Friends, today is an exciting day. We’re going to take a dive into the life of the Patron Saint of Scoundrels.
One could come up with any number of superlatives to describe our subject: the Prince of Hustlers, the Grandest of Grifters, the Sultan of Swindle. The name most knew him by, however, was “Titanic” Thompson.
Born Alvin Clarence Thomas, our subject left the military after World War I with $50,000 in cash and a determination to never work an honest day again. Taking the name “Thompson” to distance himself from his card playing father, Alvin began his career as a road gambler hustling pool.
Thompson was quite skilled at billiards. He’d travel from pool hall to pool hall cleaning out anyone who’d play him for money. Once he’d relieved everyone in the building of their bankrolls, Thompson would then ask for the name of the best pool player in town so he could beat them too.
It was on one of these pool outings Thompson earned his nickname. After collecting his pool winnings, Thompson noticed a sign above the bar offering $200 to anyone who could jump over the pool table cleanly.
“I’ll take that action,” the gangly kid said, and everyone laughed as he left the pool hall and made his way across the street to his hotel room. He returned with a mattress, set it up on one wall near the pool table, then took a flying leap over the table, crashing safely onto the mattress.
As Thompson collected the rest of his winnings, a patron of the pool hall asked the proprietor about the identity of the young man who’d taken all their money.
“They might as well call him Titanic, because he just sunk all of us.” was the reply.
So “Titanic” Thompson was officially christened, and “Ti” would travel the country for the rest of his life using that name in his quest to fatten his bankroll for the next big game.
Later in life Thompson discovered golf and took to it with the same ease he dominated pool tables. He was ambidextrous and used a combination of left and right handed swings, confounding his opponents on the links whom he always played for money.
After all, if you’re Titanic Thompson, it’s not worth doing unless it’s fattening your bankroll.
He wasn’t the biggest fan of the practice, but Thompson could cheat at cards with the best of them. A poker player who mastered the statistical odds of obtaining certain poker hands by simply dealing to relieve boredom, Thompson could “peddle the papers” with the best of them in a time when playing cards were a lot less sturdy and harder to manipulate than they are today. Ti could bottom and second deal as needed, and supposedly even learned the art of the center deal—covertly taking cards from the center of the deck—from none other than Nick the Greek.
Ti’s real skill lay in the art of the proposition, or “prop” bet, where parties bet on the given outcome of an event. Somehow, Thompson developed a knack for figuring out just what kind of action people would take and devised ways to separate people from their money in the process. Here are a few of the more notable ones.
On a fishing expedition with two friends, Thompson spotted a road crew installing a mile marker sign on the side of the road. He remarked to his companions the crew had made a mistake, and they were installing the sign a half mile short from where it should’ve been placed. The three men bet on the wager and returned the next day to find out, sure enough, the sign was a half mile short from its intended mark.
What no one besides Thompson knew was “Titanic” returned to the spot where the road crew correctly installed the sign the night before and moved it a half mile short from its mark to seal the bet.
Another famous Thompson wager involved his ability to throw a walnut onto the roof of a nearby building. Now, if you’ve ever thrown a walnut any length you’ll realize this is a nearly Herculean effort. That is unless you massaged the odds in your favor like Ti and used a walnut filled with lead during the attempt.
One variation on this came after Thompson allegedly cleaned out Al Capone during a card game and bet the legendary mobster he could throw a walnut onto the roof of a nearby hotel when the two men stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. Capone objected to the walnut, opting for the projectile of choice to be a lemon from a nearby fruit stand.
Thompson effortlessly chucked the fruit onto the roof of the hotel, producing a grin from Capone and a compliment of “You really are a multifaceted son of a bitch.” Capone got swindled here too; Thompson switched the proffered lemon with one filled with buckshot he’d left at the fruit stand before his card game.
My personal favorite involved Thompson betting someone he and the mark could stand on a sheet of newspaper and be in two different rooms at the same time. After the bets were placed, Thompson took a sheet of newspaper, placed it over the foot of a doorframe adjoining two rooms, and then invited his mark to stand on one side of the door while he closed it and then collected his money.
At one point Thompson would become acquainted with another fellow we’ll be discussing soon, Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein. The two became frequent competitors in gaming wagers, but Thompson always denied a friendship with Rothstein, calling him a “loathsome, repugnant fellow.”
Personal views aside, that didn’t stop Ti from taking “The Brain’s” money. One wager involving the two saw both men in a hotel bar full of at least thirty people. Thompson bet The Brain they could find two people in the room who shared the same birthday. Rothstein took the bet.
If you’re ever in the same position, DON’T TAKE THE BET. The statistical odds that you’ll find two people in a room full of thirty who share the same birthday are better than you’d think. Rothstein, like so many of Thompson’s victims, was outsmarted yet again.
Thompson’s last big moment in the spotlight was in 1970 at the first World Series of Poker, where he was honored for his skill at the card table. He would leave this world in 1974, at the age of 80 in a nursing home in Texas.
Ti’s life had a marked impact on his children. During his final years, his eldest son Tommy stopped accompanying him on gambling outings and became a minister. Tommy Thompson would eventually start a prison ministry, counseling convicts to stay away from the vice of gambling.
Allegedly (boy does this word come up a lot when you talk about conmen), Thompson was the inspiration for Damon Runyon’s character Sky Masterson in the story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” which was later made into the musical “Guys and Dolls.”
So we close on this picture of a Paul Bunyan-esque con man the likes of which the world will probably never see again. In doing so, I think it’s best to visit a quote from Guys and Dolls that nicely sums up the life of Titanic Thompson:
One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer you a bet that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of this brand new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.
That’s it for this edition, everyone! Hope you enjoyed taking a look at the life of who I consider a very criminally (pun very much intended) underrated con man. Hope you’ve had a great week, and are ready to delve back into the world of rogues, scoundrels, and cheats next Friday as we continue Con Artist History Month here at the Friday Funny.
We’ll see you next week, everyone!