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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Titanic in Texas


by Clay Coppedge

The writer Damon Runyon was one of the few people who considered Titanic Thompson a role model and lived to tell about it from somewhere other than jail. Runyon drew on Thomas for the character Sky Masterson in his short story "The Idyll of Miss Sara Brown," which inspired the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.

Thompson hated the exposure. He told Runyon, "When I go into advertising what I do, I might as well go back to Arkansas and finish out my life fishing. Mine ain't a line of work helped much by publicity."

Publicity found Titanic Thompson anyway. He was involved in the first of what turned out to be several trials of the century after somebody murdered notorious New York City gambler Arnold Rothstein in 1928. Titanic happened to be in the room, playing poker and supposedly minding his own business. He was a prime suspect but was never charged.

Thompson went on to face five murder charges in his lifetime, including one in Tyler in 1932, and all five were dismissed as self-defense. Certain people kept thinking it was a good idea to rob Thompson, but the ones who tried mostly ended up dead.

His given name was Alvin Clarence Thomas, but hardly anyone called him that. He started going by Thompson when a New York newspaper misspelled his name that way. He took on the nickname Titanic because, as one sucker remarked "you couldn't sink him." Others said it was because he would sink you. Either way, he was a force to be reckoned with.


Born in Missouri in 1893, Thompson grew up in backwoods Arkansas. He hit the road in a black Pierce Arrow to operate from coast to coast as a con man, poker player and golf hustler from the 1920s through World War II. He spent a good deal of his time in Texas, gambling and playing golf, often at the same time. He was a hell of a golfer. Asked why he didn't turn pro, Thompson said, "I couldn't afford the cut in pay."

One of his golf course hustles was beating somebody right-handed, and then giving the poor sucker a chance to win his money back by offering to play him left-handed. Titanic was ambidextrous, of course, and a better golfer from the left side.

Before a young Byron Nelson turned pro and became so good at golf that the PGA named a tournament after him, he took on Titanic in a match arranged by "three gentlemen of Fort Worth" for $3,000 in 1934. The gentlemen sweetened the bet by giving Titanic three strokes, seeing as how he had to drive all the way from Dallas and he was going to lose anyway. Asked about the match many years later, Nelson said he wouldn't have given away the strokes if his own money had been on the line.

"I knew Titanic was a good player," he said. "He was very straight, had a great short game and was a wonderful putter. I'm not sure how well he would have done playing on the tour, but he always knew the percentages and what he had to do to win."

Titanic nearly always won by one stroke because that's all it took to win the bet. Since Nelson shot a 69 that day, Titanic used the three-stroke advantage to turn his 71 into a 68. That's how Titanic told it. Nelson remembered that they each shot a 71 and split the money.

When First Flight began manufacturing golf balls with a steel center, Titanic hired a handyman to magnetize some of the holes by rigging a car battery and jumper cable to the steel cup liners on a Lubbock course. He won a $25,000 match the next day, mostly on the strength of some mighty fine putting and his new magic golf balls. A PGA tour win in those days would have netted him a couple of thousand dollars.

Thompson once bet he could hit a golf ball 500 yards and did just that on a frozen lake in Minnesota where it seemed like the ball was going to roll forever.

Thompson never smoked or drank because he had promised his mama he wouldn't, but she must have neglected to warn him about gambling or cheating. He lived to be 81 years old. He died broke, but he probably knew the odds favored that all along.

Fort Worth columnist Jim Trinkle wrote of Titanic after his passing, "No one on God's sandpile ever gambled higher or better on his personal skills than Alvin Clarence Thomas."

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" December 6, 2021 column



Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Country Music's First Superstar 11-3-21
  • America's Broadway 10-6-21
  • Wired Up in Texas 9-8-21
  • William Lee's Buggy Ride 8-9-21
  • Double-Crossed, Double Murder 7-10-21

    more »



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