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Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything Hardcover – November 22, 2010
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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From Publishers Weekly
Cook (Tommy's Honor), a former Sports Illustrated editor, introduces his portrait of the larger-than-life "Titanic" Thompson (1892–1974) as a self-made man from the Ozarks who loved games of chance and had a knack for winning incredible sums of money. In a lyrical account of the gambling legend who inspired Damon Runyon's character Sky Masterson (Guys and Dolls), Cook describes Thompson as a "rogue wind that lifted girls' skirts and turned gamblers' pockets inside out." Thompson possessed the steel nerves of a card shark, the bravado of an outlaw, and the staying power of a satyr, preferring his girls young and pretty. Rumor has it that he drove a swank Pierce-Arrow (driving from town to town to ply his hustling trade), carried a gun (he reportedly killed five men) and a suitcase full of cash, and rubbed elbows with Houdini, Capone, and gamblers Arnold "the Brain" Rothstein and Nick the Greek. Thompson excelled at golf before PGA Tours began, competing with professional golfers Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Cook's raucous narrative introduces readers to an eccentric, fascinating personality. 20 illus. (Nov.) (c)
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In one respect, this biography of a gambler intersects with Cook’s previous title, Tommy’s Honor (2007): it involves beaucoup de golf. For the Thompson in question—whose real name was Alvin Thomas—was skillful enough to set up country-club hustles with such future icons as then-unknowns Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. However, Titanic’s interest was not in the sport but in the spread, and as late as his 70s (in the 1960s), Thompson was booking wagers on a match he arranged between kids named Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd. By then, Thompson may have aged, but his wives never did: five times married, Titanic affianced each one in her teens, winning dames over with his charm, looks, bankroll, and dangerous, predatory lifestyle. Cook has Thompson killing at least five men. Fascinated by how Thompson, a clever conniver who Cook recounts as cheating at poker, dice, checkers, billiards, horses, and, naturally, golf, was never plugged himself, readers will revel in every rambunctious page about an outlaw spirit who lurked on the frontiers of society, sports, and fair play. --Gilbert Taylor
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But is it? I guess that depends on what engages you.
Titanic's actual strong suits were Golf, Poker, and, well, throwing things. To that end, he cruised across the country hustling people with proposition bets. The meat of the book seems to repeat the same basic story: "one day Ti arrived at this town and set up this gaff bet. He lured one or more suckers into taking it. Then he cashed in."
Many of his skills were hard-earned and impressive, the result of thousands of hours of practice and a keep mind for odds... golf in particular, but also pitching cards, coins, or horseshoes. He'd feign incompetence at these and then reel in naive bystanders. Others bets revolved around lame tricks like "I bet I could throw this watermelon onto the roof of that building." (Whereupon he takes the elevator to the roof of a taller neighboring building and drops it).
Some of the stories are tough to swallow and sound heavily romanticized, if they happened at all. The author explains that he had to leave some stuff out because it was too implausible and not verified. I'm guessing most of the info came from Titanic himself, and it sounds like it has a hustler's spin on it... doesn't sound like much cold, unvarnished truth snuck in. For example, his wife knew he slept with other women on the road but didn't mind because of prowess in bed and his "titanic" proportions below the waist. Really?
Well anyway, the book is loaded with historical context and gives you a sense of what life was like through the Depression and beyond, during an exciting time in the country's growth. At least some of it is factual.
I think Titanic was probably more interesting in person than on paper. His life seemed to follow a predictable routine for decades... blow into town, hustle some golf or poker scores, make proposition bets, partner up (or fleece) other gamblers, then move on to the next town once the action dried up or he got arrested.
I suspect this man had huge amount of charisma and personality, and some of it is lost in this book. Without that personality to make the man likeable, what we're left with is an unappealing character... someone who didn't work, cheated at everything, hustled strangers and friends alike, picked up teenage girls (then impregnated them and left town), and avoided most of the consequences.
I guess I enjoyed the book, but it was despite Titanic and not because of him.
He figured out that golf could provide large gambling pots, and he worked harder than anyone around the greens, he figured out that's where the scoring was. He beat many touring pros, even a Masters champion. Why didn't he join the tour? He couldn't live on the little prizes they won.
If you want to get a feel of a master gambling back in the days of mobsters (he played poker with Arnold Rothstein), up until the Vegas million dollar poker tournaments now on espn, you'll love this book.
I recommend this book to all who enjoy a good story about little known people that lived larger than life. Few readers will not enjoy the time spread on this book.