|Alvin Clarence Thomas|
Monett, Missouri, USA
Euless, Texas, USA
|Other names||Titanic Thompson|
|Occupation||Hustler, gambler, golfer|
|Spouse(s)||1) Nora Trushel (divorced)
2) Alice Kane (killed in road accident)
3) Jo Ann Raney (divorced)
4) Maxine Melton (divorced)
5) Jeannette Bennett (divorced)
|Children||Thomas E. Thomas (by Jo Ann Raney), Robert Thomas (by Maxine Melton), Ty Wayne Thomas (by Jeanette Bennett).|
He traveled the country wagering at cards, dice games, golf, shooting, billiards, 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 "Hump" McManus, who was charged with Rothstein's murder.
Thomas was born in southwestern Missouri but raised mainly on a farm in the Ozark Mountains a few miles from Rogers, Arkansas, 50 miles further south. His mother remarried (following desertion by his father Lee Thomas, a gambler himself). Thomas began conducting his nomadic, lucrative career of hustling in the rural south-central United States about 1908, leaving home at age 16 with less than a dollar in his pocket. Unable to read or write effectively, he had attended school only sporadically, and felt unwelcome in the home of his stepfather. Thomas spent most of his youth developing skills he would use later, such as shooting and understanding odds at card games through marathon dealing of hands.
Thomas was drafted in early 1918, several months after the United States entered World War I. Following basic training, where he excelled, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Thomas remained stateside, trained younger draftees, and did not see overseas service or combat before the war ended in November 1918, when he was discharged. Thomas also taught gambling skills to many of his trainees, and then proceeded to win substantial money from them. He ended the war with more than $50,000 in cash, and used much of this money to buy his mother a house in Monett, Missouri, his birthplace.
Gambling style, and favorite bets
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, many of them tricky if not outright fraudulent. Among his favorites were: betting he could throw a peanut over a building (he had weighted the hollowed shell with lead beforehand), throwing a large room key into its lock, and moving a road mileage sign before betting that the listed distance to the town was in error. He once bet that he could drive a golf ball 500 yards, using a hickory-shafted club, at a time when an expert player's drive was just over 200 yards. He won by waiting until winter and driving the ball onto a frozen lake, where it bounced past the required distance on the ice.
Thompson's one weakness, as he admitted, was betting on horse racing, where he lost millions of dollars during his life in failed bets.
Becomes expert golfer
Blessed with extraordinary eyesight and hand-eye coordination, he was a skilled athlete, crack shot and self-taught golfer good enough to turn professional. Raised in a poor environment far from exclusive golf courses, Thomas did not take up golf seriously until he was in his early 30s, but improved very quickly during an extended stint in San Francisco, where he took lessons from club professionals and honed his skills. From then on he played several times per week for the next 20 years. 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, let people think his name was Thompson) could make that much in a week hustling rich country club players. Asked whether he would ever turn professional, he replied, "I could not afford the cut in pay". Hall of Fame golfer Ben Hogan, who traveled with him in the early 1930s for money games, later 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 naturally left-handed. Thomas' 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.
As he aged, Thompson liked to pick promising young players as his golf partners. Several of these who went on to later PGA Tour stardom included young and unknown Ben Hogan, Ky Laffoon, Herman Keiser and Lee Elder. Other well-known golfers who left behind first-hand documented accounts of their dealings and matches with Thompson included Harvey Penick, Paul Runyan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, all of whom were inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Marriages and family
Married five times, Thompson fathered three children, all boys, with three different wives. He was also romantically linked with many women. Among his alleged trysts were actresses Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow. He typically married a young woman, lived with her for a few months, then returned to his road hustling, while leaving comfortable housing and financial support for his newly-divorced wife.
In his life Thompson killed five men. The first was in 1910, in rural Arkansas, 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 deed to the boat and leaving town, which he chose.
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 killing came near 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 in a winning match. The dying Frederick confirmed to witnesses that he had been trying to rob Thompson.
Arnold Rothstein case
On November 4, 1928, Arnold Rothstein was murdered, allegedly because he refused to pay his debts from a poker game, held several months earlier, that he believed to have been fixed. This game had been organized by George McManus, who stood trial for the murder the next year, in a proceeding heavily covered by the media. McManus was eventually acquitted, and no second trial was ever held, leaving the case officially unsolved. Thompson had been present at the game, and an active participant in it; 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. Rothstein had stood to recoup his losses by successful heavy bets on the 1928 elections of Herbert Hoover (new president) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (new governor of New York), which actually did take place, shortly after Rothstein's death. Thompson later told close friends that he knew the real killer had been Rothstein's bodyguard.
Origin of the nickname
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 and beat a fellow named Snow Clark out of $500. To give him a chance to get even, I bet $200 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."
Trevino vs. Floyd match
In the 1960s, Thompson settled in Dallas and, although approaching 70 years of age, kept up a good standard of golf, and frequently hustled games at Tenison Park, a municipal golf course, and at posh Glen Lakes Country Club. Mid-decade, Thompson sponsored a young Raymond Floyd, then early in his PGA Tour career but already a winner, in a big money stakes match against Lee Trevino, then a completely unknown assistant pro, in El Paso, at Trevino's home course. After three days of play, honors and bets wound up all even, with both players well under par each round. Trevino gained confidence from the match, and within a few years became a Tour superstar himself, while Floyd's career also ascended.
Thompson was honored at the first World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1970. He lived out his final years in a nursing home near Dallas. Thompson had made gambling trips with eldest son Tommy for many years, but after his father died, Tommy, who had become a skilled, successful gambler in his own right, gave up gambling for a church ministry, with success counseling prisoners, preaching to convince others to stay away from gambling.
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- Golf Digest, May 1996
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