As a major witness at the 1929 Arnold Rothstein murder trial in New York City Alvin Clarence Thomas was asked how he’s making a living.
The answer: “I play golf occasionally…”. This was probably the understatement of the century and a big fat lie on top.
The man was known in all states of the USA under his nickname Titanic Thompson.
He brought a lot of honest people and a couple of gangsters to bet against him in all ways of imaginable gambles and won most of them.
He was one of the most successful con man of his time and he played golf occasionally if he knew he could con big money.
Alvin was born in Arkansas. His father left his family when he was 5 months old and his religious stepfather raised him strictly and used him mostly as a cheap worker.
When Alvin was 14 years old he left school and with 16 he left his parents to try his luck with gambling.
In his own story, published in Sports Illustrated in 1972 he described how he came to his now famous nickname:
“In the spring of 1912 I went to Joplin, Missouri, just about the time the Titanic liner hit an iceberg and sank with more than 1,500 people on board. I was in a pool room there and beat a fellow named Snow Clark out of $500. To give him a chance to get even, I bet $200 I could jump across his pool table without touching it. If you think that’s easy, try it.
But I could jump farther than a herd of bullfrogs in those days. I put down an old mattress on the other side of the table. Then I took a run and dived headfirst across the pool table. While I was counting my money, somebody asked Clark what my name was “It must be Titanic,” said Clark. “He sinks everybody.” so I was Titanic from then on.”
King of Gambling
Titanic Thompson had all the skills to be the perfect con man. He was very skilled with all kinds of playing card tricks, shooting guns and rifles and throwing all kinds of things.
But in his bets he didn’t rely on his skills alone.
He always tried to at least skew the results in his favor. In one of his most famous feats he bettet with Al Capone (the famous mob boss) that he could throw an orange over the roof of a building.
In the last moment he secretly switched the orange with a lemon and won the bet.
Here are a couple more of his feats and cons described by a witness of his time. Here you can learn how to make every 45 footer any day even without practicing. ;-)
After his time in the army Titanic came in contact with the golf sport.
He was a talented player and could play right handed and left handed.
His usual con was to demonstrate complete incompetence on the golf course for little bets to lure his victims into bigger bets which he would ultimately win.
One time he won 56.000$ from the golf coach Buddy Brainer. Buddy tried to get his money back with violence which forced Titanic (also called Ty) to bolt to San Francisco.
With his second wife Alice Ty moved to Beverly Hills and practiced with the famous golf coach Ed Dudley. This led to a lot more success with his golf cons.
Ty was a master of deception. He always made sure that he would win his matches as close as possible. Even if he had to beat a score of 100 or 65.
He did everything he could to make people bet against him.
He played with one arm, with bandaged eyes or with his off hand, he even turned up once in a wheelchair.
One time he betted against the members of a country club that he could drive the ball further than any man of them during the winter. They said he couldn’t so he hit his shot onto a frozen pond leading to a drive of over a mile and won 50.000$.
Unfortunately there are only few matches recorded where Ty played against professional players.
In 1926 he challenged the amateur champion of the time George Van Elm for a match of 100$ per hole. Van Elm didn’t know Ty and even gave him nine extra strokes.
After nine holes Titanic hadn’t used any of his extra strokes and was all square with Van Elm.
The amateur champ realized that he would probably lose as he stood on the 10th green, threw his putter away and ran for the club house.
A couple of weeks later Van Elm brought a Top-Pro to California who should beat Thompson with his own weapons.
Several days he presented himself as a bad golfer until he challenged Ty for a match. But Thompson won anyway with one stroke.
In 1934 Ty played against a young professional named Byron Nelson.
Nelson won his first major tournament 3 years later. After nine holes Nelson lead with three strokes.
But on the second nine Thompson shot a 29 which shut up all the people that doupted Tys golf skills.
His biggest Defeats
Titanic Thompson had to suffer his biggest defeats offside the fairways.
In Tijuanam Mexico he lost 1.2 million Dollar during a feigned horse race. In the sixties he lost in a big oildeal in New Mexico.
He killed five people in his lifetime and was also married five times in his life.
His last wife Jeanette got divorced in 1973 and deported Ty without any funds into a retirement home where he coned his fellow mates with mini golf.
One time Titanic Thompson was asked why he never tried to play professional golf.
“Well son,“he said, shuffling his deck of cards. “It’s because I couldn’t afford the cut in pay.”