Anybody who claims to have never been hustled, conned, tricked, taken advantage of or ripped off has either been personally blessed by almighty God, developed a serious case of CRS (can’t remember stuff) or flat out isn’t telling the truth.
It’s happened to everybody at one time or another. The worst con ever visited on me took place during my bachelor days on a solo trip to Italy and France. I was to start in Venice, drive down to the tip of the boot, up the Amalfi Coast and finish in Naples before catching a train to the Riviera and picking up another car. Well, everything went great — until Naples. (Go figure.)
I think I was wearing a Red Sox T-shirt and a baseball cap on backward and looking every inch the American sucker as I pulled up to the car rental drop-off. The problem was there was nowhere to park. A gesticulating Italian gentleman speaking broken English persuaded me to let him park the car in a special lot across the street. He was an employee of the agency, after all.
OK — great! Thanks! So out of the car I bound. His demeanor was altered as we exchanged positions, though, and he gave me a furtive look and appeared to be rushed. And then he just ... drove away, leaving me totally dumbfounded and stupefied. All the police could do was laugh. “Buy yourself a nice toothbrush when you get to Cannes!” (The officer didn’t really say that.)
There’s a book out by Kevin Cook titled “Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything,” which profiles America’s greatest hustler, a man described by pool player Minnesota Fats as a “genius” and “the greatest action man of all time.” Friends have recommended the book because the story is so amazing and because, among other things, Titanic was a scratch golfer.
According to excerpts from the book and a couple of web searches, Thompson (born Alvin Thomas), was raised in Arkansas and began his nomadic, lucrative career in hustling in the rural U.S. in the early 1900s. He would establish himself as an underground legend by winning all manner of proposition bets — some done honestly and some not. On one hand, he might bet that he could perform some amazing feat with horseshoes and then do it, and on the other hand, he might bet how many watermelons within three were loaded on what would appear to be a randomly passing truck while knowing the answer in advance.
A natural athlete with extraordinary eyesight and hand-eye coordination, Thompson was skilled in many sports, a crack shot and a self-taught golfer good enough to turn professional. One of his favorite hustles was to beat golfers playing right-handed, and then double down to play the course again left-handed as an apparent concession.
What his unsuspecting opponents didn’t realize was that Titanic was actually an ambidextrous, left-handed golfer, and that making the switch would play to his wheelhouse. During the years between the world wars, in an era when elite pros like Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson were making about $10,000 a year, he would hustle country club fat cats for $20,000 a hole and somehow remain one step ahead of his victims — and the law.
Hogan, a Hall of Famer and one of the best golfers in the history of the game, was taciturn by nature and not given to effusive praise of anybody. “The best shotmaker I ever saw,” he said of Titanic. “Right or left-handed, you can’t beat him.”
Hogan would recall Thompson’s knack for working the ball left to right or vice versa, or punching the ball between bunkers onto rock-hard greens.
Asked whether he’d ever turn pro, Titanic replied that he could not afford the cut in pay. “He didn’t have to,” said Nelson. “He was at a higher level, playing for $25,000 a nine while we played for $150.”
If not on the course, Titanic might be seen motoring from town to town in his two-ton Pierce-Arrow with tools of the trade in the trunk: Right- and left-handed golf clubs, horseshoes, a shotgun, bowling ball and a suitcase full of cash. Pool shark, card sharp, raconteur, ladies’ man, the ultimate competitor who rarely buckled under pressure — Titanic was “it” (if that’s the right word) — as well as a killer.
Conning Al Capone
By published accounts, he killed five men, all in some form of self-defense. Most killed were hardened criminals, although one was a teenage caddie who tried to rob Titanic at gunpoint hours after a big haul.
He once conned Al Capone out of $500. Another time he is said to have masterminded the double-crossing of crime boss Arnold Rothstein, who allegedly played a role in fixing the 1919 World Series, in a high-stakes poker game. Rothstein refused to pay and ended up getting rubbed out (not by Titanic).
Married five times to young ladies who were all teenagers on their wedding day, Thompson was romantically linked to many women, including actresses Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow. He hustled until his death at age 81 in 1974, by which time he had attained some general notoriety, having been profiled in Sports Illustrated two years earlier.
So Titanic wasn’t exactly a choirboy. An entertaining story, though. And not that I’m envious, but I sure wish I had one type of golf game, much less two.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.