Capturing the spirit of a freewheeling era, this rollicking biography brings to life the gambler-hero who inspired Guys and Dolls. Born in a log cabin in the Ozarks, Alvin "Titanic" Thompson (1892-1974) traveled with his golf clubs, a .45 revolver, and a suitcase full of cash. He won and lost millions playing cards, dice, golf, pool, and dangerous games of his own invention. He killed five men and married five women, each one a teenager on her wedding day. He ruled New York's underground craps games in the 1920s and was Damon Runyon's model for slick-talking Sky Masterson. Dominating the links in the pre-PGA Tour years, Thompson may have been the greatest golfer of his time, teeing up with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Lee Trevino, and Ray Floyd. He also traded card tricks with Houdini, conned Al Capone, lost a million to Minnesota Fats, and then teamed up with Fats and won it all back.
A terrific listen for anyone who has ever laid a bet, Titanic Thompson recaptures the colorful times of a singular figure: America's original road gambler.
Former Sports Illustrated editor Kevin Cook's account of extraordinary legend Titanic Thompson is both beautiful and exhaustive. Cook's effusive writing is well-matched by Joe Barrett's easy narration. Barrett's smooth, confident voice is particularly suited to this story about an infamous road gambler from times long past.
Cook follows Alvin Thomas from modest Arkansas beginnings to his emergence as “Ti” Titanic Thompson, the most respected hustler in America. Along the way, we're treated to a plethora of fantastic stories, including various outlandish wagers on the usual cards, dice, horses, horseshoes, baseball, and golf, as well as the not-so-usual rock retrieval and walnut tossing. We also learn the origin of Ti's enormous nickname, which involves a very long jump over a very wide pool table.
The book, much like the man himself, is a clever hybrid of history and myth. With insanely precise vision and hand-eye coordination to match, there are times when Ti comes off as more of a mutant superhero than a man. Of course, these brief stints are always punctuated by the not-so-subtle reminders that, more than anything else, Ti was a clever conman with hundreds of tricks up his sleeve.
Ti's life also touched those of many other legends of the time, including Nick “The Greek” Dandolos and Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, the Jewish mafia kingpin responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. Furthermore, Titanic served as the inspiration for Guys and Dolls lead Sky Masterson. These bits of history and trivia only add to his immense reputation.
By the end of Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything, Cook's writing style and Barrett's excellent Titanic drawl transforms the listen into a romantic ode to a very different America, one populated only by sharps and marks. Gina Pensiero
"Cook's raucous narrative introduces readers to an eccentric, fascinating personality." (Publishers Weekly)
"[R]eaders will revel in every rambunctious page about an outlaw spirit who lurked on the frontiers of society, sports, and fair play." (Booklist)
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- paul j boyd