The incredible true story of Alvin ‘Titanic’ Thompson
Watching the England cricket team dismantling the unfortunate New Zealanders the other day (and realising that this is a ‘minority’ sport to the majority of the planet), I remembered that back in 2006, the television commentator and former England captain, Mike Atherton, wrote an interesting non-fiction book, entitled Gambling: A Story of Triumph and Disaster.
More of Mike’s book later, as this in turn reminded me of the most incredible gambling story I have ever read, Kevin Cook’s quite brilliant 2010 biography of one Alvin Clarence Thomas (1893-1974), better known to the wider world as Titanic Thompson.
Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything
This is the true story of one of 20th century America’s most charismatic characters. Born in 1892, in a log cabin in the Ozarks, the greatest road gambler of them all left home at 16 and was given his nickname because he was said to “sink everyone” and spent a lifetime travelling the length and breadth of the USA wagering at cards, dice, golf, pool and risky ‘prop’ (proposition) bets of his own creation.
Once such wager, later paid homage by the Don Johnson character in Kevin Costner’s Hollywood hit, Tin Cup, saw our hero bet that he could hit a golf ball 500 yards, using a traditional hickory driver. This was in the days when leading professional players were driving the ball around 200 yards. He won this ‘prop’ bet by waiting until the winter, and taking his shot on a frozen lake, where the ball bounced and bounced way past the 500-yard marker.
Capturing the free-wheeling spirit of 1920s and 30s America, Mr. Cook’s superb biography tells the tale of a true-life road gambler, hitting the road with his golf clubs, a suitcase and a revolver and spending 50 years living by his wits and winning and losing millions of dollars.
The inspiration for Guys & Dolls
“He blew into town like a rogue wind that lifted girls’ skirts and turned gamblers’ pockets inside-out,” says the opening line. “Tall and thin with a bland mask of a face, he had close-set eyes that looked a little dead, at least until he offered you a bet. Then those eyes sparkled, and he smiled like he had good news.”
During his first two decades on the road, Thompson crossed paths with Harry Houdini, Al Capone, Howard Hughes, Minnesota Fats and Jean Harlow, all the time retaining his essential low profile. Author Damon Runyan wanted to write a book about him, but Titanic was having none of it. So Runyan created a character based upon him, Sky Masterson, the gambler-hero of The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, later produced as the musical, Guys & Dolls.
Thompson married five women, each a teenager at the time, and killed five men, with each fatality being ruled as self-defence. He engaged in a high-stakes poker game that led to the shooting to death of New York City crime boss, Arnold Rothstein, infamous for fixing baseball’s 1929 World Series. The following year, Thompson testified at the trial of George McManus, who was later acquitted of Rothstein’s murder.
The very first World Series of Poker
In 1970, at the age of 77, Thompson co-hosted the very first World Series of Poker (WSOP), created by his great friend, Benny Binion. Seven players competed, and the stated goal was to grow the event to 50 entrants. By 2019, pre-pandemic, the WSOP in Las Vegas had expanded to over 100 separate events, with the 8,569 players paying US$10,000 each to contest the Main Event and the winner taking home US$10m.
The unfulfilled golfing great
For all of his living on the edge, trawling speakeasies, gambling dens and pool halls, perhaps Thompson’s greatest skill was as a golfer (either left or right-handed). Driving across frozen lakes aside, he was a dominant force in the game during the pre-professional era. He played alongside and against Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and youngsters Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd, a quartet that went on to win an incredible 179 PGA golf titles and numerous majors between them. Asked at the time whether he would ever consider turning professional, Thompson replied: “I could not afford the cut in pay.”
Hall of Famer, Hogan, who travelled with him playing money games in the early 1930s, later described Titanic Thompson the best shot maker he ever saw.
This article is a mere snapshot of Kevin Cook’s fascinating biography, a book that reads more like an action novel than a factual account. If you have never read it, then you really should. And if you are ever tempted to invest in movie production, or the next blockbuster Netflix or Amazon television series, then this story would surely be a winning gamble!
The greatest value bet of them all
And finally, returning to Mike Atherton’s also excellent book on gambling, the former cricketer recounts the tale of 17th century French mathematician, Blaise Pascal.
Pascal was a prodigy, who laid the foundations for the modern theory of probabilities and, while still a teenager, began pioneering work that saw him later acknowledged as being one of the first inventors of the mechanical calculator.
But Atherton’s recollection concerns what is known as “Pascal’s Wager”, where the mathematician’s proposition concerns how we should bet on the existence or otherwise of God. His conclusion was that the smart gambler would bet on God’s existence. If God does not exist, then the bet is irrelevant. However, if we bet that God does not exist then we risk eternal damnation in the event that we lose, thereby demonstrating that belief in God is the greatest value bet of them all!