Golf’s killer gambler: The legend of Titanic Thompson
He could have been a great golfer, but chose the life of a hustler extraordinaire
Illustration by Ed Acuna
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Damon Runyon—no relation to the short-hitting, one-putting Paul Runyan—was an American newspaperman who wrote about colorful Prohibition Era characters with funny nicknames. One of his greatest lines was a warning: “Son, no matter how far you travel, or how smart you get, always remember this: Some day, somewhere, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet him, for as soon as you do, you are going to get an ear full of cider.”
The guy who Damon Runyon had in mind was probably Titanic Thompson. Sam Snead called him “the greatest hustler ever.” Minnesota Fats called him “the greatest action man of all time.” It’s been said that Titanic was the model for Sky Masterson in the musical “Guys and Dolls.” We know Thompson was a gambler and a golfer in the long-ago days before Las Vegas became Ground Zero for sports wagering. In the 1920s and ’30s, playing for money was a traveling roadshow, and Thompson mainly worked the backroads from Texas across the Deep South. Known for walnut throwing (weighted with lead) and guessing the combined weight of a diner waitress staff (he weighed them the night before), Titanic took up golf later in life and won big-money matches ambidextrously.
He died in 1974 at age 80, the stuff of legend, and was always a subject of intrigue for Golf Digest contributing editor Dave Kindred, who spent years researching this profile for the May 1996 issue.
They remembered Titanic Thompson’s blue eyes. The hustler has been dead 20 years now, and the time of his fame is half a century past. But people who knew him, who played golf with him and drove down dusty roads with him, now talk about him as if he were still alive; not only alive but plotting a new hustle. You hear a thrill in their voices.
An old U.S. Open champion tells you Titanic Thompson could have been the best golf ever. One of today’s great players tells you about Titanic’s beautiful hands, and another man tells you how those hands made cards fly through a transom and made dice sit up on a bedspread.
You track down one of the hustler’s old road partners from the 1930s, and the man says, no, no, NO, he doesn’t want to talk about that sumbitch Titanic Thompson. He calls him a thief and tells you he saw Titanic right before he died. And that man tells you he wanted to shoot the sumbitch on the spot.
You find Titanic’s last wife, a sweet woman, and she says her man’s story is more phenomenal than all the legends written about him. She tells you he lived to gamble, that gambling meant more to him than food, sleep or love. You trust people who talk that way, people who were there and saw things happen. And all these people tell you the same story: The man could do things.
So before you write your Titanic Thompson tale, you arrive at a state of mind called the willing suspension of disbelief, which means you might not believe every word of a story, but you are willing to listen. You’ve heard enough to think, maybe, some things did happen.
You know he never hit a golf shot into Babe Ruth’s beer. He never threw Amelia Earhart over the Brooklyn Bridge. He never bottom-dealt to the Queen of Sheba. He never married Gypsy Rose Lee, never shot J. Edgar Hoover, and never caused a one-eyed jack to squirt cider in a sucker’s ear.
But you get the feeling that if money talked, soft and sweet, Titanic Thompson could have and would have done it all. For when the money talked, however preposterous the proposition, Titanic Thompson always found a way to do it. He was America’s Robin Hood, sort of. He stole from the rich. And kept it.
Born to nothing in the Ozarks of Missouri, he came to wear diamonds before dying with nothing in a Texas nursing home—not that he didn’t try to fleece his buddies out of their Social Security checks.
“I could outsmart, outcheat, out-connive, and roll higher than ’em all in my day,” he said. “And that’s no lie.”
The son of a wandering gambler he never met, Titanic Thompson took gamblers’ money any way they wanted it taken.
One story is he threw a lemon onto a high roof to win $500 from Al Capone. Another insisted he sat at a dice table with Howard Hughes and walked away $10,000 ahead. Testimony under oath had him playing poker all night with the thief who fixed the World Series, and when the thief was shot dead, the prosecuting attorney, who smelled a rat, asked Thompson what he did for a living.
There in the witness-box with diamonds on his finger, handsome as daybreak and resplendent in a fine suit with a silk tie, the hustler who had put his hand on a Bible and promised to tell nothing but the truth, testified: “I play a little golf for money.”
Thompson married five women and killed five men, not because he heard money talking, but because he could do it and because, he said, sunshine in his smile: “They needed it.”
One day in the Arkansas of 1928, the seven of diamonds sailed through a transom-window space and fluttered to the floor, followed soon after by the deuce of hearts. Each card spun in the air as if controlled by an agency with supernatural powers.
Titanic Thompson was that agency. He sat in an easy chair halfway across the room. Thirty-five years old, a thin man with a delicate face and shining dark hair, he wore a white dress shirt and a silk tie. His last wife thought of him as “a fern or a willow, a litheness to him.”
He held the deck of cards in his right hand and with his left snapped cards across the room, over the transom and into the hallway.
“What are you doing?” said a man at the door.
Titanic Thompson said, “You can’t tell when some sucker’ll bet you $1,000 you can’t sail 51 out of 52 cards through that transom.”
Paul Runyan became one of professional golf’s great players. That day in 1928 he was a kid invited into a big-money match. Two Little Rock businessmen bet $3,000 that Runyan and another club amateur could beat Titanic Thompson and an Arkansas teenager, Dutch Harrison. With side bets, the kitty came to about $4,000.
“I was fortunate that match didn’t ruin my career,” Runyan said 66 years later. “I was on the practice tee and Ty comes by and, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the 30 or 40 people standing right there, he tries to buy me. He says, ‘Kid, if you don’t win any holes this afternoon, I’ll give you half the money.’
“No way would I be crooked with Titanic Thompson. But I was scared to death somebody heard him. I made five birdies that day, so nobody could say I was crooked. But I was so scared I played badly, and we broke even.”
Runyan is one of the last men alive who teed it up with Thompson. “He was crooked and unscrupulous,” Runyan said. “He also was the most fascinating human being I’ve ever met, so skillful at what he did—and I saw it with my own eyes.”
Alvin Clarence Thomas became Titanic Thompson one night in a Joplin, Mo., poolroom. It was the spring of 1912, shortly after an iceberg interrupted the maiden voyage of the ocean liner Titanic.
Thomas won $500 from a local shark who compounded his mistake by accepting a further proposition: double or nothing, that Thomas could jump across the pool table without touching it.
Tall, lean and “strong as a wild razorback hog … I could jump farther than a herd of bullfrogs,” Thomas took a running start, dived headfirst across the table and landed on the far side, never so much as brushing an edge. As the country boy collected the extra $500 and some side bets, a loser asked, “What’s the stranger’s name?”
“Don’t rightly know,” the pool shark said. “But it must be Titanic, the way he sinks everybody.”
During the Prohibition period, the gambler was a romantic figure.
(Illustration by Ed Acuna)
The backwoods-rogue Alvin C. Thomas liked the sound of that. And when a newspaper later jumbled with his name, he went along. The rest of his life, he strutted on a stage of his own in a persona of his making. He became Titanic Thompson.
He made himself such a master of odds that he knew which card was likely to show up at any seat around a poker table. Should he lose at poker, he offered to lose even more by betting he could hit a silver dollar with his .45 pistol eight out of 10 times from 10 feet away. He carried a bowling ball in his car trunk, there with his golf clubs, a rifle, pool cue and a throwing rock with a flat side and edges beveled to fit his fingers. As for dice, years of practice on hotel beds made him sure a six or ace would sit up only once in 10 rolls.
What he called his “smooth propositions” came to be the surest sign that Thompson had passed through a town and identified its sucker. He perpetrated an especially smooth proposition at age 14, barefoot in the Ozarks, a dog his accomplice.
He said, “I used to watch these dudes come to fish in their elegant casting outfits, and I wanted one of those things. I had trained my spaniel to dive to the bottom of the fishing hole and bring back a rock I tossed in. So one day I told a dude my dog could do that and offered to bet the dog against his casting outfit.
“The dude said, ‘Mark it so I know it’s the same rock you throw in.’ I did, and the spaniel leaped into the water, swam out of sight and came up with the marked rock. What the dude didn’t know, of course, was that the bottom of that pond was covered with marked rocks.”
The famous road-sign proposition began outside Joplin when Ty saw workmen putting up new signs on the highway. His friend Hickory McCullough owned a fishing camp out that way, 30 miles from town. Ty’s story:
“That night I dug up a sign that said JOPLIN 20 MILES and replanted it five miles closer to Joplin. Next day we were riding along, and I remarked to Hickory as we passed the sign, ‘Those boys are crazy. It’s not 20 miles to Joplin.’
“Hickory and Beanie [Benson] bet me $500 each the sign was right. Of course, I won the bet. Hickory and Beanie used that same sign to win plenty of bets later.”
Biographer Jon Bradshaw wrote of Thompson: “In the period between 1912 and the end of the First World War, Ty became famous in the netherworld of gamblers and confidence men for the success of his improbable propositions. … By changing the common hustle into a pure and elegantly constructed con, Ty earned an envious respect among his fellow gamblers. Tales of his feats were recounted so often they acquired the legitimacy of legend.”
Such as the walnut throw:
Thompson sat on the porch of the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Ark., eating walnuts from a bag. A local merchant fell into conversation, and Titanic offered him a walnut, eventually giving him the entire bag and saying, casually enough:
“I’ve got an interesting proposition for you. What odds will you give that I can’t throw one of these Danish walnuts over that hotel across the street?”
The hotel was five stories. “Ty,” the merchant said, “you are some thrower, but not even Ty Cobb could throw a walnut over that hotel.”
“Maybe not,” Titanic said, “but I’m willin’ to bet I can. Shucks, I’m willin’ to bet a hundred dollars if you could see your way to givin’ me odds of, uh, three-to-one.”
“One of these walnuts, Ty?”
“Yep. You can pick any walnut in this here bag.”
Sure enough, a walnut flew from Titanic’s hand over that five-story hotel. And the muttering merchant reached for his wallet. He was neither the first nor the last who would fail to discover that Thompson, preparing to throw, had replaced the chosen walnut with the one he carried everywhere—the one filled with lead. It was easily thrown over a hotel, tree or barn that begged for a proposition.
GOLF AS EASY AS BREATHING
And propositions weren’t even his best game. Thompson was almost 30 years old before he discovered golf. After all-night poker games at the Kingston Club in San Francisco in 1921, he sneaked out to the club’s practice range. In a few weeks, the master of hand-eye coordination could play. He played left-handed, with one exception. If he heard money whispering, he often started out right-handed, and when he heard the money talking, he would say, “I tell you what. I’ll play you double or nothing—and I’ll play left-handed.”
He told Bradshaw, “It was the easiest thing you ever saw. I played golf almost as well as I breathed.”
Not that Titanic said as much to his poker buddies, one being the local pro Buddy Brent. To Brent, he denigrated golf. A child’s game, he said. Probably pick it up in a morning. Shucks, he said, he could probably go out and now beat Brent.
The pro beat Thompson every hole in a nine-hole wager, $90 in damages. On the way home, Titanic moaned that his luck had been bad, the clubs were borrowed, his back ached from the all-night poker, he’d have done better if he felt better.
At the next night’s poker, Titanic fumed. When Brent dropped in again, he asked for a rematch, this time $1,000 a hole, but he had to get three shots a hole. The pro gave one shot. With side bets, $60,000 was at stake. As Titanic told it, gamblers by the first tee greeted him with sympathetic applause—until his tee shot went 275 yards down the middle. Brent blanched. A shot or two the winner, Titanic picked up $56,000.
“I never shot more than a stroke or two better’n the opposition,” he said. “If a man shoots 89, I shoot 88. If a man shoots 68, I shoot 67. I never liked to add insult to injury.”
Titanic Thompson’s salad days were the Prohibition years of 1920-’33. Declaring liquor illegal served best to add a sense of illicit adventure to finding a drink. That pleasure of guilt spilled over to gambling as well, with clandestine games of chance available to players in roadhouses and in secret back rooms of fancy hotels.
Gambling and sports were intertwined so casually that in the ’20s the New York baseball manager, John J. McGraw, owned a pool hall with Arnold Rothstein, the gambler whose money bought the Chicago White Sox’s cooperation in the 1919 World Series.
“In the early part of the century,” Jon Bradshaw wrote, “the professional gambler was still a romantic figure—a fallen man, perhaps, and evil, if the melodramas of the period are to be believed. He was a freebooter, a man who took the long chance at a time when the country still believed in dark horses. Titanic Thompson was at the heart of that belief.”
WITH JUST A SCHEME IN HIS HEART
Alvin C. Thomas was born in Monett, Mo., on Nov. 30, 1892, and grew up in the Ozark Mountain woods near Rogers, Ark. His stepfather and a grandfather taught him to hunt, fish and play cards.
He left home at 16 and caught the train to Monett. There he worked as a shill and sharpshooter for a traveling medicine show operated by a Buffalo Bill look-alike who introduced the young schemer to a world filled with suckers.
For the next 25 years, Titanic Thompson’s life was a blur of gambling frenzy that took him from his Arkansas roots to Chicago to San Francisco, from New York to New Mexico, from horse-racing tracks to ringside at the Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard fight. Resourceful and energetic, he once said, “I’ve been broke, but never for more than six hours at a time.”
He was flush on Sept. 7, 1928, for a poker game on New York’s West Side, attended by a rogue’s gallery of gamblers, bookmakers, horseplayers and organized-crime muscle. The game included Arnold Rothstein, who would lose $475,000—$30,000 to Thompson.
But Rothstein didn’t pay; he handed out IOUs. Six weeks later, he turned up murdered by a gunman. The New York newspapers had a time with it.
Of the poker players arrested as material witnesses, “ … it was Titanic, then and later, who caught the public’s fancy,” the columnist John Lardner wrote in 1951. “Maybe because he was said to be a Westerner, a lone wolf, a romantic and single-duke gambler of the old school.”
Prosecutors believed Thompson and Rothstein had conspired to cheat George McManus out of $51,000, and that a vengeful McManus murdered Rothstein. At the trial, a prosecutor asked Thompson what he did for a living.
“I run a cafe,” Titanic said.
“You have other means of income, do you not?”
Titanic smiled. “I play a little golf for money.”
The prosecutor continued, “Isn’t it right that you are, in fact, a man who makes rather large sums of money by gambling at golf … and that you bet on the horses and sell jewelry at racetracks … and that you have played in a number of high-stake poker games … ?”
Titanic Thompson was a state’s witness, cooperating in exchange for reduced bail. Once under oath, though, his memory failed, and he told the prosecutor:
“You see, I just don’t remember things. If I bet on a horse today and won 10 grand, I probably would not be able to recall the horse’s name tomorrow.”
To no one’s shock, Titanic’s memory improved under cross-examination. He declared that George McManus, the accused, was really a swell guy, even a swell loser, never upset by anything at all, certainly not upset by losing only $51,000 to Rothstein, whose IOU, as all of New York knew, was as good as gold.
The next day, McManus was acquitted of Rothstein’s murder.
‘BONNIE AND CLYDE TIME’
After the trial, famous if not infamous, Titanic went back on the road and often found himself in the company of professional golfers. The tour in the 1930s was little more than an excuse to go gambling, if not on the course then in a hotel room rolling dice and dealing poker.
“It was all gambling,” said Jack Burke Jr., the 1956 Masters champion who learned the game during the Depression from his father, a prominent Texas pro. “They had bookmakers at every tournament. They’d make more gambling with each other than there was in the purse. Ben Hogan would play you $50 nassaus. Thompson wasn’t alone gambling on golf. There were a lot of Titanic Thompsons loose out there. It was Bonnie and Clyde time.”
The early years of the Depression left 30 million people with no income at all. They were desperate people whose tolerance of crime was the highest in American history. By robbing banks and shooting his way out, John Dillinger became a folk hero. “People who had never seen a pistol,” a historian wrote, “spoke casually of the rod, the roscoe, the equalizer, or the heat.”
Titanic Thompson carried a .45 with adhesive tape on the butt to make the grip surer.
He had killed his first man on a riverboat by hitting him in the head with a hammer and allowing him to fall overboard. The next four he did with the .45, each time dropping to one knee and firing up at the poor fellows who thought to rob him.
Sam Snead had heard the stories, not only of the sharpshooting but of Titanic’s golf game. He knew Thompson played left-handed with a baseball grip and was a good short-iron player who made every putt he needed. When Snead met him in ’34, one hustler apprizing another, Sam asked, “Just how good are you?”
“Play me and find out,” Titanic said. “I’ll take four strokes a side.”
“Oh, no,” Snead said. “Not until I see your honest swing.”
They should live so long. One of his traveling partners, Herman Keiser, who later beat Hogan to win the 1946 Masters, said Titanic seldom gave a sucker an even break.
“Ty’d get a Hungarian lock on ’em before they hit the first tee ball. Oh my, he’d be moaning about his bad back and his stiff hands and how he hadn’t played for so long. They didn’t have a chance.
“He’d even talk ’em into letting Tall Boy—that was me—have two putts on every green. Well, hell. I didn’t need but one most of the time.”
Runyan calls Thompson “the best left-handed player in the world until Bob Charles came along. He could really play. He was deft, is the word, at hitting any shot in the bag.”
Tommy Bolt, the 1958 U.S. Open champion: “He could’ve been the greatest. He had great everything, a good, solid, compact swing. Not one of those long swings like Hogan’s where you had to practice every day to keep it; Ty had a gambler’s swing. No telling how great that guy could’ve been—except back then he made more money hustling oilmen in east Texas than he could have made on the tour.”
Byron Nelson had heard the name but until 1934 had never seen Thompson. Members at Nelson’s club in Dallas arranged a money match between the two best players they knew of in Texas: Titanic Thompson and Byron Nelson.
The way Thompson told it, he shot a 29 on the back nine at Ridglea to win $3,000.
Now, wait a minute. Thompson wants us to believe he was good enough to beat Byron Nelson?
So you go to Nelson under the big oak trees at Augusta National the day the 1994 Masters starts. You ask one of history’s greatest players if he ever played Titanic Thompson.
“I saw him once,” Nelson says. “He’d been out in the east Texas oil fields. Those fellas had so much money, it was easy for Titanic to make money out there.
“I’d turned pro a couple years before when I was 20, 21. The members said they wanted me to play Ty, and I told them I wasn’t a gambler. They said, ‘We’ll take care of that.’ Ty was backing himself. I had to give him three shots. He shot 71 and I shot 69. The money? I don’t have any idea.”
What Nelson also remembered were Thompson’s eyes. “He was a nice-looking man, pleasant and polite, with very sharp eyes. Those eyes could look a hole through you.”
The eyes also come up in conversation with Keiser. You find the old man at his driving range in Ohio, 80 years old. You ask if you can talk to him about Titanic Thompson, to which Keiser bellows, “Noooo.”
“I have got nothing good to say about him. He never gave me a dime.”
“He was a thief. Playing poker, he’d mark the cards, and he could see his mark. He had wonderful eyes.”
You mumble something about how everyone remembers the eyes. Then Herman Keiser starts talking.
“I was with him for one trip across the country. We played 10, 12 places. Good short-iron player, pretty good player all around.
“He had fun every minute every day. But all the money he made, I never got a dime. I never wanted it, never took as much as a $10 bill.
“Then one day, he’s got to be 80, he shows up at my house in Ohio. I hadn’t seen him in 10 years. Here he comes with a partner and two young girls. He says, ‘Herman, I’ve got a plan that’s going to make you rich.’
“Here’s Titanic after all these years, and he’s trying to hustle me. He says, ‘Give me $5,000, Herman, and we’re going to make these lamps that use natural gas.’
“I tell him, ‘Ty, stay right here, I’ll be right back.’ I go in the house and get my .22 pistol with the long barrel. I come out in the garage and I tell him, ‘Get outta here right now or I’m gonna shoot you.’
“Last I ever saw of Titanic Thompson.”
THE LAST HAND
By then Thompson lived in Dallas. He had no money. He was old and tired. A doctor took a look and said Ty didn’t have enough blood to keep a grasshopper alive.
Then one night, the doctor, a Dallas dentist named Jim Hill, told Ty he didn’t believe all he’d heard.
“Turns out he could do all that stuff,” the doctor said. He had almost an ESP that let him do these amazing physical things. He could just touch a card and mark it. Nobody believes this, but I saw it: In my kitchen, in dim lights, he’s in his 70s, he takes 20 cards, gives us some rhetoric about them being plastic and hard to mark, shuffled them, gave them to my wife and told her to lay them face down and he’d name them just looking at their backs.
“Of the 20 cards, he named 18.”
Even in his 70s, Thompson was still dedicated to the wild proposition that would add to his fame and notoriety.
(Illustration by Ed Acuna)
Titanic Thompson had no money because money never meant anything. His last wife, Jeanette, said she became angry about that. The old man left her with a son, Ty Wayne. She went to work as a stenographer.
Looking for money, Titanic talked about a movie. Clint Eastwood could play him. Maybe James Garner. Titanic wanted $1 million. No movie ever got made, and too bad about that: Here’s a man 62 and fresh out of jail (cops caught him naked with a teenager not his wife) who marries Jeanette, an oilman’s daughter, 19 years old.
She called him Slim rather than Titanic. They wandered the highway for years, the old hustler and his young bride, from California to Arizona to New Mexico before winding up in Texas.
There he met an 18-year-old son he had left with his previous wife 16 years before. The boy, Tommy, had become a gambler. Today Tommy calls himself, “the best card mechanic in the world.” He’ll tell you his father, even at 75, had eyes so good he could stand across the street and identify the nine of spades in your hand. He’ll tell you he cheated his dad at cards one day and the old man’s grateful reaction was to hug him and say, for the first time, “I love you, son.”
The San Antonio sportswriter Dan Cook: “Ty must’ve been 70 when I met him at a poker game. He walked with a strut, almost military. His eyes were the thing, eagle eyes that didn’t miss a thing. As the cards were dealt, those eagle eyes watched them all the way around.
“Afterward, we sat on the porch until 4 in the morning. I asked him if it were true he could play golf both right- and left-handed. He said, ‘Left-handed? That’s ridiculous.’ “
Which must have been the siren song the left-hander sang to suckers all over America for a half-century and more.
Before he tamed down and won everything, Raymond Floyd was a stallion looking for a test. In 1965, he took his game to Tenison Park in Dallas, a hustler’s shooting gallery. There Floyd noticed an old man in the trees.
“He was a tall, slender gentleman,” Floyd said, “and I’d seen him watching me. He introduced himself as Ty Thomas. I’d heard of him, of course, and he asked if I’d heard of Lee Trevino.
“I said no, and Ty asked if I’d play Trevino. I said ‘Certainly. I’ll play anybody I’ve never heard of.’
“Ty said, ‘On his course?’ I said, ‘I’ll play anybody anywhere I’ve never heard of.’ ”
Trevino and Floyd played three days at El Paso Country Club, Trevino winning the first two days and Floyd the third, with maybe $1,000 changing hands.
Floyd on Titanic Thompson: “I remember most his hands. He had the hands of a 25-year-old. I caught myself looking at them. He had long, elegant, linear fingers, just perfect, like they’d been drawn. You could see how he did the sleight of hand with cards. It’s an odd word to use about a man’s hands, but they were just beautiful.”
In 1973, the old man and his young wife were divorced so he could qualify for Government aid in a nursing home. “It won’t be so bad,” Titanic told the dentist Jim Hill. “I’ll beat those old geezers out of their Social Security money.”
Less than a year later, Alvin Clarence Thomas died in his sleep.
“Slim was a good person, and everybody loved him,” Jeanette said. “He enjoyed every minute in that nursing home. He probably had himself a little nurse in there somewhere. And every minute he lived he was looking to gamble on something. He didn’t waste his time with anything that interfered with gambling, not food or sleep or love.
“Slim didn’t just like to gamble, he loved to gamble.
“And as much as he said he didn’t like the notoriety, he loved it. He loved being Titanic Thompson.”