writer Damon Runyon was one of the few people who considered Titanic
Thompson a role model and lived to tell about it from somewhere
other than jail. Runyon drew on Thomas for the character Sky Masterson
in his short story "The Idyll of Miss Sara Brown," which inspired
the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.
Thompson hated the exposure. He told Runyon, "When I go into advertising
what I do, I might as well go back to Arkansas and finish out my life
fishing. Mine ain't a line of work helped much by publicity."
Publicity found Titanic Thompson anyway. He was involved in the first
of what turned out to be several trials of the century after somebody
murdered notorious New York City gambler Arnold Rothstein in 1928.
Titanic happened to be in the room, playing poker and supposedly minding
his own business. He was a prime suspect but was never charged.
Thompson went on to face five murder charges in his lifetime, including
one in Tyler
in 1932, and all five were dismissed as self-defense. Certain people
kept thinking it was a good idea to rob Thompson, but the ones who
tried mostly ended up dead.
His given name was Alvin Clarence Thomas, but hardly anyone called
him that. He started going by Thompson when a New York newspaper misspelled
his name that way. He took on the nickname Titanic because, as one
sucker remarked "you couldn't sink him." Others said it was because
he would sink you. Either way, he was a force to be reckoned with.
in Missouri in 1893, Thompson grew up in backwoods Arkansas. He hit
the road in a black Pierce Arrow to operate from coast to coast as
a con man, poker player and golf hustler from the 1920s through World
War II. He spent a good deal of his time in Texas, gambling and
playing golf, often at the same time. He was a hell of a golfer. Asked
why he didn't turn pro, Thompson said, "I couldn't afford the cut
One of his golf course hustles was beating somebody right-handed,
and then giving the poor sucker a chance to win his money back by
offering to play him left-handed. Titanic was ambidextrous, of course,
and a better golfer from the left side.
Before a young Byron Nelson turned pro and became so good at golf
that the PGA named a tournament after him, he took on Titanic in a
match arranged by "three gentlemen of Fort
Worth" for $3,000 in 1934. The gentlemen sweetened the bet by
giving Titanic three strokes, seeing as how he had to drive all the
way from Dallas and he was
going to lose anyway. Asked about the match many years later, Nelson
said he wouldn't have given away the strokes if his own money had
been on the line.
"I knew Titanic was a good player," he said. "He was very straight,
had a great short game and was a wonderful putter. I'm not sure how
well he would have done playing on the tour, but he always knew the
percentages and what he had to do to win."
Titanic nearly always won by one stroke because that's all it took
to win the bet. Since Nelson shot a 69 that day, Titanic used the
three-stroke advantage to turn his 71 into a 68. That's how Titanic
told it. Nelson remembered that they each shot a 71 and split the
When First Flight began manufacturing golf balls with a steel center,
Titanic hired a handyman to magnetize some of the holes by rigging
a car battery and jumper cable to the steel cup liners on a Lubbock
course. He won a $25,000 match the next day, mostly on the strength
of some mighty fine putting and his new magic golf balls. A PGA tour
win in those days would have netted him a couple of thousand dollars.
Thompson once bet he could hit a golf ball 500 yards and did just
that on a frozen lake in Minnesota where it seemed like the ball was
going to roll forever.
Thompson never smoked or drank because he had promised his mama he
wouldn't, but she must have neglected to warn him about gambling or
cheating. He lived to be 81 years old. He died broke, but he probably
knew the odds favored that all along.
Fort Worth columnist
Jim Trinkle wrote of Titanic after his passing, "No one on God's sandpile
ever gambled higher or better on his personal skills than Alvin Clarence