In a new five-part series writer Christian Henkel digs deep into Las Vegas history to uncover the truth behind some of the gambling world's most notorious figures.
First up: Titanic Thompson. Check back weekly for more profiles.
By Christian Henkel
He killed five men and married five women. He bet against Al Capone and won.
He hustled golf and lost at horse-betting. He became so famous his life was eventually turned into a musical.
This is the story of one of the men who made Las Vegas what it is today – the greatest and craziest city on Earth.
Archetype of the Poker-Playing Golf Hustler
This guy's going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear.
But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.
- Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson to Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls
Long before Las Vegas produced its first "poker stars," Alvin Clarence Thomas - better known as Titanic Thompson or “The Unsinkable” - became America’s biggest gambler and truly a living legend.
Between the 1920s and the late 1960s he made millions of dollars playing golf, poker and making prop-bets – and he lost almost everything again because of his fatal attraction to betting on horse races.
Hustlers and golf-playing poker pros of today still rely on the ideas of Thompson when it comes to crazy side-bets on the golf course.
As Doyle Brunson once said about him: “If Johnny Moss was the typical golf-playing poker pro, then Titanic Thompson was the archetype of the poker-playing golf hustler.”
Set Out with Less Than a Dollar
In 1908, when he was just 16 years old, Thomas left his home in Arkansas to conquer the world of hustling and gambling.
When he set out he could neither read nor write properly and had less than a dollar in his pocket.
He was drafted late during the First World War, and while he made it to Sergeant, he also reportedly made $50,000 betting with his fellow soldiers.
After his return he went on to become the most infamous gambler in the history of America.
He had incredible hand-eye-coordination and with his neverending, cooked-up stories and empty promises he lured countless victims into brazen bets they could never win.
He once bet gangster boss Al Capone that he could throw an orange onto the roof of a five-story building. Thompson had already played that trick before with a peanut that he filled with lead.
Capone allegedly sniffed it out and personally squeezed the orange but Thompson managed to swiftly exchange it for a more aerodynamic lemon, threw it on the roof and won $500.
After that he had earned himself the lifelong respect of the most dangerous man in America.
The Greatest Action Man on Earth
Thompson invented a legendary bet which he frequently used and that earned him cost-free stays in some of the best hotels in the United States.
The bet was simply that he could throw his room key into its hole.
The trick, however, was in the wording because when someone took the bet Thompson didn’t throw the key into the key hole. He threw it into the pigeon-hole behind the reception.
Before he turned 40 Thompson had won several million dollars betting, playing poker and throwing dice. He had also killed five men, successfully claiming self-defence each time and married four times (he married again later).
People compared him with Merlin the Wizard. Legendary pool hustler Minnesota Fats once called him “the greatest action man on Earth."
By 1930 Thompson had discovered his love for golf. At the time he was mostly making money joining with Nick “The Greek” Dandalos and playing poker with lawyers, politicians, bankers and alcohol smugglers.
The games would often last well into the early hours of the morning. But Thompson didn’t head to bed afterwards - he went to the golf course.
It didn’t take long until he had found a way to make money there. He once took $20,000 from a golf champion who was famous for his long drives by offering him three drives per hole.
Before long the man was so exhausted he couldn’t even get one proper drive done anymore.
A Bet So Good Even Amarillo Slim Copied It
His most famous and infamous bet was so good even legendary hustler Amarillo Slim copied it.
He bet against several millionaires that he could drive a golf ball over 500 yards. At the time, around 200 yards was the absolute maximum.
Thompson waited until the winter came, went with his partners to a golf course and then drove the ball over a frozen lake on the course. The ball went over a mile before it stopped.
Aside from all the outrageous gambling and betting that he did Titanic Thompson was also considered the best amateur golfer of all time.
He played - and emerged victorious - against a whole range of golfers who later won major titles.
In the 1940s, when he was at the peak of his abilities, he was asked why he never tried to go pro.
“Oh, well," he answered, shuffling a deck of cards, “the salary is so low, I just can’t afford it.”
At the time a PGA professional could earn up to $30,000 a year. Thompson made that kind of money with a single bet.
He Might Be Dead, But I Wouldn't Bet On It
In May 1974, the man who had become an idol since Brando played his character Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, suffered a stroke.
After seven decades of gambling, betting and fooling people, time finally took its toll. He was found dead at age 82.
A little later, 50 miles from where he was found, a young caddie drove his cart past a couple of golfers and told them, “Titanic Thompson is dead.”
After a short break one of the men asked, “Have you ever met him, boy?”
“No,” said the caddie, “never had the honor.”
“But you’re saying he’s dead.”
“Yes, sir, that’s what I heard.”
“Well,” said the golfer, “he might be dead, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Titanic Thompson rarely spoke about his life. But three years before his death he hosted the World Series of Poker, which was won by his old friend Johnny Moss.
Afterwards, he thought about all the money that was lying on the table and said:
“I don’t regret much in my life, but I wish I had been smart enough to put more money on the side.
"I wish I had thought about the future a little more, further than just the next game. That’s the one thing I blame myself for.”