Titanic Thompson, aka Alvin Thomas – Gambler and Killer

Titanic Thompson, one of America’s most notorious gamblers, was born as Alvin Clarence Thomas in Missouri in 1893. His father abandoned his mother just after Alvin was born, and she remarried a farmer who lived in nearby Arkansas. Alvin disliked school, but he disliked farmwork just as much. However he was a crack shot who often put food on the table with his hunting skills, and he excelled at pastimes such as penny toss and playing cards. At the age of sixteen he decided to leave home. His mother made him promise not to drink or smoke, a promise he kept. His clear head would serve him well throughout his life.

Alvin had a vague idea of tracking down his father – the mysterious “Lee Thomas” who had left him nothing but a name. He travelled through Missouri, working at first as a door-to-door map salesman and later as part of a travelling medicine show. One trick he developed during the show was the trick of throwing a dollar into the air and shooting a hole in it. He did this by palming his intact dollar, throwing up one pre-holed, and shooting to miss. Nobody ever cottoned on. At each stop he supplemented his income playing cards, growing to realise just how much money his skill could make him. This skill was not entirely legitimate – the young Alvin had developed his own system of marking cards with his fingernails that none of the country folk he played against could detect.

Gambling - headstuff.org
Gambling was illegal throughout 1910s America, but this did nothing to decrease its popularity.

It was in 1910 that Alvin first killed a man. He had been playing Joe Green, owner of a riverboat named the “Rambler”, at dice and eventually Joe was deep enough in the hole to put the deed to the boat on the table. Alvin won, and offered to let Joe stay on board working for him. Joe agreed, but on their first trip he invited a friend of his named Jim Johnson to come along. Alvin and Jim diced, and Jim accused Alvin of cheating. Whether that was true or not, or whether Jim had been asked aboard by Joe to sort out “the Derby Kid” [1] was irrelevant. The fight ended with them both going in the river, but Alvin had managed to catch Jim a blow with a hammer before they went in. Alvin survived, Jim drowned. Luckily for Alvin the local sheriff was corrupt, and handing over the deed to the “Rambler” saved him from a murder charge.

In 1911 Alvin finally caught up with his father. Lee was dealing a poker game in Louisiana, and Alvin joined the game. He refused to give his name until the end of the night, by which time he’d won sixteen hundred dollars. Only then did he reveal himself to be Lee’s son, and gave back the money. Alvin hung around with his father for a while, but soon realised that the type of man who ran out on his son was the same type of man who would steal money from that son’s bankroll while he slept. So Alvin said goodbye, and walked out of his father’s life forever in the spring of 1912. [2] It was that year that he earned the nickname “Titanic”, one fateful evening after he won a bet that he could jump clear across a pool table. The sunken ship was in all the headlines, so when a bystander asked the barman who that crazy kid was, the man replied:

I don’t rightly know, but it ought to be ‘Titanic’. He sinks everybody.

Titanic Thompson - headstuff.org
Ti in 1915 on a visit to Arkansas.

The name stuck, even though (or perhaps because) he was actually as skinny as a rake. Ti (as he started calling himself) was getting into the big time now. In Joplin, Missouri, Ti was hired by a local banker to teach a group of card sharks who had fleeced him a lesson. Ti cheated the cheats, and seduced the banker’s daughter as a bonus to himself. Over the next few years he taught himself new skills. He perfected the ability to throw cards into a hat, demonstrating his high level of natural hand-eye coordination. He developed a way of throwing dice that reduced the chance of them rolling, so that they skidded and came to rest with the sides he’d chosen upright. It didn’t work all the time, but it was enough to give him an edge – and he didn’t need to load the dice to do it.

In 1916 he married a seventeen year old chambermaid named Nora. He was a good provider, but was chronically unfaithful and after a year she divorced him. The same year, in Pittsburgh, he met a girl named Alice Kane. Or rather, he caught her picking his pocket. The two hit it off, and later that year he married her. Like Nora, she was only seventeen years old – Ti was rarely interested in any woman out of her teens. Unlike Nora, she was willing to let Ti go out on the road on his own. The pair became a fixture of Pittsburgh’s “lively” scene, while Ti continued his free-wheeling life on the road. Then in 1918 America entered the First World War, and Ti was drafted.

Titanic Thompson - headstuff.org
A photograph of Ti from 1929.

Ti’s intelligence stood out among the other draftees, and he was quickly made a sergeant and an instructor. The position kept him out of the trenches, and also gave him a position to run a lucrative gambling ring in Fort McClellan training camp. After seven months the war ended, and Ti never was shipped overseas. With his earnings, both legitimate and illegitimate, he went back to Arkansas and bought his mother a house in Missouri where she had family. On his way back to Pittsburgh he got into a card game in St Louis, where he won forty thousand dollars. The dealer tried to set him up to be robbed as he left, but Ti had hired a bodyguard and was (as was his custom) carrying a Luger in a shoulder holster. Ti shot the two robbers dead, and then (rather than run, as his bodyguard suggested) called the police and told his story. He had no permit for his gun, but the two men he had shot were both wanted men and he left St Louis with the police chief’s thanks.

Back in Pittsburgh he reunited with Alice, and the pair hit the town once more. It was a good life for Ti – tearing up Pittsburgh with Alice, running crooked dice games with her as his getaway driver for when things went bad. When the mood took him, he’d hit the road and travel wherever there was action. One of his most notorious coups was in Des Moines where he took on a professional horseshoe pitcher at his own game. Ti bet and won ten thousand dollars, and the horseshoe pitcher never realised Ti had set the stake a foot further away than it should have been. He also took part in card games, of course. When two would-be robbers burst through the door guns blazing, Ti’s bullets took one of them down. Once again he ended up with the thanks of the local police for eliminating a known and wanted criminal. That was the fourth man Ti killed.

Titanic Thompson - headstuff.org
Ti would play golf his whole life, well into his “retirement”.

It was on one of these trips that Ti first encountered golf. He saw a man on a driving range, and asked for a swing. His first shot went past three hundred yards, a huge distance for a beginner. When Ti was talking about this in town, the locals decided that he was pulling their leg, so he took on all their bets and headed out to the course. He took his swing, but the grass was wet and the ball didn’t roll. At two hundred and eighty yards Ti lost his bet, but he paid up without a murmur. He had got something better in exchange – the golfing bug. Ti took to golf like a fish to water. Though naturally left-handed, he had trained himself to be ambidextrous. His unusual mix of left-handed and right-handed clubs marked him out from the other players. His skill and focus did the same. Ti could have gone pro easily – but at the time the pros were earning $30,000 a year. Ti could make that in a week. One time in Chicago he spent a year betting everyone that he’d hit a five hundred yard drive before he left town. He cashed in the bet on a winter’s day, when Lake Michigan was frozen over. Ti hit his ball out onto the lake, where it flew two hundred yards – and then rolled a good half a mile more. The golfers, knowing when they were beat, paid up. [3]

It was around this time in the early 1920s that Ti became friends with Nicholas Dandalos, better known as Nick the Greek. Nick would become famous as one of the greatest professional poker players of all time, but right now he was just another easy rider like Ti. The two played poker together and would signal each other if they had a good hand. That way the other partner knew to stoke the betting and then get out of the way. Nick introduced Ti to Houdini, who Ti liked for his constant insistence that everything he did was just a trick. The pair compared card tricks, and Houdini was amused to discover just how much magic and card sharping had in common. Nick also introduced Ti to Al Capone, but this time Ti was far less impressed. He disliked Al, but nobody could make the kind of money he did in Chicago without cutting the boss in. Al arranged the games, and in return took a 25% cut. Still, he knew enough high-rollers that Ti made a hundred thousand dollars off those games. Al irked him enough though that he decided he had to con the man. So he had a setup – he’d bet Al that he could throw a lemon onto the roof of a five story hotel. The lemon he chose had been secretly filled with buckshot to make the shot easier. However Al was no fool – he bought a lemon of his own, squeezed it dry, and told Ti to make the shot. Ti made the shot – after he had palmed the squeezed lemon and used his original weighted one. Luckily for him, Al didn’t notice the switch.

Nick Dandalos - headstuff.org
Nick Dandalos, better known as “Nick the Greek”.

Ti and Nick headed on to southern California, where Ti cleaned up on the golf course and got cleaned out at the racetrack. Horse racing was the one thing he never mastered, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Years later he did his best to fix a race in Tijuana, bribing or intimidating every other jockey into letting his horse win. The horse fell before the finish line and broke her leg, and Nick the Greek had to send him enough money to put a bankroll together again. Golf was kinder, and a bet he won against a bootlegger got him a house in Beverly Hills. He phoned Alice and told her to sell the house in Pittsburgh and move out west. But Ti himself eventually tired of Los Angeles. Nick the Greek had moved to New York in the winter of 1927 where he’d become friends with Arnold Rothstein, the infamous crime boss who had bribed the Chicago White Sox to lose the World Series in 1919. Nick lost heavily to Rothstein and his friends, enough that his name started to become a punchline in New York.

It’s the first time anyone ever realised that Santa Claus was Greek!

Ti heard about his friend’s travails and arrived in town in the spring of 1928. After taking some time to get settled, he introduced himself to Arnold Rothstein. He laid on his native Arkansas accent and did his best to charm the crime boss. At the time Rothstein was being shadowed by the reporter Damon Runyon, himself a keen gambler. Runyon was fascinated by Ti, recognising him as a true character. Ti cultivated Rothstein as a friend, tripping the mobster whose nickname was “the Brain” into a series of proposition bets. Some were crooked – Ti would bet that they’d see a New Jersey car with a higher number plate than any of the New York ones, and then signal a driver he’d met earlier to come down the street. But some were not. One of these, that the Brain thought was a sure thing, was the bet that they could stop thirty strangers on the street and two would have the same birthday. Rothstein thought the odds were 365 to 30 in his favour. Ti, though, had studied statistics with an ex-university professor and knew that the chance was more like 70% on his side. He won the bet, and won Rothstein’s respect by explaining the maths behind it.

Arnold Rothstein - headstuff.org
Arnold Rothstein, known as “the Brain”, was the first person to realise how Prohibition was a windfall for organised crime.

Ti made Rothstein his friend, but he never actually liked him. He told Alice, who had come out to New York that Rothstein was “a swindler and a gangster and a very smug fellow”. It was the latter that irked him – Ti loved to cheat arrogant men. Rothstein had a bad habit of always collecting his winnings, and always giving out IOUs for his losses. In September Ti was finally ready to spring his trap on the Brain. The game was poker, and to allay Rothstein’s suspicions Ti had agreed to be his partner at the table. To fleece the mobster, Ti had recruited an out-of-towner – a friend of his from Los Angeles named Nathan Raymond. Once the game was going, Ti secretly recruited all the other players into the plot. By the end of the night, Rothstein was half a million dollars down – at least in theory. In practice, all they had was a stack of IOUs. By the start of November, Rothstein still hadn’t paid off his debts, and the pressure was starting to mount. George “Hump” McManus had organised the game, and he was the one responsible for making sure the IOUs were honoured. Hump made an arrangement to meet Rothstein on November 4th, and told him he had to honour the markers. Rothstein had a half a million tied up in bets on the Presidential election, and he tried to get Hump to hold off until he could collect on those in a couple of days. When it became clear he was about to leave and had no intention of paying, Hump and his three guards drew their guns. Who fired the shot is unknown, but just after 11pm the Brain staggered out into the street bleeding profusely. He was rushed to hospital, but died the next day. To the end, he refused to tell the police who had shot him.

Police investigated the room where Rothstein was shot, and caught a lucky break. McManus had left his coat behind, and his name was embroidered into it. He was arrested, but it wasn’t until a year later that the case finally made it to court. Ti was one of the witnesses called at the trial, as the prosecution had realised that the card game in September was the likely motive for the shooting. When asked what he did for a living, Ti made a notable understatement:

I play a little golf for money.

Titanic Thompson - headstuff.org
One of the many newspaper pictures of Ti on his way to the trial.

Technically Ti was a prosecution witness, but he echoed the party line of all the gamblers called to the stand: McManus was “a swell loser” who wouldn’t kill a man for welshing his debts. His comments made the papers, but most got his name wrong – for some reason, a lot of them described him as “Titanic Thompson”. Ti quite liked the alias, and so he decided to keep it. A month after the trial started, it ended in an acquittal. The judge told the jury that as there was no way to prove McManus had been in the room, they had to let him go. To this day, Rothstein’s murder remains officially unsolved.

Ti hit the road again, but the publicity from the trial made it impossible for him to return to the “easy rider” lifestyle. The police ran him out of Oklahoma City, and in Little Rock he was arrested for illegal gambling. While he was in jail, he received a vicious one-two punch. The first was that creditors digging through the remnants of Rothstein’s fortune had found an old IOU in his name, so now he actually owed the dead man’s heirs twelve thousand dollars. The second was far more personal. Alice, who had moved back to Pittsburgh, had been hit by a speeding car. The woman who had been his wife for the last twelve years, the only woman he ever really loved, was dead.

With his anonymity gone, Ti returned to somewhere he was well-known – Los Angeles. He became part of the moviestar set, and the widower sought consolation with starlets like Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow. Golf became his main means of earning, and here his fame made life a little easier – everyone wanted a crack at the infamous Titanic Thompson. He went back on the road again, and this was when he killed his fifth and last man. He shot a masked figure who was robbing his car, only to find it was the same kid who had caddied for him and seen the stakes he’d been betting for. The police accepted it was self defence, but Ti was warned he could face charges for a different reason – the two girls he had riding along on his road trip were only 17 and 15 years old. The forty year old Ti wound up marrying the fifteen year old Jo Ann Raney to avoid the charges.

Ti spent the next few years travelling around Texas, alternating between golf and cards with the men making millions on oil down there. He made a habit of recruiting partners, and he turned out to have an eye for talent – many of them went on to became stars in the golf pro scene over the next few decades, when it started paying out serious money. Ti was as good as any of them, but at the time he made more money as an “amateur”. One infamous trick he pulled in a match was to have the steel cups on the last three holes replaced with magnetised ones. Ti used a brand of ball that had steel centres, and his putts just couldn’t seem to miss.

Jo Ann and Tommy Thomas - headstuff.org
Jo Ann and Tommy, Ti’s eldest son.

In 1939 Ti finally decided to get in on the oil game himself. Oil had been found at Evansville, Indiana and Ti figured out a way to get in on the rush. He’d missed the initial grab, but he soon realised that a lot of the landowners refusing to sell their mineral rights were more motivated by a lack of trust in banks (after the depression) than by stubbornness. When Ti turned up at their farms with a suitcase of cash, then they were happy to deal. He soon owned a dozen oil wells, which earned him enough money that he could have retired. But Ti wasn’t the retiring type. In 1944, Jo Ann became pregnant. Ti didn’t want to be a father, but Jo Ann was determined to have the baby. So they made a deal – she’d give Ti a quiet divorce and he’d give her the oil wells. Ti signed away his stability without batting an eye. [4]

In the 1940s the rise of Las Vegas tied gambling down, and spelt the end for the easy riders like Ti. He didn’t like casinos – too difficult and dangerous to hustle in – but Vegas had some good golf courses, and the gambling culture made it a good hunting ground for him. In 1949 he remarried to a sixteen year old girl named Maxine. In 1954 Maxine became pregnant, so he moved out and divorced her. Less than happy, she tipped the cops off to raid his divorce party. They found him in bed with an underage girl. Ti got a two year sentence for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor”, though he only served eight months. Before he went to prison, he remarried again, this time to a friend’s eighteen year old daughter. He was sixty two years old. Five years later, when she became pregnant, he left her too. But three years later, he came back.

Raymond Floyd and Lee Trevino - headstuff.org
Floyd and Trevino at the Master’s Tournament in 2008. Source

By 1963 Tommy, the boy Ti had divorced Jo Ann over, was 18 years old. Just like Ti had done he came looking for his daddy. History was not repeated, though – the young Tommy wasn’t able to beat his father. Perhaps because of that, Ti welcomed the young man into his life. The famous gambler lived out his final years in Texas with his young wife and his two sons, hustling to the end. His last big score was a golf game he didn’t even play in. He’d met a young Mexican-American named Lee Trevino years earlier, but Trevino had decided to go pro. He was still a relative unknown, but Ti discovered that the players at his club were all rich, and they were all convinced their assistant pro could beat any man in the world. He also knew Raymond Floyd, an up and coming star on the PGA tour. Ti set up a match between the two in El Paso. Ti backed Floyd, while the Texas millionaires backed Trevino. The first day was an eye-opener for Floyd, who had once declared himself “the best golfer in the world”. Trevino, the little assistant pro, beat the man who the week earlier had won a PGA Open. The next day, he lost again. Ti was facing ruin, but he managed to persuade the locals to one final day. He bet twenty thousand dollars he didn’t have on Floyd. Ti knew the risk he was taking – he remembered Rothstein, and how men who didn’t cover their markers sometimes “woke up dead”. That final day pulled in a huge crowd, and the two men both played the golf of their lives. They were neck and neck teeing off for the eighteenth. It was a par five, and both men made it to the edge of the green in two shots. Floyd sank his eagle putt, and Trevino’s came to a stop right on the lip of the hole. The PGA champion won the round by a single stroke.

Titanic Thompson - headstuff.org
Ti as an old man.

It was honestly the best outcome for all concerned. Floyd kept his pride, Trevino proved he could play with the best player in the country, and Ti kept his skin. In 1966 Trevino qualified for the US Open. Five years later he won it, the Canadian Open and the British Open Championship – the first player to ever win all three of those titles in a single year. Ti kept on hustling golf and cards. In 1970 he co-hosted the first ever World Series of Poker. But by the time he turned eighty arthritis had robbed his famous hands of the skill he had used all his life. By his standards, that is – he could still make nine holes in par, though he had to take painkillers to do it. In the last year of his life he had to retire to a nursing home, where he died in May of 1974 of a stroke. In a life filled with ups and downs, in the end all he left his family was a roll of twenties, and the oil wells that had passed down to his son Tommy. It wasn’t much, but it was better than even.

Images via wikimedia and “Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet On Everything”.

[1] Alvin’s first nickname, from his distinctive hat. It didn’t stick.

[2] Reportedly Ti admitted to his son Tommy much later that he never did actually manage to find Lee Thomas – he’d just made the story up rather than admit his failure.

[3] The gambler’s code at the time held that complaining about being cheated was shameful, because it meant you were saying you were dumb enough to be cheated.

[4] It was probably a good deal. Between his infidelity and her young age when they first met, she could easily have shredded him in a divorce court.