himself. Golf, pool and poker, he taught himself. He was naturally ambidextrous, a master of psychology and completely numb when it came to betting stratospheric amounts, and he used all components to travel the country, rubbing elbows with some of the biggest stars at the time, and taking things from them.

In five occasions – six if the murder of gangster Al Rothstein is counted – he took lives. Four of the men he killed were considered self-defense, but details surrounding the death of the first man are a little murky. Officially ruled a drowning, the man died after being bashed in the head by Thompson, who then threw him off the boat they were on. Thompson blamed the man, said he pulled a knife and it was his fault he couldn’t swim.

Rothstein was killed during a poker game in which Thompson helped fix. Rothstein was down to a tune of $500,000, when things turned ugly and Rothstein ended up shot full of holes, refusing to name the trigger man. Thompson wasn’t there when the bullets flew, but that didn’t stop the press from putting the heat on him. It made him famous. The murder cost him $12,500 he lost in a civil suit against the Rothstein estate.

He’s won and lost more than that many times just swinging a golf club.

Golf Murderer

Thompson used to hang around golf courses and try to drum up suckers by starting the betting low, say a $1 a hole. Before the round was over, the stakes would double and triple to as high as Thompson could get them. An article published in the Milwaukee Journal in 1935 gives a glimpse into how Thompson would operate. In this case, Thompson ended up the loser.

The article starts: “Titantic Thompson tried to put over some crooked work on the golf course waiting for the Rothstein case to blow over. The Broadway gambler, whose real name was Alvin Thomas, offered $5,000 and the split of the profits to two good local amateurs if they would let him beat them. He had a sucker on the string for $50,000.”

The article goes on to tell the story of Thompson running into a guy named Max Shimon, who was Milwaukee’s Brynwood’s golf course “top hand for many seasons.”

Shimon shows up for his Sunday match only to find Thompson near the first tee. Thompson asks if he could play along with him, and immediately a $1 a hole bet is established.
“At the eighteenth tee the stranger (Thompson) was $25 down, due to some doubling on various holes.

‘Shoot the last hole for $50,’ he suggested. Max demurred.

‘No guts, eh?’ sneered his opponent; so Shimon shot for $50.

Titantic – that’s who it was – sank a 25-yard approach for a 3 and won.”

But Thompson wasn’t done with Max. Seeing he had a player, he found Shimon again the next week.

‘Let’s make it $100 a hole,’” said the gambler. ‘Or haven’t you the guts?’

‘I can take you anywhere for any amount,’ answered Max. ‘I’ve only got $300 with me but I’ll shoot that. When it’s gone I’ll quit.’

Thompson pulled out a roll and spread 21 $1,000 bills. ‘I’ll shoot till the 21 grand is gone,’ he said.”

Shimon won $1,100 that day. Thompson found him a week later, and Shimon again took $1,200 off Thompson. Thompson then offered to shoot him for one hole for $18,000, the rest of his roll. When Shimon said no, Thompson offered $1,000 to $500 at the toss of a coin. The golfer said no and walked away, which is probably the best thing a man could do when dealing with Thompson.

This was especially true on the golf course. If Shimon stuck around, he would have most likely ended up broke. Amateurs were only good for a certain amount of money. The real money was to be won from the professionals.

Thompson would win and lose more in one day on the golf course than the top professional golfers at the time would win in a year. He said this was the reason he never went pro.
From the fantastic Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything by former Sports Illustrated editor Kevin Cook:

He was America’s original proposition gambler, always on the move, one step ahead of his prey and the law — and he did some of his best work from tee to green. He hustled country-club golfers for $20,000 a hole while elite pros like Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson were earning $10,000 a year. He once drove a ball more than 500 yards. “The best shot maker I ever saw,” Hogan said. “Right- or left-handed, you can’t beat him.”

This leads to perhaps the most salient point about Thompson and his space he occupies in the non-existent Hustler’s Hall of Fame. He was so good he could’ve lived a very nice life as a straight man, but his personality wouldn’t allow it. He always had to figure out ways to make life more difficult for the men he tried to fillet, many of which were friends.

Again, an excerpt from Cook’s book:

He seldom trusted skill alone. The great poker player Johnny Moss, who hustled golf on the side, once bet a man $5,000 that he could shoot 45 or better for nine holes using only a 4-iron. Titanic appeared out of nowhere and bet $3,000 against Moss. “They didn’t know it, but I’d practiced for days with that 4-iron,” Moss remembered. “I’d even given the green keeper a hundred to keep the cups where I liked them.”

On the first hole Moss missed a three-foot putt. The same thing happened on the next hole — his ball was heading for the cup when it veered off. Moss realized that someone had tampered with the cups. (It was easy, Ti admitted later: “You just reach a pocket knife under the rim of the steel cup-liner and lift it a little.”) So Moss sent a friend to the third green to step on the hole and push the liner back down. “Ti’s conniver is on the fourth green raising ‘em up and my man’s on the third stomping ’em back down,” Moss said. "It went on like that for a hole or two, till Titanic stepped out of the crowd.

I said, ‘So it was you?’ Ti just grinned. I told him I’d call off my man if he called off his. I shot 41 and took all the bets."

He was also known to magnetize the metal golf cups and win bets by using a golf ball with a steel center.

Here’s some more examples of Thompson’s schemes:

Bet a peanut vendor he could throw a peanut across Times Square. Took peanut from the cart, palmed it, and threw a shell weighted with buckshot against the Astor Hotel. He did the same thing over and over with lemons, supposedly once winning $500 off of Al Capone.

He bet people he could drive 500 yards. Once the suckers were lined up, he drove to Lake Michigan, frozen in the winter, and crushed one across the ice.

He would move signs spelling out millage to the next town, then coolly say something like “it won’t be long now, about five minutes,” setting up his driving companion like bowling pins.

He was an expert with the pistols and rifles he kept in the truck of his car and was crack shot. He often won bets by shooting a silver dollar a consecutive number of times from yards away.


He’d bet people he could shoot a silver dollar out of the air with a .38. Once he got the bets, he’d palm the silver dollar he just showed everyone and toss into the air one with a hole through it.

He was a switch-golfer. He could play as well both right and left handed and would sandbag millionaires to increase the round wagers. Finally “squeaking” out a match win, he’d offer his sucker double or nothing while playing the opposite hand he’s played the first few matches.

He did the same thing in pool.

He wasn’t above pretending he was drunk.

His eyesight was supposedly a major advantage. He’d minutely bend, crease, and scrape cards and was able to see his marked cards from across the table. His sleight of hand skills were terrific, and he could mark a deck within minutes. It would be a bad idea to let him deal.

Thompson died May 19, 1974, at the age of 82, in Texas. His long life included undressing movie stars and sinking puts for thousands of dollars. He was limited only by his imagination and the physical world.

As a poker player, he’s maybe the most glaring omission for the Poker Hall of Fame. Maybe the purest hustler to ever live, it’s an honor he no doubt deserves.