As more ways emerge for Americans to gamble every day, a new book has popped up to show us how we got here. Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything, penned by Kevin Cook, profiles one of America’s first high rollers and shows us the history of gambling in the USA.
Titanic Thompson became one of America’s first whales that won ten million dollars during his life. Though he had great success with golf, poker, and dice, Thompson was also a cheat who would rely on other people to con money out of people he would make wagers against. Poker legend Doyle Brunson tells stories of this man who was one of the first to live the gambler’s life to the fullest.
Some of the biggest legends in golf including Ben Hogan, Snead and Byron Nelson all praised him. Nelson believed he was as good as anybody playing at that time. The money in golf at the time wasn’t enough however to motivate Titanic to play professional. Even with all the historic stories and his place in an industry that is now big business, Thompson still ended up leaving this world broke. It was more about being the best in the room than the money for somebody like him. Author Kevin Cook speaks with me about many of these topics on this man who lived the gambling dream.
(Backup Player: Including IE)
Chris Yandek: Besides portraying this amazing gambler who started out in the early 1900s, was your goal also to capture the history of gambling in the United States of America because you really did?
Kevin Cook: “Well, yeah. I think you want to portray the world he’s in as well this remarkable figure – self taught gambler who’s understanding the odds in poker long before just about everybody else who anticipated a lot of things that happened in golf, who dominated the roaring 20s underground dice games that Damon Runyon wrote about. You can’t really understand him without following the world that he was such a big part of.”
CY: Was Titanic Thompson a gambler or was he a carnie/con man/grifter man? He needed help from others to pull off some of these bets that were con jobs. He obviously practiced a ton also with cards, dice and was an above average athlete, but did he do anything gambling wise not having some kind of con in it?
KC: “Well, he was capable of. The one thing he did was he’s not gonna make a bet that he’s not quite confident he’s gonna win. So while he was such a good golfer that Ben Hogan called him the best shotmaker he ever saw, he was able to beat you straight up usually. He wants to beat you by one shot so you want to play for ten times as much the next time and then he’ll play left handed and beat you that way. I think he was both a gambler and a cheat. His philosophy was, if you can’t beat em, cheat em.
He was perfectly capable of winning. He would’ve played on the tour if he hadn’t had to take such a drastic cut in pay to do so. I think the same thing happened in poker. He wasn’t a great, great, great card player and I think he relied a little bit more on his Confederates as the hustlers did in those days. He was not a great, great pool player. Second tier maybe in the world at that, but great enough at everything and a great practicer, somebody who was willing to practice his crafts for hours and hours at a time just to perfect it.”
CY: He never stayed in an area of the United States of America for a long period of time because he didn’t want to bring too much attention to himself. Though his life, Titanic had a few self-defense run ins and killed five people through all that. What do you think is the reason though he was never killed?
KC: “Well, he was quick. He knew that if you’re going to be playing at an illegal poker game in a back room in a pool hall somewhere or some hotel in Kansas City with hundred dollar bills stacked on the table and some heister as they called them, busts through the door, guns blazing, takes the money, you can’t go to the police and say, ‘Look what happened.’ You’ve gotta defend yourself. So he had his colt 45 and he knew how to use it. One of the things he was smart enough really in his fascinating, almost athletic way, he understood that even bad guys don’t shoot people very often. It makes them nervous. As he said, ‘Nervous people shoot high.’ So when somebody got the drop on him, he would instantly drop to one knee and spin and fire. And as you say, there’s four guys underground because of that. As he would’ve said, they all would’ve told you they had it coming if they still could.”
CY: There are a lot of different stories from poker legend Doyle Brunson for example, but besides him, who are other veteran gambling establishment figureheads, poker players and other gamblers still living today that tell these legendary stories of Titanic?
KC: “Well, Amarillo Slim encountered Ti quite a bit. Ti, famously they went and played dominoes and beat some rich men out of dominoes and on the train home, Titanic was kind of annoyed at Amarillo Slim for reasons Slim didn’t really know, but so Titanic cleaned him out on the way back and they didn’t play together for a while. I think one of the things that Slim did that Doyle Brunson was the same way was they didn’t want to gamble with Titanic for very much.
Toward the end of his career when they kind of still revered him as this remarkable figure from the past, they let him win a few hands and then when he’s cheating, dealing, they’d fold and he could take the ante. It was similar with golf with Howard Hughes, with Sam Snead. There were guys who recognized that they didn’t want to bet against this guy. He won mostly against overconfident rich suckers who were not professional players.”
CY: Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson all admired his talents. Though many say Titanic could’ve been a great golfer on tour, why do you think people were drawn to him moreso and how good of a golfer could he have been?
KC: “Well, they think he would certainly have been one of the top professionals of his day. There just wasn’t enough money in the game in those days. As Nelson said, Nelson, kind of a straight arrow, not a big gambler, but he would play matches in which the money man at his country club back him. He had a famous match against Titanic. This comes down in Legend as Titanic shooting 59 or some such score to beat Nelson, which isn’t really what happened. In fact, Nelson won that match.
They played 18 holes and Nelson won by two shots, only to find out later that Titanic had dickered with his backers and gotten three shots before the match. Titanic’s gonna beat you by one. Nelson said, ‘He was absolutely the equal of anybody else playing at the time, but he was out there playing for $15,000 a hole when Ben and Byron are trying to win a tournament that pays $1000 to win it.”
CY: He would only con Al Capone out of $500 once. Page 67 of the book I think sums it up great and here’s a quote from it, “For Ti, the width of his bankroll measured his victories not over the odds – there was no beating the odds – but over other men, starting with his father. His goal, his compulsion, was to prove he could beat any man at anything.” Do you think that was the major reason for his downfall in life and why he left the world with nothing coming from a life where he won 10 million dollars?
KC: “Well, I do and I think it’s one of those things about – people don’t change their stripes. If you’re a true gambler, you’re not really playing to pile up a lot of money. With rare exceptions, who stops when they he’s got enough money? You think that a million dollars is enough, but if you’re that kind of person, it’s just a way to keep score and you need now to take down the other guy in town who’s betting for a million dollars and there’s no real way to wind up ahead in that game. Your skills are going to erode, you’re gonna get old, the world is going to change around you. That did happen to him. I think when you look at the great “Nick The Greek”, who wound up playing in a bingo hall for nickels. He was still looking for a little action. As long as Titanic could prove that he’s the best in the room, that’s what mattered to him.”
CY: Speaking of “Nick The Greek” Dandolos, this guy was somebody who won and lost an estimated 500 million dollars, in Titanic’s case, 10 million dollars. You know I’ve always wondered why it’s so hard for a good amount of gamblers to have money management, treat gambling as some kind of business. You know too many people, the money we’re talking about here, more than anyone can ever think of. Why do you think a majority of gamblers just end up going broke? Is it a void? Is it filling a void or is it just something else?
KC: “Well, I think it really is that they’re not playing for the money. They’re playing for the action. I think a lot of athletes are that way. Athletes retire and they gamble on sports because it seems crazy that whole cities get excited about these guys who just happened to be wearing the same uniform. Like sports fandom doesn’t make any sense. If you live for action, then you’re probably not going to put all your money aside. The smart gamblers of course you know play like professionals and put some of it aside, play with the rest. But especially in the heyday I think of American gambling when you’re just tooling from town to town in your luxury vehicle and taking on whoever it takes to be the king of that town, you play for all you got. I think that he was emblematic of that, that it wasn’t about racking up money. It was really about scalps. It was about being the best in any situation and eventually that kind of living catches up with you.”
CY: There were many mentions in the book of where sporting events including the Blacksox Scandal was fixed, various other horse races and other events that were fixed as well. In recent years we’ve had stories of point shaving at the University of Toledo and of course NBA ref Tim Donaghy’s involvement in deciding outcomes of games. How often do you think the fixing of sporting events still goes on today?
KC: “I wish I had an inside track on that. I don’t think it’s common at all. How about you? Do you think it’s something that goes on constantly and we don’t know about it? I tend to think there is so much money at stake for people to make anyway. Tennis is another example. You wonder, these guys, it went on in tennis as well. It seems to go on constantly in cycling, but in cycling it’s a lot more the drug sort of cheating. I think point shaving is the kind of thing that is easier to perpetrate when you’re dealing with athletes that can’t make very much money otherwise. So if you’re a million dollar athlete, it’s not gonna be so susceptible, at least that’s not the naive take on it.”
CY: The three round match between Raymond Floyd and Lee Trevino was the last of its kind when it comes to head to head money matches in the 1970s. I’d love to just generally know what you think sports fans in general should know about it and why do you think it was the last of its kind?
KC: “I think it again was the time. We’re really at a moment in which these guys are about to become world famous and make millions of dollars playing legitimate golf. Both of these players, Trevino and Floyd were guys who gambled for a lot of money in their day and they kind of bridged the gap between Titanic’s generation when there’s far more money to be made in quiet informal gambling matches than there was on the tour itself.
Those guys come along and Floyd told Titanic. Titanic said, ‘You could make a lot more money traveling with me than you can do playing that tour.’ Floyd knew that the world was changing fast enough that that wasn’t really true anymore. He and Trevino go on to make gazillions of dollars not just as players, but as endorsers as you could do in their day. Titanic kind of returned to his more shadowy world and in which you played your big money matches with just two or three people in the gallery if that.”
CY: And a random historical perspective which I think many people would be surprised to know, during the battles of the Civil War when they weren’t fighting each other, the Confederates and the Yankees were playing poker with each other?
KC: “That’s something, it’s a different sort of war, not total war. They still kind of abided by the rules of engagement. So between battles, somebody would sneak between lines and the game was just coming into its modern form in those days. Great stories about Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers. They both knew the rules of poker and that was one way the game spread nationally from its Southern roots. Some Union soldiers, the Yankees, take it back up North and pretty soon everybody’s playing that game.”
CY: What do you think old timers like Titanic Thompson and others would think about this world of online gambling today and everything else going on in the industry?
KC: “I think Titanic and his ilk would like the action. There’s a lot more action than there used to be. I suspect he wouldn’t like the way that it’s become such big business because it’s harder to cheat when it’s big business. He would have a hard time doing what he used to do just marking cards and looking in a little mirror, a piece of mirror in your finger and dealing cold decks, dealing from the bottom like the old timers did. You can’t get away with that really in Vegas, which is one reason he didn’t like Vegas very much. I think he would really enjoy the action and not enjoy the fact that it’s probably harder to cheat than it ever used to be.”
You can purchase a copy of Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything clicking here
You can find out information more about the book and author Kevin Cook at http://titanicthompson.tumblr.com/