The King of Hustlers

In the annals of gambling history, the name Titanic Thompson is one treated with reverence and awe. This almost mythical figure became a legend in his own time for his ability to perform seemingly superhuman feats to win outrageous bets, from driving golf balls 500 yards to hurling lemons clear over 5 story buildings. Along with being a well-known gambler. Thompson was also a highly-skilled pool player and golfer, to the point that given his propensity to beat some of the best in the world at golf, someone once suggested he go pro. A suggestion Thompson dismissed, because he couldn’t afford the pay cut.

The man who would eventually become the legendary Titanic Thompson was born with the decidedly less memorable name Alvin Clarence Thomas in rural Missouri (some sources say Arkansas as he lived on the border of the two states) in 1893 (give or take, there is some dispute about his precise birthday) . Growing up in a small cabin in Arkansas, Thomas rarely attended school and spent little time at home, instead spending much of his youth throwing coins and playing cards with other kids, becoming frighteningly adept at both. Even at a young age, he apparently quickly developed an eye for making bets, with one of his first hustles being to swindle a fisherman out of his prized pole.

The story goes that at the tender age of 11 Thomas bet a local angler that his dog was smart enough to recognise and fetch a random rock thrown into a nearby river. The fisherman, intrigued, took Thomas up on his bet and they agreed to draw a large X on the otherwise common looking rock to ensure the dog brought the correct one. The angler then stood dumbstruck as Thomas threw the rock into the river several times, with his pet pooch being able to somehow sniff it out and fetch it back every single time. As per the terms of their bet, the angler handed over his fishing rod and left in a foul mood. Thomas then took the rod and sold it to a local store for a tidy profit. So how did he do it?

Well unbeknownst to the fisherman, Thomas had spent the entire evening prior drawing large X’s on hundreds of similar looking rocks and throwing them into the water approximately around the same spot. Such shenanigans would become a hallmark of Thomas’ later bets, though he didn’t need to rely entirely on such underhanded tactics to win much of the time. Growing up in the rural backwoods of Arkansas, Thomas had countless hours to practise random skills that would become invaluable to him in later life such as throwing horseshoes, shooting targets and skimming stones, all of which gave him a near unparalleled ability to throw objects with pin-point accuracy over large distances. Thomas also dealt himself thousands of poker and blackjack hands and became adept at intuiting the probability of certain hands, and for good measure, taught himself to deal cards from the bottom of the deck for no particular reason…

Skills and moral flexibility in hand, Thomas reportedly left home at age 16, telling his mother he was going to find his father (a gambler himself) who’d skipped out on them a few years earlier, leaving them destitute. Despite being unable to read or write properly, Thomas’ mother was confident in her son’s future and wished him well, only asking him to promise to never drink or smoke- a promise he kept, being a teetotaler until the day he died.

From that point on, Thomas worked a number of odd jobs throughout the American South, ironically given his lack of formal education even selling encyclopedias door-to-door. The most lucrative part of these jobs was not so much the direct money he earned from them, but getting more or less paid to travel and meet people.

As for paying for hotels, it is noted that, a lover of the finer things in life, Thompson often scored himself free nights in the finest hotels by betting he could throw the key to his room into the room’s accompanying pigeonhole, offering to pay double if he missed. Thanks to his excellent hand-eye coordination and throwing abilities, Thompson apparently generally did not have to pay for his lodging.

Also while traveling, he naturally took the opportunity to fleece the residents of any town or city he visited as well, using his impressive repertoire of skills, along with a fair amount of trickery when the situation warranted. It’s also noted that Thomas would announce his arrival to every town he visited by walking into the first saloon he found and loudly asking “Does anyone know of a gambler named Lee Thomas?” in the hopes of finding his father.

On this one, we should point out that Thomas actually did get to randomly meet his estranged father in 1910 in Oil City, finding him dealing cards in the corner of a smokey bar. Thomas then proceeded to win $3600 (about $92,000 today) from his father, before announcing himself as his son, handing the money back and telling the old man he never had a chance. Thomas never saw his father again after this encounter.

After this, Thomas once again hit the road, honing his craft before being called up for military service in 1918. Already a crackshot from his youth firing endless rounds at targets (Thomas could reportedly fire a shot through a silver dollar at a remarkable distance and often displayed this skill to win bets), he was ultimately promoted to the rank of sergeant and was tasked with training recruits in marksmanship. A few months later when the war ended, he was discharged and decided to return home to visit his mother. During the brief visit, Thomas bought his mother a house with cash he reportedly recently won from card games with other soldiers.

While you might think this would put a dent in his net worth, it didn’t in the slightest at the time. In fact, at just 26 years old, Thomas had so much money that before he hit the road again, he had to warn the bank he was going to be making a rather large withdrawal because he had more money in his account than they usually kept on hand.

After extracting the funds, Thomas once again hit the road, becoming a legend among gamblers for his impossible apparent luck, skill, and sheer bravado.

As to some more specific examples, a physically imposing figure, one of Thomas’ favourite bets was that he could throw a random object, usually a small walnut or piece of fruit, over a several story high building.

You, like so many people he won this bet off, might be thinking such a light object could never be thrown that far, and you’d probably be right. Except, Thomas’ trick was to weigh the item down with lead shot beforehand, allowing him to send it sailing over the building in question.

Perhaps the most famous example of this trick was used by Thomas against Al Capone (yes, that Al Capone). After a night of cards with the gangster, Thomas bet him that he could throw a lemon over a 5 story building. Capone, being well aware of Thomas’s tricks, picked a lemon himself from a nearby cart and squeezed all of the juice out of it and bade him use that one. Thomas took the lemon from Capone and ultimately agreed to toss it. He subsequently hurled it into the lower stratosphere, earning him a $500 (about $6500 today) payday from the feared gangland figure. Capone told Thomas in no uncertain terms that the feat had earned his respect, completely unaware that the lemon had been subtly switched by one of Thomas’ associates and the one he actually threw had been filled with some buckshot.

However, Thomas’ real skill was golf, something he became frighteningly adept at while staying in San Francisco in the 1920’s. Hustling being the name of his game, naturally left-handed, Thomas taught himself to play right-handed and was effectively ambidextrous at the sport, and would thus frequently win bets at golf right handed then offer to go double or nothing playing with his supposed bad side, left-handed.

His skill eventually saw him being challenged even by future golf hall of famers, who generally walked away humbled and with a terminal injury to the wallet. Perhaps the most famous golfer to lose to Thomas was Bobby Jones, a man generally agreed to be one of the finest golfers in history.

As a testament to his skill, Thomas would frequently beat his opponents by only one or two strokes, in some cases deliberately handicapping himself, thus making it easier to goad them into another round for money. When this didn’t work, Thomas would sometimes volunteer to physically handicap himself to lure in potential marks, reportedly beating opponents wearing everything from a sling to a blindfold, with perhaps his most brazen example of skill being the time he turned up and won playing in a wheelchair.

On one occasion, as references previously, Thomas was asked why on Earth he hadn’t yet gone pro, to which he infamously replied “I could not afford the cut in pay”.

Though undeniably cocky, Thomas’ statement was fairly accurate. At a time when pro golfers could possibly earn somewhere in the region of $30,000 (about $450,000 today) a year, Thomas could earn that in a month hustling rich golfers.

On this note, along with winning in straight matches, he was a fan of challenging individuals with entirely too much money in their pockets to driving contests. The most famous example of which is the time on one wintry morning that he bet an entire group of golfers $500 each (about $7000 today) he could drive a ball 500 yards (a near impossible feat even by today’s standards).

As soon as the bet was struck, Thomas turned around and drove his ball onto a nearby frozen lake and watched as the ball bounced across it an estimated mile. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Noteworthy in all this was that it was during the height of his golfing career in the 1930’s and 40’s that the papers accidentally misprinted the hustler’s name as “Thompson” in an article about his prowess at the sport. Liking that it gave him a degree of anonymity, Thomas began referring to himself as Thompson from that point on. This name would later become Titanic Thompson after he bet a group of pool players he could leap all the way over the table. After doing just that, one gambler quipped that Thompson should call himself Titanic given how hard he’d sunk them all. The nickname stuck and became the name he’d be known by for the rest of his life.

With money, however, came enemies and throughout his life Thompson had to kill a reported 5 men in self-defence. With these, he shot 4, and killed one with a hammer when the assailant threatened his girlfriend at the time with a knife.

In the case of the first 4 killings, each one was either a known criminal trying to rob Titanic, or a mugger and thus Thompson was allowed to walk free. In the case of the latter, though, Thompson was given a choice- go to jail or hand over the deed to his boat to the state to make the case go away… Thompson chose the latter.

Speaking of murder, Thompson also played a part in the highly publicised murder-case of Arnold Rothstein (the kingpin of the so-called Jewish Mafia) in the late 1920’s, taking part in the fixed card game that prompted the debt that directly resulted in Rothstein’s assassination. At the subsequent trial, Thompson famously answered the question of what he did for a living by stating: “I play a little golf for money.”

Despite his knack for skill-based games and the fact that he made tens of millions of dollars throughout his life, Thompson’s rather high spending lifestyle, penchant for gambling on horse racing with much less success, and with little regard to saving ultimately left him penniless in his final years, when traveling around was no longer quite as feasible. As a result, he lived out his last years in a rest home, though he never let his spark for proposition bets die, and could reportedly be found at a local mini-golf courses hustling people over 2 dollar games well into his 70’s.

Nobody can live forever, however, and Thompson died in 1974 at the age of around 80. According to local legend, upon hearing the news, some old pros at a nearby golf club are said to have had the following exchange with their caddy:

“You ever know Titanic Thompson, boy?”

“Can’t say that I did sir.”

“But you say he’s dead?”

“That’s what I heard.”

“Well son, likely he is dead. But take my advice and don’t go betting any money on it.”

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