Gambling Legends of the 20th Century: Titanic Thompson
This article is part of my series 'Poker Culture, Strategy & Commentary'.
“ In the spring of 1912 [in]...Missouri, just about the time the [Titanic] liner hit an iceberg...I was in a pool room...and beat a fellow named Snow Clark out of $500. To give him a chance to get even, I bet $500 I could jump across his pool table without touching it. If you think that’s easy, try it. But I could jump farther than a herd of bullfrogs in those days. I put down an old mattress on the other side of the table. Then I took a run and dived headfirst across the pool table. While I was counting my money, somebody asked Clark what my name was. 'It must be Titanic,' said Clark. 'He sinks everybody'. So I was Titanic from then on."
Alvin Thomas- in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, 1972.
Titanic Thompson was a master of what gamblers refer to as the 'proposition bet'. He wasn't the greatest golfer in the world, nor the greatest poker player, but he knew how to make money with the skills that he did possess. For example, one of his most famous hustles was to bet on a round of golf with someone and play right handed. Then, win or lose, he'd offer a double-or-nothing match where he promised to play left-handed. What the unsuspecting golfers never knew was that Thompson was actually left-handed!
Thompson's early life was spent in small-town Arkansas, and he began conducting his secret career of hustling across the rural United States in the early 1900s. By the time he was 18, he'd become a full time gambler, mostly playing cards and shooting pool. Once he had honed his skills, he moved on New York City where he became an underground legend of the proposition bet.
Sometimes his hustles were foolproof. Like the time he bet he could hit a tee shot 500 yards. The thing is, he never stated his intention of hitting that ball onto a frozen lake and watching it skid much of the distance.
In the end Thompson's true genius was in figuring out the odds. No matter what, he always had an accurate guess on the likelihood of different outcomes, and that's really what made him a legendary gambler.
If you want to learn more about Titanic Thompson check out The Man Who Bet On Everything.