Starting with its subtitle, “The Man Who Bet on Everything,” Kevin Cook’s biography of legendary gambler Titanic Thompson pulls you in with stories of crafty bets, pretty women and narrow escapes. Cook isn’t content just to tell those tales; he reveals the person behind the conniver. It proves to be a wise decision.
Born Alvin Thomas, Titanic grew up bored and poor in rural Arkansas, pitching pennies and dealing cards to pass the time. He left home at 16, and spent the rest of his life looking for action. And regardless of where he was—Pittsburgh, New York, California, Texas—he found it. Titanic won millions playing cards, pool, golf, even horseshoes. He loved making outlandish bets and duping marks by finding the profitable loophole. Like a grifter Forrest Gump, he rubbed elbows with notorious icons such as Al Capone and Minnesota Fats. Titanic was no angel himself, killing five men and marrying five women.
Titanic never saved anything, and he couldn’t stop chasing the next big pot. With Las Vegas eliminating opportunities and his reputation known throughout the land, the action slowed to a trickle in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Elderly and in failing health, Titanic was reduced to picking “coins from a dish in the kitchen so he could take his wife out for ice cream.” His final days were spent in a nursing home, where nothing changed. He chipped golf balls outside, played poker (his hands were so stiff that he used his knuckle to deal the cards) and paid a nurse $80 to parade around his room nude. Later, he asked to touch her, but not for obvious reasons: “He had only married girls with soft skin,” Cook writes.
Cook deftly includes historical observations and biographies of Titanic’s associates (such as Guys & Dolls writer Damon Runyon, who based Sky Masterson on Titanic), and his colorful prose brings Titanic and his schemes to life: The man’s blood pressure, he observes, was “somewhere between the values for hibernation and coma.” But Cook avoids being seduced by Titanic’s glorious past, and thus provides readers with the gambler’s sobering reality: Eventually everyone learns your tricks. Filled with equal parts gusto and poignancy, the compulsively readable Titanic Thompson chronicles the lush life of a hard-living high roller—and his sad aftermath.