Titanic Thompson

November 30, -0001 12:00 AM
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This kid I met at a fishing hole bet his Colt .45 against my rod and reel that if he threw a stone marked with an X into the river, his raggedy ole dog could fetch it from the other rocks and bring it to me. Damned if I didn’t lose my fishing gear to him!

That’s not a quote from the book, but I could almost hear the mark tell his side of the story as I read Kevin Cook’s Titanic Thompson (248 pgs, $24.95), an account of the life and times of "The Man Who Bet on Everything," the book’s subtitle.

By "life and times," I mean Cook paints not only Thompson’s now infamous escapades but the era in which he lived (from the late 1800’s through the next six decades) with such artistry of words and vivid palate of details I wish he’d written my high school history textbooks. Maybe then my peepers would’ve glued themselves to the pages, as they did when I read this fascinating tale of the world’s best-ever conman.

From Houdini to Al Capone to Minnesota Fats and Nick Dandolos to sports fixer Arnold Rothstein, Thompson was there, learning from them and outwitting too many suckers to count along the way. It was Dandolos who introduced Titanic to Houdini, of whom he asked, "What’s the key to your tricks?" Houdini gave him a one-word answer: "Practice."

Of course, Ti (as his friends called him) was accustomed to that tedious discipline – he planned all his scams in great detail, practicing for eons. "He seldom made a bet he wasn’t sure of winning," said John Lardner, a sportswriter who thought of Ti as the heavyweight champion of hustle.

After his heyday in the sun, Ti moved with the last of his five wives to Dallas, where he taught his sons the family trade. That’s where poker legend Doyle Brunson met him at the local poker room, and learned not to make him angry.

"You could see by the look in his eye that he’d kill you. Everybody knew he’d killed five men," Brunson said, before recounting the story of the gun-wielding hijacker that Thompson backed down, sending the would-be thief out the door empty handed.

Yes, the same Titanic that Benny Binion later asked to co-host (with Chill Wills) the inaugural World Series of Poker in 1970.

 From reading Jon Bradshaw’s classic Fast Company and Cowboy Wolford’s entertaining

Cowboys, Gamblers and Hustlers, I knew about Ti’s proclivities for parting suckers from their money.

 Cook leaps several mega-steps beyond their personal accounts, weaving the story of a "self-made man" into the fabric of history, separating fact from fiction to give readers the straight scoop on the legends that so often surround bigger-than-life people.

"Titanic traveled with his golf clubs, a .45 revolver, and a suitcase full of cash. He won and lost millions playing cards, dice, golf, pool and dangerous games of his own invention," the book’s cover reads. Reading what’s inside will take you on a pistol-packin’, par shattering, big-ticket ride of a lifetime, guaranteed!

NOTE: (This book and thousands of other titles are available at Gambler’s Book Club in Las Vegas. You can order them at www.gamblersbookclub.com, where you can view the store’s complete line of books, or by phone at 1-800-522-1777 or 702-382-7555 M-F 9-7 and Sat 10-6. Opened in 1964, GBC is located at 5473 S. Eastern between Tropicana and Russell, just a short drive from the Strip or the airport.