"Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything "
by Kevin Cook
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 6th March 2011"Titanic Thompson" tells the life story of "America's greatest hustler", Alvin Thomas. 'Titanic' earned his nickname because (according to one story) he "sank everyone" with his outrageous hustles. Born in 1892 and living to the age of 82, his life spanned prohibition, the depression, two world wars and the making of Las Vegas, the modern games of both poker and golf, and - with the construction of the interstate highways in the 1950s - modern America itself. Along the way he encountered both the famous and the infamous - perhaps most notably Al Capone - and became the inspiration for the character of gambler "Sky" Masterson in "Guys and Dolls" (subsequently played on screen by Marlon Brando).
The stories of many of Titanic's alleged hustles are both amusing and fascinating. Not only an accomplished cardsharp, his repartee of tricks included hurling objects over high buildings and beating local champions - especially golf pros - at their own game. His skills were real, perfected through endless hours of practice: whatever the game, the hustler's real trick is of course to persuade people to bet against him by making them believe that he could be beaten (which also requires anonymity - something that became increasingly difficult to maintain over time, even with someone as widely travelled as Thompson). Although he won (and sometimes lost) huge sums, money never seemed to be of great interest to him - he seems to have been incredibly inventive and often worked hard to create the elaborate set ups for his schemes.
Given all this incredible material, Titanic's life story should have made for fascinating reading. Unfortunately for me Cook's writing was rather flat and superficial, with globs of peripheral historical detail seemingly thrown in almost at random, as often as not confusing rather than clarifying things. The dramatic social changes that Thompson must have witnessed are merely hinted at, and most seriously there didn't seem to be any real insight into the character of Titanic himself - Cook's portrait is oddly blank, and seems to gloss over the deeper complexities of the man and his motivations. I think there's a great book to be written about Titanic Thompson; this, sadly - while interesting enough - isn't it.