A golfer, a gambler, and hustler who is a force of personality in the early 20th century.
Titanic Thompson was born plain old Alvin Clarence Thomas in rural Arkansas on November 30 1892 (see Raising Titanic). Still awash with the detritus of the Wild West and the American Civil War, it was a pitiless era where the men drank and gambled with abandon and the women, if they knew what was good for them, kept their mouths shut. Ti’s father Lee - himself no stranger to moonshine and seven-card stud - skipped town when Ti was five-months-old and left him to be brought up by his God-fearing stepfather, who used him as cheap labour on the farm right up until the day, aged 16, when he packed up his meagre belongings and headed off in search of caper.
By the beginning of 1925, Ti had spent 18 months in near permanent residence at the Kingston Club in San Francisco. With his skills at counting cards honed from years on the road, he and fellow legendary gambler, Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandolos, had won two million dollars in high-stakes poker games against lawyers, politicians, bootleggers and bankers. The games were lengthy, often going on until dawn, though rather than sleep during the day, Ti would be out on a local muni practising his new favourite pastime; golf (see A New Hustle). And he didn’t have to wait long for it to become an earner.
With his San Franciscan victims less and less willing to part with their cash – and a growing taste for diamonds and tailored suits – Ti and his second wife, Alice (see Loves, Labours, Lost), moved to Beverly Hills. There were three reasons for this. Normally, the desire to first mix with, and then fleece, the wealthy businessmen and actors would be the driving forces. But Titanic was hooked, and wanted to gain tutelage under Ed Dudley - then the finest teaching pro in the world - at Hollywood CC.
Arriving in LA fresh from the Brainer hustle (see The First Golf Hustle), Ti purchased a rambling, Spanish Colonial house from a left-handed golfer named Ed Jones. A keen, if average, golfer himself, Jones was soon on at Ti to tackle him over 18 holes at Hollywood. The pair played several times, with Ti playing right-handed and failing to break 100 on every occasion. At dinner one night, with the bait in place, Ti began needling Jones over the paucity of his game. “Ed, why in the hell do you keep trying to play golf? I mean, the cold, hard fact of the matter is that you can’t play a crying lick. I honestly believe I could take your own clubs and beat you left-handed.” “You’re hardly a goddamn champion yourself, if you’re serious about playing me left-handed, I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I got $5,000 says you can’t beat me with my own clubs.”
The next morning, Titanic hammered him by 15 strokes, and word quickly spread of his ambidextrous exploits. Unfortunately for Ti, word spread in the wrong direction, and a few days later he was hijacked by two masked gunmen as he left the range. The pair robbed him of $12,000 and, despite his protestations, Alice told an LA policeman that her sister was friendly with and he tracked the hijackers down to a nearby apartment. Holding the pair at gunpoint, the officer called Thompson and told him, “that they were working for a man named Ed Jones...”
Racing to Jones’s house waving a pistol, Ti found only removal men and a ‘Sold’ sign in the front yard. To compound his anger further, the officer did a runner with the $12,000. People, as he would often say, just aren’t to be trusted. But he couldn’t be down for long; he was raking it in at the cardtables and his game was shaping up nicely under the watchful eye of Dudley. And, as ever with Ti’, it wasn’t long until the next big hustle came along.
The good ol’ boy who swapped
southern discomfort for bets, birdies and
Titanic Army Uniform
Despite word-of-mouth exposure of Titanic’s exploits, it was a cocky amateur called George Von Elm whose name graced the sports pages that year. He’d beaten the legendary Bobby Jones for the 1926 US Amateur title and, on returning to the coast, was miffed to find another golfer as the darling of LA. He’d heard the stories of how Ti would always beat his opponent by a stroke or two, whether it took 100 or 65, and he wanted to prove that Thompson was nothing but a lucky hustler.
Ti also knew of Von Elm, and though he had little reason to play the US Amateur champion, he did want a way into the pockets of Von Elm’s friend, the Hollywood director, Howard Hughes.
Sitting in the pro shop one day, Von Elm noticed Ti on the driving range and turned to Ed Dudley, “Ed, I hear you’ve given Titanic Thompson some lessons. How good is he? Really?” “George,” he replied, “for my money that skinny fella out there is one stroke better than any golfer in the world.” Annoyed at the perceived slur, Von Elm marched out to the practice tee. “Hey Ti, why don’t you throw away those beat up old sticks and let me buy you some new ones?” Ti didn’t even bother to turn around. “I’ve been doing pretty fair with these. Wanna play?”
“Listen, mister,” spat the cocksure tyro, “I’m one of the best golfers in the country. I keep hearing you’re pretty good, but don’t see you playing no tournaments. Hell, yes I want to play. We’ll play 18 and I’ll spot you nine shots. Hundred dollars a hole.” Finally, Ti looked up. “Get your sticks boy, we got us a game.”
By the time the match got to the ninth green, the pair were level. Ti faced a three-foot putt while Von Elm was 30-feet away. With no shots used, Von Elm knew that he had to win that and every other hole to defeat his nemesis. After studying his line for a minute, the man who had beat Bobby Jones threw down his putter and stormed off to the clubhouse. It was the one and only time they played. Weeks later, Von Elm tried to get one over on Ti by shipping in a pro from Omaha who proceeded to play badly for days before approaching and offering him a challenge. Had Von Elm not walked to the first tee with a grin on his face, Ti may have lost. Von Elm should have listened to Ed Dudley; Ti shot 65, one off the course record, to beat the pro by a stroke.
Arriving in New York in 1928, Ti quickly saw that there wasn’t much action to be found that wasn’t already fixed in one way or another, and decided that the Big Apple was a proposition town. To his mind, if he could not control the game, he wanted no part of it. And golf was a game he could control. One night at a poker game, he met Leo Flynn, who’d managed world heavyweight champion, Jack Dempsey. “There’s a pro called George Mcclean out in Westchester County,” drawled Flynn, “thinks he’s the best damn golfer alive.” With Ti confident he could beat anyone, Flynn said he’d put up the money, and the plan was set. Two days later, after sending word to Mcclean that he’d be coming, Ti turned up with sticks in hand. Mcclean had heard the legend, but thought that Thompson must be a far better hustler than golfer, and he was proved right when he beat him by ten strokes for $2,500. Showering his opponent with praise over an iced-tea, Ti played the role of gracious loser to perfection. “You’re a good guy, Thompson,” said Mcclean, “and if you ever want a chance to get your money back, let me know.”
Ti set the bet at $20,000 and beat Mcclean on the last hole with a cracking display of gamesmanship; forcing Mcclean to have a side bet on every hole and never letting him settle into his rhythm. “Ti,” said Flynn as they got into the car, “God knows where you’d be today if you’d put this kind of planning into something honest.” “Probably too broke to pay attention,” came the reply.
Both in New York and on the road, the next few years were good to Ti. Aces and double-sixes came regularly, and his golf hustling was still of the highest order. He beat one long-drive champion out of $20,000 by allowing the man three drives on every hole, leaving him too tired to swing. He hooked up with future World Series of Poker champion, Johnny Moss, to fleece $50,000 out of a group of highrolling country club members, and won a sizeable amount through the infamous icy lake bet where, after betting another group of rich buffoons that he could drive a ball 500 yards, he teed up left of the fairway and watched it roll for a mile over the ice.
Writer Damon Runyon was transfixed with Ti, and immortalised him in Guys n’ Dolls, as Sky Masterson, a high stakes gambler who was played in the 1955 film version by Marlon Brando. His ego may have loved this attention, but it was bad for business.
Ti returned to Fort Worth, Texas in 1934. With his fifth killing (see In Cold Blood) still playing heavily on his mind, he was a little out of sorts but still up for action, and he soon found it. After finishing a profitable round at the Tennison Golf Course one afternoon, he was approached by three strangers who asked if he would like to play Byron Nelson for $3,000. Though Nelson was still three years away from claiming his first Major, every clubhouse in the south was beginning to ring with tales of his extraordinary shot-making ability. Ti had heard the same stories, but he had yarns of his own, and doubted that Nelson had much experience of hustling.
On the day of the match, every known gambler in Texas turned up to see the pair lock horns. Johnny Moss even left a poker game in Oklahoma to make it. After nine-holes, Nelson was two-strokes to the good. To all in attendance, it was clear this was more than just a money match and the galleries were as silent as the players. On the back-nine, Ti posted six consecutive birdies, and finished in a record 29 strokes to beat the future best player in the world.
With Ti constantly trying to avoid publicity where possible, any re-telling of his story will always contain gaps, and in that sense.
With America in financial meltdown, he continued to make millions throughout the Great Depression. He moved to Illinois in the late
30s and made $3 million on the oil boom, only to lose most of it chasing lame horse after lame horse. He married third wife Joanne and became a father aged 52, before leaving her for fourth wife Maxine in 1946. He moved to Arizona and became a champion trap-shooter, and was at relative peace until being sentenced to
"People, as he would often say, just aren’t ato be trusted. But he couldn’t be down for long."
two years for ‘contributing to the delinquency of a minor,’ when one of the hostesses at a party he’d thrown was found to be underage. He was released in late 1954, and headed straight to New Mexico with fifth wife Jeanette to tap into the latest oil boom. After making, and losing, another boatload of money he fathered another son aged 67 and they moved back to Fort Worth in 1962. They were soon joined by Ti’s first son Tommy who, after losing $400 to his dad on the first day they met, stayed around long enough to learn every trick in the book and become one of the best poker players in America.
If there is no mention of golf across these decades, it’s because it was his one constant. Women, kids, oil and cash would enter and leave his life in a trice, but he always had golf. He played left and right handed, blindfolded, in a sling and even once turned up in a wheelchair. And if he wasn’t hustling, he’d be in his yard practising his short game.
In 1968, aged 76, Ti moved to Dallas. Even though he still played, age and ill-health had taken 50 yards off his drives, and his last jaunt saw him fly down to Mexico to back future fourtime Major winner, Ray Floyd, against a then unknown named
Lee Trevino. Over the course of four days, Ti lost $40,000 as Supermex showed the skills that would win him seven Majors. At this time, Ti was taking pills for his heart conditon and sleeping pills to cure his insomnia. On the way back from Mexico, he and his travelling partner, a man named Ace Darnell, stopped at a country club in El Paso for one last hustle. It was to prove a disaster. Ti took the wrong pill and, at one-point, completely missed a chip shot. “Goddamn it Ace,” said a dejected Ti, “I’m 76 years old. There was a time when I beat Byron Nelson. Hell, I helped Sam Snead straighten out his backswing and Ben Hogan said I was the best shotmaker he’d ever seen... and now I can’t even whip that sonuvabitch.”
In 1971, Ti was asked to compere the World Series of Poker, which was won by his old friend Johnny Moss. One night, he and Jeanette were playing dominoes and he began to ruminate on the money he’d seen at the World Series. “I’m a man who doesn’t have many regrets,” he told her, “but I wish now that I’d been a little smarter and saved something. I wish I’d have been able to see down the road, beyond the next game. Yeah, I regret that most of all.”
It was a regret that resulted in his fifth and final divorce. Jeanette was no longer able to care for Ti and hold down a job and, unless they divorced, the state wouldn’t pay for the care that he needed. In August 1973, Jeanette filed for divorce and drove her husband to the rest home on the outskirts of Fort Worth. “I love you Slim,’ she cried, ‘don’t you ever forget that.”
It goes without saying that he gambled with his fellow patients. When the weather was warm, he would hassle one of the nurses into taking him to a nearby pitch ‘n putt course where, for old times sake, he would hustle a two-dollar game and then amaze everyone present by shooting the course in par. He never let his victim walk away without telling him he’d been beaten by Titanic Thompson.
In May 1974, aged 82, Ti suffered a stroke. The man who had hustled through two-world wars, slain five men and married five women was found dead in the bedroom of his nursing home. Fifty miles away, on Tennison Golf Course in Dallas, four gamblers were playing when a teenage caddie approached in a golf cart. “Fellas,’ he shouted, “Titanic Thompson has died.” After a pause, one of the men spoke. “You ever know Titanic Thompson, boy?” “Can’t say that I did sir,” he replied. “But you say he’s dead?” “That’s what I heard.” “Well son, likely he is dead. But take my advice and don’t go betting any money on it.”
If that sentence is a fitting epitaph, then the man himself should apply the full stop. In his hustling heyday of the mid
1930s, someone asked Ti why he had never had a crack at the professional golf circuit. “Well son,“he said, shuffling his deck of cards. “It’s because I couldn’t afford the cut in pay.”
LEFT PAGE: Titanic OAPTHIS PAGE FROM LEFT: Titanic Left Hand Swing; Titanic Shotgun Family.