Gamblers and other liars have told stories about Titanic Thompson for decades. As a sportswriter spending some late nights with pro golfers and poker players, I heard them all — how the legendary hustler escaped the sinking Titanic by sneaking onto a lifeboat dressed as a woman. How he threw a peanut over a three-story building, pulled Al Capone’s pants down, conned Houdini, beat Ben Hogan playing golf right-handed and then turned around and beat Byron Nelson left-handed.
I kept waiting for the movie. It seemed there had to be a movie—maybe with Clint Eastwood as the tall, flinty-eyed Titanic, a shadowy figure who crossed paths with some of the most famous men of the 20th century.
By 2008 there was still no movie, and I was between books, so I decided to see if I could separate the legends from the truth. In a year of following his tracks, from his birth in a log cabin in Arkansas in 1892 to his death in Texas 82 years later, I turned up the facts behind the tallest Titanic tales.
—Kevin Cook discusses Titanic Thompson and his new book at the Powell’s Books blog
At age 77, Titanic co-hosted the first World Series of Poker. Here, WSOP inventor Benny Binion has his left hand on Ti’s shoulder.
Minnesota Fats and Hubert “Daddy Warbucks” Cokes
The U.K. edition of Titanic Thompson. Find out more on picador.com
Who was Titanic Thompson?
Legendary gambler Alvin “Titanic” Thompson (1892-1974) traveled with his golf clubs, a .45 revolver and a suitcase full of cash. He won and lost millions playing cards, dice, golf, pool and dangerous games of his own invention. He also killed five men. “But they’d all tell you they had it coming,” he said. He married five women, each one a teenager on her wedding day.
Titanic ruled New York’s underground craps games in the 1920s—he was the model for Sky Masterson, the gambler-hero of Guys and Dolls. He traded card tricks with Houdini, conned Al Capone, hustled golf with Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Lee Trevino. He lost a million playing pool with Minnesota Fats, then teamed up with Fats and won it all back.
As dramatic as a blockbuster movie, full of amazing true stories and tips every bettor should heed, Titanic Thompson is an epic story from award-winning author Kevin Cook—the rags-to-riches life of the greatest gambler who ever lived.
Arnold “the Brain” Rothstein, the crime boss who fixed the 1919 “Black Sox” World Series—and fell afoul of Titanic nine years later.