Sporting stars are often colorful characters, but one sport which maintains a relatively sober reputation is golf. However this quietest of sports had stars every bit as lively as anywhere else, and in one case arguably more so.
This is the story of one man who could have been a pro but chose a life of gambling and rigging any game (cards, dice, golf), which made him rich. Yet when he died, he had failed as a con artist but become a golfing legend. Who was Titanic Thompson?
Alvin Clarence Thomas
Before he became Titanic Thompson, the gambler and golfer was born on November 30, 1893, in Monett, Missouri, and his name was Alvin. In the days after his birth, Alvin’s father abandoned him and his mother.
Alvin’s mother remarried a farmer in Arkansas, but Alvin hated farmwork and disliked school even though he was rather intelligent. Alvin had liked hunting since childhood, and he was an amazing shot, playing cards and penny tossing.
When Alvin was 16, he moved out of his home and considered trying to find his father. He didn’t go to see his dad; instead, Alvin worked as a door-to-door salesman in Missouri and became a character actor in a traveling medical show. In the show, Alvin played a Doc Holliday-style character who would perform shooting tricks.
His special trick was throwing a dollar bill into the air and would shoot a bullet through it as it floated back to the ground. Most of these medical shows were to sell fake “medicine,” and the actors would fake their stunts to wow the unsuspecting audience.
Alvin would palm the dollar bill and toss up a bill that already had a hole through it. After tossing the bill, Alvin would shoot at the bullet and miss without the audience knowing they had been duped.
While being a door-to-door salesman and a character in a traveling show did bring in some money, Alvin would play card games at night with locals, and he realized he could make a lot of money rigging games in his favor. Alvin used to make a mark on the back of the card that nobody noticed and was able to rake in the cash.
The First Murder and the Rise of Titanic Thompson
In 1910, Alvin played a dice game against a man named Joe Green, who ran out of money, so he put the deed for his boat on the table. Alvin won, but in a gesture of “kindness,” he allowed Joe to work for him on the boat.
On the first trip on the new boat, Alvin invited a friend named Jim Johnson along with him. While on the boat, Alvin and Jim played dice, and Jim accused Alvin of cheating, and the two got into a physical altercation.
Alvin struck Jim on the head with a hammer knocking him out, and the pair tumbled into the water. Alvin was fine, but because he was unconscious, Jim drowned. Alvin escaped punishment by making a deal with the local sheriff, trading the deed for the boat for freedom.
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Alvin became Titanic Thompson two years later in 1912. One night after gambling and winning at a local bar, someone bet Alvin that he couldn’t jump over a pool table without touching it. Always down for a bet and the promise of winning, Alvin took a running leap and dove over the pool table.
When someone at the bar asked the bartender who Alvin was, the bartender said, “I don’t rightly know, but it ought to be “Titanic”. He sinks everybody.” The news of the sinking of the Titanic was on the front page of every newspaper.
The name stuck, and Alvin began going by Ty (sometimes spelled Ti) and continued cheating in high-stakes gambling card games or dice full-time as his “career.” He also married his first wife, Nora, who was only 17.
Titanic was a serial cheater, and Nora divorced him after a year. Not long after his divorce, Titanic Thompson met his new wife, Alice (also 17), when she tried to pick his pocket on the streets of Philadelphia. The pair hit it off and became part of the city’s “lively scene.” Alice let Titanic Thompson travel the country, scamming gamblers which was a perfect arrangement in Titanic’s mind.
After a stint as an army sergeant at Fort McClellan (where he ran an underground gambling ring) who never went overseas to fight in the trenches of WWI, Titanic Thompson got into a card game in St. Louis and managed to win $40,000. What Titanic Thompson didn’t know was that the dealer had hired two men to rob the winner as they tried to leave.
Titanic Thompson grabbed the unregistered Luger he kept in his shoulder holster and shot the two robbers, instantly killing both of them. When the police arrived, Titanic Thompson told them that the men tried to rob him; it was self-defense.
Once again, Titanic Thompson was not punished for murder. The police appreciated Ty because the men were both wanted criminals, and they ignored the unregistered weapon, happy instead to wave the gambler goodbye as he left the city.
That wasn’t the only time that Titanic Thompson killed someone who was trying to rob him; in fact, the same situation occurred during another game, and Ty killed one of the robbers. And once again, the police let Titanic go free; the man was a wanted criminal, and Titanic did the police a favor.
Alice and Titanic partied in Philadelphia, gambled, and Ty would travel to other games in other states as he pleased. At one of these out-of-town games, Titanic was introduced to a sport he was a natural at.
It all started when Titanic Thompson asked a man if he could try hitting the ball at a driving range. When his drive traveled more than 300 yards (275 m), he began to brag about his skills in the town. The locals tried to call him on his bluff and made bets that Titanic couldn’t do what he claimed.
Titanic took the bets and hit the ball, but this time it traveled only 280 yards (250 m) which meant he lost. Even though he lost, Titanic Thompson decided to learn to play golf; why not learn another way to place bets against others?
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The thing is, Titanic was good at golf, good enough to play professionally, but he never did. During this time in history, professional golfers earned $30,000 a year, and Titanic could play one game of poker and walk away with more than $30,000 after a single night.
Titanic would bet against the other golfers and use his talent and smarts to win every time. He once spent a year betting people he could ace a 500-yard (450 m) drive, and people took him up on his seemingly outlandish bet. Titanic Thompson cashed in the stakes in the middle of winter when Lake Michigan was frozen solid. He hit the ball out into the lake, where it traveled around 200 yards (180 m) and then rolled across the ice for almost half a mile (800 m). He happily collected his winnings and carried on with his life.
Gangsters and Gambling
Titanic Thompson became friends with mobster Nicholas Dandalos, aka Nick the Greek. Nick and Titanic Thompson hang around southern California, where Ty managed to win a house and convinced Alice to move to LA to live in it.
Nick on the other hand moved to New York, where he met Arnold Rothstein. If you aren’t a baseball history nut, you might not recognize the name; however, Rothstein was a crime boss who bribed the Chicago White Sox to lose the World Series in 1919.
Nick lost in a game against Rothstein, and when the news got to Titanic Thompson in LA, he too moved to New York. Ty became buddies with Rothstein but never liked the man and thought he was arrogant.
Titanic Thompson loved taking money from arrogant men, and in a game Ty rigged, Rothstein ended up losing half a million dollars. Rothstein gave everyone IOUs which the man who organized the rigged game would ensure the debt was paid.
When the game organizer came to collect, Rothstein told him to wait a few days because he bet half a million on who would be elected president. This did not end well: Rothstein guessed incorrectly and was subsequently shot during an altercation, later dying in the hospital.
Alice moved back to Philadelphia at some point but was tragically hit by a car and died not soon after. Titanic continued to place bets on his golf games, which is how he killed his fifth and final man.
After winning a lot of money playing golf one day, Titanic saw a masked man robbing his car and shot him. Again it was considered self-defense, but the fact that the 40-year-old man was traveling the country with a 15 and 17-year-old girl was a crime. To avoid going to jail, Titanic Thompson married the 15-year-old Jo Ann Raney.
5 Murders & 5 Wives
In 1944 Jo Ann became pregnant and, much like his own father, had no interest in being a dad. The couple made a deal that the two would have an amicable and private divorce if Ty gave Jo Ann some oil wells he owned. Once the divorce was finalized, Ty married a 16-year girl named Maxine, and when she became pregnant, they divorced after five years of marriage.
When caught in bed with a minor, Ty once again got quickly married to a friend’s 18-year-old daughter Jeannette; he was 62 years old and served eight months of a two-year sentence. Yet again, when Jeannette became pregnant, Ty split but returned to her and his son three years after the child was born; he was with them until he was moved to a nursing home when he was 80.
Titanic Thompson died of a stroke in May 1974.
Top Image: Titanic Thompson could have succeeded as a professional golfer, but preferred the life of the con artist. Source: Sergey Lukianov / Adobe Stock.