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The Observer recently read a newspaper column by Garrison Keillor in which he wrote of visiting a 96-year-old friend:
“He was talking about a con man named Titanic Thompson who in 1928 nailed the famous Arnold Rothstein in a rigged card game at the Park Central Hotel in New York to the tune of three hundred grand. ‘Titanic Thompson was the leading card mechanic of his day,' the old man said out of the corner of his mouth. ‘He knew how to shuffle a deck and change the weave.' ”
He knew a lot of things, did Titanic Thompson, and he learned a lot of them in Arkansas, his home state. How proud we should be of him is a question for debate.
Because he moved in a shadowy world where records were not well kept, many of the details concerning Thompson's remarkable career are vague, including those of the portentous poker game with Rothstein, who lost his life a few days after he lost his $300,000. Thompson was in the game, all right, and was later a witness at the trial of the man charged with shooting Rothstein, but he testified that the game was honest. He would, of course.
The Observer found more information about Thompson on CardCheaters.com.
“Titanic Thompson was one of the most famous hustlers/cheaters in history. He was a poker player, golfer, marksman and pool player who combined his skills with being a hustler, card cheat and dice manipulator. He is best remembered as one of the best proposition bettors who ever lived and many of his exploits have found their way to television shows and movies. The character of Sky Masterson in Damon Runyon's ‘Guys and Dolls' was said to be based on Thompson.” (And the character of Nathan Detroit was based on Rothstein.)
He was born Alvin Clarence Thomas in Rogers in 1897 (or 1892). Accounts of how he came to be called Titanic Thompson vary. One story is that he told people he'd been a passenger on the Titanic — this was untrue — and later somebody mistakenly called him Thompson instead of Thomas, and he liked the sound of “Titanic Thompson” and kept it.
He evidently made his way from Northwest Arkansas to El Dorado at some point, probably during the oil boom of the early '20s. Some of the stories that were told about him by Arkansas old-timers were set in El Dorado, such as the one about his winning a bet that he could throw a peanut over the Lion Oil building, having given the goober a thin layer of lead before hurling it. That sort of thing was what earned him his reputation as a great propositional bettor. He is supposed to have been the inspiration for a Runyon story in which a father tells his son that one day a stranger will approach him with a deck of cards and offer to bet that the Jack of Diamonds will jump from the deck and squirt cider in the young man's ear. “Do not bet him,” the father says, “because if you do, you will get an earful of cider.”
On the golf course, he would beat an opponent playing right-handed, then make a sizeable bet that he could beat him again playing left-handed. He was naturally left-handed.
Asked why he didn't play golf professionally, Thompson said that he couldn't afford to. In those days, hustling paid better.
A person of Thompson's talents would naturally end up in New York. He fit in perfectly with the gamblers and underworld figures there, and with their chronicler, Runyon. Rothstein was both gambler and underworld figure, best-known for having fixed the 1919 World Series, though his connection was never proved. In the marathon poker game, Rothstein became convinced that he was being cheated, and said so as he left, meaning that he wouldn't pay up. A few days later Rothstein was fatally shot, apparently by the big winner in the game, aggrieved that he'd failed to collect.
As for Thompson, he continued his high-stakes gambling, golfing and conning, according to the author David Pietrusza, and then, “At age 62 Tucson police sought his arrest for promoting a teen-age prostitution ring. He died in 1978 in a Fort Worth nursing home.” CardCheaters says he died in 1974.
The name of Titanic Thompson is not to be found in the on-line Encyclopedia of Arkansas, nor in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. He might merit consideration for both.
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