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The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson by Carlton Stowers

Release date: 01st September, 1988
Publisher: Paperjacks

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Few men cheated Al Capone and lived to tell the tale - Titanic Thompson was one of them. Born Alvin Clarence Thomas, the son of a incorrigible Arkansas gambler who ran off just months after the boy was born in 1892, 'Ti' was destined to follow in his father's footsteps and then become the most notorious gambler of an era fabulously rich in such characters - the legends that were Nick 'The Greek' Dandalos and Johnny Moss were both his partners at one time or another.

Thompson was a man of many talents, both physical and mental, and he excelled at most of them. He was a crack shot with both pistol and rifle, and in his old age became a state trap shooting champion just as a hobby. He could throw and toss with remarkable skill, sometimes nailing 50 horseshoes in a row and often flicking all 52 cards from a deck, one by one, into a hat a dozen feet away. He had memorised an extensive range of poker odds in an era when probability theory was still largely unknown.

Although a natural athlete, he took up golf purely to be able to hustle at the game, and then became so good that he could beat players who won major tournaments. He would skin rich country club players for thousands playing right-handed, then give them a chance to win their money back by 'evening up the odds' and playing southpaw. What they didn't find out until they had been fleeced again was that Ti was, in fact, left-handed.

Asked why he didn't take up golf professionally, Thompson accurately replied that he couldn't afford the drop in income entailed by giving up his gambling - poker, horseshoe pitching, golf and (especially) prop bets. It was an open secret that the Damon Runyon character Sky Masterson ("a great hand for propositions such as are always coming up among citizens who follow games of chance for a living") was a very thinly disguised portrait of The Titanic.

But there was another reason Ti could never have played golf in the majors. He was a man who simply couldn't resist cheating. He beat the world horseshoe champion by lengthening the pitch beforehand. He fleeced Capone by accepting a bet that he couldn't throw an orange over the top of a building, then surreptitiously switching in a denser, easier-to-throw lemon. He knew every card sharping trick in the book.

He even cheated the New York District Attorney by doing a deal (to get himself out of jail) to be a key prosecution witness in the high-profile Arnold Rothstein murder trial, and then making a mockery of the whole proceedings.

Author Carlton Stowers specialises in sports and real crime writing, and in Titanic Thompson he happily found a subject to chronicle who fell into both categories. A compelling portrait of possibly the most colourful character in the history of poker - and that's saying an awful lot!

While it is worth keeping an eye on amazon.co.uk and abebooks.co.uk, the lowest price this book tends to turn up at on either site is about £30 plus postage. Better deals are available at amazon.com, but gamblersbooks.com is the lowest regular price. If you happen to be visiting Las Vegas, you can expect to find it in stock at the Gambler's Book Shop on East Tropicana Avenue at $19.95 (£12.20).


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