I’ve always said my favorite poker books are those that avoid strategy and focus on the rich history of the game. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good strategy books on the market, but reviewing them one after another can become quite tiresome. That’s why I was excited to break the monotony with Kevin Cook’s new book, Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything.
Titanic Thompson was born Alvin Clarence Thomas in 1892. He earned the nickname “Titanic” because he’d sink anyone who was foolish enough to make a bet with him. In the book, Cook spent an entire year tracing the footsteps of Titanic, from his birth in the Ozarks to his last days in Dallas. He interviewed dozens of Titanic’s friends, enemies, family members, and even a few poker personalities such as Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim Preston, and Jack Binion. The result was a multifaceted book that is applicable to an array of topics including golf, prop betting, organized crime, and of course poker.
After reading this book, which was released earlier this year, I was surprised to learn how many people in the poker industry had never heard of Titanic Thompson. He passed away in 1974 and never played in the World Series of Poker, though he did co-host the 1970 World Series of Poker (the first event, where Johnny Moss was voted the winner) along with actor Chill Willis. It was there, at the age 78, that Thompson received a trophy inscribed World Series of Poker—Living Legend—“Titanic.” Indeed, Thompson was a legend on par with poker greats like Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, and Nick “The Greek” Dandolos.
Often called “Ti” for short, Titanic was much more than a card sharp, he was one of the best proposition gamblers of all time; in fact, if you’ve ever read Amarillo Slim’s autobiography, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People, you’ve already read about Thompson’s exploits, many of which Slim adopted as his own. One of my personal favorites was when Ti dug up a road sign that read "Joplin 20," placed it five miles closer to town, and bet his friends the following day that the sign was wrong and that Joplin couldn’t be more than 15 miles away. Needless to say, he won that bet, as he usually did when there was money on the line. Here is a look at some other of Ti’s more notable feats, according to the book’s website:
- Bet he could drive a golf ball 500 yards — and won by teeing up beside a frozen lake.
- Conned Al Capone by throwing a lemon over a building — a lemon weighted with buckshot.
- Flipped a playing card through the air, cutting a flower off its stem.
- Made a loaded pistol disappear.
- Made putts by using a steel-centered golf ball — after he magnetized the steel cup liner in the hole
- Threw a peanut across Times Square, tossed a watermelon onto a skyscraper’s roof, lifted a 10-foot boulder, leaped over a pool table, and shot six bullets through one bullet-sized hole (those tricks are in the book)
Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything is the life story of a man who literally won and lost millions in the most interesting ways imaginable. Thompson thrived in an era much different than today, and he proved so captivating that Damon Runyon based Sky Masterson, the hero of Guys and Dolls, after him. I knew of Titanic before reading this book but didn't know too much. Having read the book, I was impressed with the author's ability to take a man who preferred to fly under the radar while alive, “Mine ain’t the kind of work publicity helps,” Ti would often say, and resurrect him for a new generation.
Kevin Cook talks about Titanic Thompson, legendary golfer, gambler and hustler:
Aside from playing poker and prop-betting, Thompson was a scratch golfer and this book delves heavily into that game’s early days, making it a must-read for any golf enthusiast. Moreover, Thompson was largely regarded as the best proposition golfer in the world, with abilities that could have easily allowed him to travel the pro tour. Why didn’t he turn pro? As he told Ben Hogan, “Pro golf’s not for me. I couldn’t afford the pay cut.” The tales told of Ti’s golf exploits are no less impressive and entertaining than all the rest, but I won’t dwell on them because they are not particularly poker related; nonetheless, if you’re interested in stories about Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd, among others, this book is for you.
The same can be said for those interested in pool: Ti was a top-notch billiards player who lost a million to Minnesota Fats only to win it all back after teaming up with the man. Likewise for any fan of either baseball or organized crime, because Thompson was associated with Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed baseball’s 1919 “Black Sox” World Series and even played in the poker game that ultimately resulted in the crime boss’s death. As it were, that association made him a witness in the Rothstein murder trial, which ultimately led to the completion of his nickname when the press got his last name, “Thomas,” wrong by spelling it “Thompson” in the papers, a name that Ti quickly embraced.
I could go on and on about all the stories I found interesting in this book (i.e. How Ti killed five men, married his women young, and reconnected with a long-lost son), but there are way too many Titanic tales to recount in a simple book review. Given the compelling circumstances of Ti’s life, I am astonished that his vivacity has not been immortalized on the big screen. It’d make for one hell of a film, and I imagine it’s only a matter of time before that finally comes to fruition.
With all that said, each account in the book is highly entertaining and teeters on the edge of unbelievable, with Cook doing a tremendous job tracking down sources and separating fact from fiction. If you’ve read the biographies of Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim, do yourself a favor and add this book to your poker collection. Titanic Thompson was original, sly, slick, cunning, and engaging, all adjectives that I would apply to this book.
To get your copy of Kevin Cook’s Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything or just to learn more on the man, be sure to check out the book’s website today.
*Photo courtesy of TitanicThompson.tumblr.com.