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'Titanic Thompson' by Kevin Cook
The odds on all life may be 6-5 against, but not when Kevin Cook is writing. Then they are the 1-9 in your favor that Titanic Thompson, the subject of this biography and America's greatest gambler and swindler, looked for in a bet.
Cook, the former editor of Golf Magazine and Sports Illustrated scored holes-in-one with "Tommy's Honor," the biography of Old Tom Morris, and "Driven," a no-holds-barred assessment of the damage competitive parenting and sports lust can do to a young teen attending a $100,000-a-year sports academy.
This time, Cook flops the nuts, rolls a seven and hits the quinella while delivering a poignant look at one of sports and gambling's most colorful and divisive characters: Alvin Thomas, a.k.a. Titanic Thompson, the "Man Who Bet on Everything." Part grafter, part hustler, part world-class athlete and full-time predator, cheat, thief, and deadbeat dad, Titanic Thompson was revered by gamblers and friends as creative, cunning, talented, gregarious and fascinating: a true outlaw in an age when America revered outlaws.
Thompson was also one of the greatest golfers of his generation, playing at a Tour-caliber level both right- and left-handed. He hustled pool with Minnesota Fats. He swindled Al Capone. He dined at the side of Arnold Rothstein, the infamous gambler who rigged the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series and was shot to death during a crooked card game.
Thompson organized the legendary three-day money match between Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd at Horizon Hills in Texas. He had the fastest, deftest hands for card and coin tricks. He's even the primary inspiration for the character of Bat Masterson in the famous Broadway show and movie "Guys and Dolls" - though the real-life Sky Masterson was a buffalo hunter-turned-sports writer who famously died at his typewriter . . . sounds good to me, sign me up for that!
Titanic also spent his life one step ahead of the sheriff, gangsters and bankruptcy. He killed five men - well, four men and one boy who tried to hold him up at gunpoint. ("How did I feel when I shot those five men?" he remarked. "It felt like good shooting.") He married five teenagers - even when he was in his 50s and 60s - and abandoned them if they became pregnant, though leaving each with a small fortune. He died lonely and broke. Like all great gamblers and thieves, the last proverbial check he wrote probably bounced.
" 'Ti' was a remarkable American life. He intersects and interacts with Houdini, Al Capone, Vegas gamblers like Doyle Brunson, and Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the series. He was a liar, a thief, a cheat, a deadbeat dad and a killer, but he was courtly, romantic and generous," said Cook in an interview for Cybergolf.
When asked why he would memorialize such a man, Cook hit on the pulse of the America zeitgeist regarding heroic outlaws. "We're not interested in straight heroes. What's interesting about people is their complexity, and Titanic had that in spades.
"Why do we as Americans need our heroes flawed?" he asks rhetorically, while shaking hands with his friends at the Reade Street Pub in Manhattan. "They wouldn't be real if they weren't flawed. The saints were long ago and their stories are made up anyway. Besides, every biography ends badly if you take it to the end. You take your victories where you find them, and Titanic had more than his share."
Over the course of the story Cook does the two things he does best. First, he gives us memorable, sometimes uproariously funny anecdotes, in this case stories of the clever and sometimes unbelievable lengths Thompson would go to stack the odds in his favor, or just plain rig any bet you could conceive. Second, Cook fills in the story with snapshots of the life and history of the age and interesting historical sidebars.
No scam was too zany for Titanic. He earned his name by jumping lengthwise over a pool table and taking $200 off the hall owner who said he'd give that sum to anyone who could do it. "Ti" was only able to do it without breaking any bones by placing a mattress under the end of the table before jumping. As Thompson left, the owner remarked, "He ought to be called Titanic, because he sinks everybody."
He'd spend countless hours practicing card-tossing, coin-pitching and hitting golf balls cross-handed so he could pull off seemingly impossible tricks, like throwing 50 cards in a row in a hat or 50 coins in a row in a golf hole. "I tried that for an hour and got one in," said Cook. "But that was part of Ti's talent - he had fiendish concentration and more focus when practicing than Tiger Woods. Anything Ti offered you as a bet, he could do in one try. It was a swindle."
Other tricks were pure scam. He'd load everything from lemons to peanuts with buckshot so he could throw them onto the roofs of New York City skyscrapers, scamming sucker after sucker dumb enough to fall for it. He'd have accomplices in the fruit-stand vendors, holding the loaded fruit for him secretly until he appeared. He'd play "license plate poker" with people who would bet hundreds of dollars on cars that passed by. Then he'd wave his hat as a signal to an accomplice who'd go around a corner and return driving past with a plate reading "9999." He even magnetized the last three cups of a golf course with a car battery and jumper cables and used metal-cored "First Flight" golf balls to steal a victory. You can accomplish the same thing today with solenoids and a servomechanism, a small but powerful magnet in the hole, a radio controller and, of course, a metal-cored ball. He'd even plant a $10 bill in a bunker his partner landed in, and when his opponent removed it, Thompson would slap a penalty on him.
My favorite story of all though, involves horse-racing, the one sport so corrupt, so crooked and so slimy that not only couldn't Thompson or his buddies master it, but they lost more money than most people see in a lifetime. Finally, after a lifetime of frustration, Thomson went to Tijuana to rig a race so that a long-shot named Nellie A would win. He bought every jockey except the favorite, and threatened to shoot that jockey, "and any jockey that crosses the finish line in front of my horse."
I won't spoil the story, but hilarity ensued after Nellie A, with an insurmountable lead, broke its leg on the backstretch.
Along the way, Cook provides us with all sorts of interesting historical anecdotes and sure bar-bet winners. Prohibition was actually called the "Volstead Act." Billy Sunday was not a Wild West outlaw (or a shotgun ragtime bandleader), but a Virginia evangelist who presided over the mock funeral of John Barleycorn, memorialized by Traffic in their seminal rock album. Outlaw Billy the Kid was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett outside Fort Sumter, N.M. And gangsters trying to kidnap and kill Arnold Rothstein actually snatched the wrong person by mistake and left a terrified haberdasher who never knew what hit him on a corner in Manhattan with hurried cryptic apologies.
Other stories involve gambling. Dice were loaded with quicksilver mercury in Shakespeare's time and called "Fulhams" after the English town. By the way, to get a better chance at achieving the outcome you want, try releasing dice with a stiff-wristed skid. Indeed, we get the expression "the die is cast" from the moment when Caesar reached the Rubicon between Gaul and Italy and rolled dice to see if he'd advance on Rome and destroy the Republic. Indeed, the book is filled with useful tips on how not to get cheated by card sharks (well, "lo-fi" ones at least).
In the end, Thompson was a ruthless predator who took advantage of people who lived in a time when everyone was more trusting, innocent and gullible. But still, he is compelling - as is Cook's story - strictly because of the razor's edge on which he lived his life. "We love outlaws, and America has a rich outlaw tradition," explained Cook. "He's the ultimate self-made man. We like outsiders who reject authority, people who stay outside the law. So like the Wild West heroes so celebrated in their time, you love and are drawn a gambling gunslinger like Ti."
Towards the end of his life, Ti did forget one truth: if there are two things people hate in this life, it's a dirty old man and a clean little boy. As communications improved, towns and lawmen got wise to his act and he began to fade. As Kenny Rogers said, maybe somewhere in the darkness the gambler broke even. But Cook merely holds up the vivid portrait of the man. He leaves it to us to decide if we see angel, devil or both.
Meanwhile, Cook is the leader in the clubhouse for my yearly Writing Award. He's produced a great story: informative, hysterical, heartwarming and poignant, that's the man from S.I. and Golf for you. As long as Kevin keeps Cookin' the books, we'll keep reading 'em.
"Titanic Thompson," by Kevin Cook, $24.95, Norton, 240 pages, ISBN 978-0-393-07115-3
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.