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About Titanic Thompson
Alvin Clarence Thomas (1892–1974) was an American gambler, golfer and hustler better known as Titanic Thompson. He traveled the country wagering at cards, dice games, golf, horseshoes and "proposition bets" of his own devising. As an ambidextrous golfer, card player, marksman and pool shark, his skills and reputation were compared to “Merlin himself.” Writer Damon Runyon allegedly based the character Sky Masterson, the gambler-hero of "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" (on which the musical “Guys and Dolls" is based), on Thompson. In 1928, Thompson was involved in a high-stakes poker game that led to the shooting death of New York City crime boss Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, then called the “crime of the century.” The following year he testified in the trial of George McManus, who was charged with Rothstein’s murder.
Life of a hustler
Thomas, born in Missouri but raised in Rogers, Arkansas after his mother re-married, began conducting his nomadic, lucrative career of hustling in the rural United States in the early 1900s. Later, when he had honed his skills, he became a “road gambler,” a traveling hustler who became an underground legend by winning at all manner of propositions. His partners in “the hustling game” allegedly included pool player Minnesota Fats, who considered Titanic a genius, “the greatest action man of all time.”
Blessed with extraordinary eyesight and hand-eye coordination, he was a skilled athlete, crack shot and a self-taught golfer good enough to turn professional. In an era when the top pro golfers would be fortunate to make $30,000 a year, Thomas (who after a misprint in a New York newspaper conveniently let people think his name was Thompson) could make that much in a week hustling rich country club players who thought they knew how to play golf. Asked if he would ever turn professional, he replied, “I could not afford the cut in pay.” Hall of Fame golfer Ben Hogan called Titanic the best shotmaker he ever saw. “He can play right- or left-handed, you can’t beat him,” said Hogan. One hustle of his was to beat a golfer playing right-handed, and then offer double or nothing to play the course again left-handed as an apparent concession. One thing his opponent usually did not know was that Thomas was, in fact, naturally left-handed. Thomas's genius was in figuring out the odds on almost any proposition and heavily betting that way. He also had to perform under pressure, and most often did.
Killed Five Men
In his life Thompson killed five men. The first was in 1910 when a man called Jim Johnson accused him of cheating at dice, and threw him off the boat on which they were traveling (and which Thompson had recently won when gambling with its previous owner - a friend of Johnson's). When Thompson climbed back on board, Johnson drew a knife and threatened Thompson's girlfriend, who was also on board. Thompson seized a hammer and struck Johnson several times on the head before throwing him overboard. The unconscious Johnson drowned. Thompson showed no remorse, stating that it was Johnson's fault for not being able to swim. The sheriff gave Thompson the choice of standing trial, or handing over the deeds to the boat and leaving town. The other four men Thompson killed were shot by him in self-defense when they tried to rob him of gambling winnings. Two were killed in one incident in St. Louis in 1919 (the local police chief thanked him for killing two wanted bank robbers). The fourth came in St. Joseph, Missouri where Thompson and his hired bodyguard between them shot two men attempting to rob a poker game (again, the victims were known criminals and no charges were pressed). Thompson's last victim came at a country club in Texas in 1932 when he shot a masked figure who was holding him at gunpoint. This turned out to be sixteen-year-old Jimmy Frederick, who had caddied for Thompson earlier that day. The dying Frederick confirmed to witnesses that he had been trying to rob Thompson.
Murder of Arnold Rothstein
On November 4, 1928, Arnold Rothstein was murdered, allegedly because he refused to pay his debts from a poker game he believed to have been fixed. This game had been organised by George McManus who stood trial for the murder but was acquitted. Thompson had been present at the game; and it was he who, in association with one Nate Raymond, allegedly fixed the game, leaving Rothstein with total debts estimated at $500,000. Thompson - who was not present at the shooting - gave evidence at McManus' trial, without revealing his own role in the poker game.
Origin of the nickname
In his own story, published in Sports Illustrated in 1972, Alvin Thomas said:
“ In the spring of 1912 I went to Joplin, Missouri, just about the time the [Titanic] liner hit an iceberg and sank with more than 1,500 people on board. I was in a pool room there [in Joplin] and beat a fellow named Snow Clark out of $500. To give him a chance to get even, I bet $500 I could jump across his pool table without touching it. If you think that’s easy, try it. But I could jump farther than a herd of bullfrogs in those days. I put down an old mattress on the other side of the table. Then I took a run and dived headfirst across the pool table. While I was counting my money, somebody asked Clark what my name was.
'It must be Titanic,' said Clark. 'He sinks everybody'.
So I was Titanic from then on."