Alvin Clarence Thomas was one of the great gambling hustlers of the modern era. He was born in the Ozarks near Monnet, Missouri, on 30 November 1892. There are several different stories about why he was called “Titantic”. Some refer to the notion that he was unsinkable, unlike the ship. Others suggest that when he won a lot of money, he was on the top of the world, but that he would often sink rapidly if he continued to play. For many years he was “Titanic Thomas”, but once a newspaper mistakenly called him “Titanic Thompson”, and he did not bother to make a correction, perhaps liking the sound of the name better. After all, he was not fond of being called Alvin Clarence either – why not change it all. Titanic was renowned for the proposition bet. He loved all games, and he loved to participate in physical games as well as to turn cards or roll dice. As a teenager, he trained his dog to dive into a fifteen-foot-deep pond to retrieve rocks he threw. One day he “chanced” upon a fisherman who had a modern rod and reel that the teenager coveted. He engaged in conversation with the fisherman, who said he sure liked the dog. Thompson made a wager – “I’ll bet my dog against your rod and reel that my dog can fetch this small pebble from the bottom of the pool if I throw it in”. The bet was made, and to ensure that all was on the up and up, Titanic marked the pebble with an X. He threw it in, the dog jumped after it, dived to the bottom of the pool, and brought up a pebble in his mouth. The pebble was marked with an X. Thompson won his first proposition. He neglected to tell the fisherman that he had spent the previous day marking pebbles with X’s and lining the pool with them.
His talents as an athlete were renowned. Al Capone once wagered that Thompson could not throw an orange over a five-story building. Titanic extracted a good odds advantage and then indicated that he needed a harder orange. He returned from a fruit stand and threw the “orange” over the building. In fact, with sleight of hand he had changed the orange for a harder and smaller lemon. Capone just laughed and paid him off, not knowing he had been tricked.
Titanic Thompson was an accomplished golf player, and he hustled millions of dollars on various wagers on the golf courses. He often won money from professional players from whom he would negotiate a handicap advantage – although he was capable of winning straight up. He was very adept at determining the changing odds as a poker game progressed. Had blackjack been popular, he would have been able to execute the card-counting strategies of Edward Thorpe with the best of them. Thompson could also work magic with his hands, dealing any card from the bottom or middle of a deck of cards. He could substitute crooked dice into a craps game. With his crowd and such advantage he could achieve what was always considered “fair game”. The loser had only two options, pay up and play again, or pay up and not play again.
Titantic Thompson did not have a formal education, and he could not read or write for his entire life. But he could count, he could figure out numbers quickly in his head, and he could memorize words. He achieved great wealth during the course of his hustling days, and he used all the trappings of wealth in his games. He had a fine home in Beverly Hills, he drove the best cars, and he wore elaborate clothes. He also had beautiful wives – five of them at different times.
Thompson played with the most renowned gamblers of his time, from Al Capone to Johnny Moss. He also played with Arthur Rothstein. In 1928 he was in Rothstein’s last card game. Rothstein, like other gamblers, had his favorite games, but there were also games where he was a sucker. In poker, Rothstein was a sucker. Leading players from all over the country descended upon his New York City apartment when he put out the word that he wanted to play. He liked games with no limit, and he had a reputation of paying off.  In this game, he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to Thompson and others, and he gave his word that he would make his payoff later. He word was accepted, but he welshed on his promise. After several weeks passed, and he kept avoiding his obligation, he declared that the game was rigged and would not pay. He was found in a hotel lobby with a bullet wound in his side. He refused to talk from his hospital bed, where he died a day later. Thompson was arrested along with the other players in the big game. He testified in the murder trial to the integrity of his co-players, and the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. Thompson was never considered the triggerman, although in his hustling career he had killed at least five men in “self-defense” situations.
Titanic Thompson was in his heyday through the 1950s when the big players discovered Las Vegas and routinized their play. They sought regular games with rules. The big gambling scene for hustlers was over. He suffered a major downfall when he was jailed for several months in 1962 after a big party at his Phoenix home. It was found that one of the “playmates” in his crowd of friends was underage. He dropped from the scene, although for his remaining days he kept trying to hustle – efforts that led to losses as often as wins. In May 1974, at the age of eighty-one, he died of a stroke in a rest home near Dallas. He was broke and broken.

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