Kevin Cook is the author of Titanic Thompson: The Man who Bet on Everything, due out in November from W.W. Norton.
Who was Titanic Thompson?
He was one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century. His life intersects with Al Capone and Harry Houdini. Hogan and Nelson looked up to him. He was born in 1892 in a log cabin in the Ozarks. He left home at 15 with nothing and started traveling. He was self-taught and he was charmer. He had a computer-like mind for the odds in poker. He would cheat and mark cards like you wouldn’t believe. He cheated at everything.
So he was a scam artist and a gambler who found golf to be easy prey for suckers.
What drew me to Titanic and to Old Tom Morris, who was the subject of my last book, was that Titanic was a guy that I had heard about through the years from old pro golfers who talked about him as this guy who did some unbelievable things. So for years I kept waiting for the movie to come out and it never did. So after awhile I decided that I would go out and try to sort out the fact from the legend on this guy.
When did he emerge as a golf hustler?
He was 40 years old before he ever started playing golf. What he realized is that there is a lot better money in golf than there is in shooting pool. He used to hustle pool with Minnesota Fats. While the pro golfers of his day might play for $10,000 in a whole year, Titanic sometimes played for as much as $15,000 a hole. He could play left-handed or right-handed.
What were some of his main golf scams?
He would let you beat him by a couple of strokes. Then he would tell you lets play for ten times what we just played for and I’ll play left handed. He would also team up with a lot of noteworthy pros before they were famous. He teamed up with Herman Keiser who won the 1946 Masters. He could take these great players on the road with him because this was before TV. So they didn’t have famous faces. They would travel with him and pretend to be his caddie — dressed in overalls.
Did Titanic really beat Byron Nelson in a match in 1934?
Nelson was a real straight arrow. He wasn’t a big gambler. In those days you would play and a friend would stake you. So Nelson’s big money friends in Forth Worth would back him. Byron didn’t want to know how much he was playing for. Nelson is reaching his prime and he beats Titanic by a stroke. Only later did he find out that before the match that Titanic had arranged with Nelson’s backers to get three shots. So he won the bet. He would famously beat a guy by a shot to encourage him to play for more money.
What was Titanic’s relationship with Hogan?
He once helped Hogan get work at an illegal gambling house between Dallas and Ft. Worth. Hogan told Harvey Penick that Titanic was the best shot maker that he had ever seen.
Why didn’t he play the pro tour?
Titanic would always answer that question by saying that he couldn’t afford the cut in pay. By the time the money was significant on the tour he was too old to play. Also he wasn’t a guy who was going to wake up early or play when somebody told him to play. He set up his own matches.
What’s the story behind the bet that he could drive a ball 500 yards?
He made this bet in the middle of the summer in Chicago. But he didn’t say when he would do it. Some of Capone’s cronies chipped in thousands of dollars to cover him. December comes around and he goes out to the frozen Lake Michigan and drives the ball onto the ice. These were called proposition bets and this was his specialty. He would make a crazy sounding bet and sometimes guys would just bet him to see if he could pull it off.
That sounds like a scene out of Tin Cup.
Gary McCord was a big fan of Titanic and he knows all of these stories. So he adapted some of them for the movie.
In the book you talk about Titanic traveling through the South with Lee Elder, the first black to play in the Masters in 1975.
Titanic loved company on the road. He drove this big Pierce-Arrow car. Sometimes he would drive 60 mph backward just to prove that he could do it. In those days it was pretty unusual to have a black golfer and white golfer traveling together. He would pass Elder off as his caddie and his driver. He unsuccessfully tried to get Raymond Floyd and Lee Trevino to join him in this same scam, but he did set a match between them in 1965 that Trevino won. Thompson lost this bet, however.
Did Titanic have rivals?
There were other people who did the same thing like John Montague and Jeanne Carmen, who was the most famous female golf hustler. She did this trick where she would stack three balls on a tee and drive the middle ball 200 yards, the top ball would pop up and she would catch it and the bottom ball stayed on the tee. But Titanic didn’t really have enemies. There was a great Indiana pool player by the name of Daddy Warbucks who once came after Titanic with a gun. But they ended up working together.
What happened to Titanic?
He wound up broke like seemingly most gamblers. The match between Trevino and Floyd was his last shot.
Is there a lot of gambling today on the PGA Tour?
Yes, but I think it’s mostly for fun during the practice rounds. These guys are making so much money now. Most of the old-timers will tell you that the gambling was a lot more important in their day. When Hogan and Nelson were on tour they could make more money by playing each other than they could in the tournament. When Herman Keiser won the Masters he got $2,500. He made that in a day sometimes with Titanic.
How did Alvin Clarence Thompson get the nickname Titanic?
He went into a pool hall in Joplin, Missouri shortly after the Titanic sank in 1912. He sees a sign that says that $200 will go to anyone who jumps over a particular pool table. He comes back with an old mattress and gets a running start and does a flip over the pool table into the mattress. He wins the $200. The owner of the pool hall says I don’t know his name but it ought to be Titanic because he sinks everybody.
Is it harder today to do what Titanic was able to do in his day? Do people take fewer risks because of our relative comfort to most people in Titanic’s day in the first part of the 20th century? Are we less naÃ¯ve?
In Titanic’s day people admired outlaws. Also you have to remember that word didn’t travel as fast as it does now. He would go into one little town and just take all the money and on down the road he would go.
How much money did he make hustling?
In San Francisco playing cards with Nick the Greek he got around $1 million. There were many times on the golf course where he would play for $30,000 to $50,000. He certainly went through many millions of dollars in his day.
Where is Titanic buried?
Colleyville, Texas, near Dallas. He died in 1974.
Is there one of his scams that you want to try?
Yes. I can throw a watermelon to the roof of a 20-story building. The way you do that is that you take an elevator to the 21st floor, and after you’ve made the bet you walk over to a window and pitch it off the side to the roof of the 20-story building.