Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Titanic Thompson" by Kevin Cook

When Damon Runyon wanted to write a biography about "Titanic" Thompson, Mr. Thompson replied, "Mine ain't the kind of business publicity helps." So Mr. Runyon did the next best thing. He turned Mr. Thompson into "Sky" Masterson, the legendary gambler in his classic book "Guys and Dolls." And he was pretty much on the mark with his portrayal of this legendary figure.

Mr. Thompson was born in Monett, Missouri in a log cabin. It was Thanksgiving Eve 1892. His father was in a saloon, drinking and gambling when his wife gave birth to a baby boy they named Alvin Clarence Thomas. When the elder Mr. Thomas returned home the next day to his wife and newborn son, he was far from happy at the arrival of what he considered another responsibility. Within weeks, he would take the last $5 from the sugar bowl in the kitchen, and leave his wife and children.

Alvin's mother remarried, this time to a hog farmer in Rogers, Arkansas. The town was mainly concerned with producing apple vinegar. Life was hard, Alvin grew up poor and swore that he would leave someday. As a child he pitched pennies for practice. He was so good that he could make a coin lean up against a wall if he so desired. And when it came to cards, he was a sharp at the age when most kids are learning to read and write, which is something he didn't take the time to do.

But he could figure odds in his head. He knew the dice inside out, figuring all the odds against each possible roll. He learned to mark cards and shoot pool. In short, he bacame a self educated "sporting" man.

Promising his mother that he would never "smole or drink", he set out to become one of the most legendary gamblers who ever lived. He was friends with Minnesota "Fats", Lee Trevino, and in 1970 he co-hosted the First World Series of Poker with actor Chill Wills. But it's the years in between that are of the most interest.

He would, as Damon Runyon would later state, "bet that one rain drop would beat another" to the bottom of the window. Some of his bets were pure gamble, and others were calculated risks, taken after lenghty study by Mr. Thompson, who got the last name when a news reporter accidentally changed Thomas into Thompson, like the machine gun.

He killed his first man at age 16 aboard a river barge after the other man had thrown him overboard. The other man had lost at dice to Thompson and decided it would be easier to kill the young man rather than pay up. Thompson was able to climb back aboard, club the man over the head and then pitch him into the water, where he drowned.

He was a skilled marksman, carried two sets of golf clubs, one right handed, the other left. He was an expert self taught Craps shooter, as well as a shrewd card player. He could flip 52 cards, one at a time, across the room, landing them in his derby. He could also cheat with the best of the best, often letting himself be set up as the "mark", only to turn the tables on his unsuspecting opponents.

Along with the story of "Titanic" Thompson, the author serves up a complete history of the "bones", which we have come to call dice. He explains the "odds" concerning the toss, and even manages to find the time to record the entire history of cards and the game of poker. You will be fascinated with this portion of the book.

He married 4 times, and had a child he didn't see for almost 20 years while he traveled every back road and major city in the country. This is almost a mirror image of what happened between "Titanic" and his own Dad many years earlier.

After "Titanic" left home and began his quest to become a "self made man", he ran into a card game in New Orleans. It was 1911, four years since he had left home. He was 19 years old. He sat down to the game and quickly won $200. Playing back and forth for hours, the young man took $1,600 from his opponent, who then asked him what his name was. "I'm Alvin Thomas. You're my daddy, and I'm giving you your money back."

The book is filled with the names of every notable sports figure from Babe Ruth to Lee Trevino. The index to this 224 page book could well serve as an FBI roster. The stories are true, and the names and places are real. Before his death in 1974, Mr. Thompson became instumental in making poker the World Wide legitimate sport that it is today. Kind of like NASCAR, which had it's roots in running moonshine. A very entertaining and informative read which will leave you more knowledgable than when you began the book. Wanna bet?

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