Titanic Thompson, By Kevin Cook

The last of the great American grifters
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Ever heard of Titanic Thompson? Me neither, until I read this enthralling and compulsively readable account of his life.

As it says on the front cover, it is: "The true story of Titanic Thompson, card-sharking, gun-slinging, golf-hustling American legend, married five times, killed five men." But that doesn't even get close to how remarkable a life Thompson led.

So why does no one know the name these days? The answer is pretty simple, and delivered on page two of this book. When a writer approached Thompson at the height of his hustling work, interested in writing his life story, Titanic told him to forget it, saying: "Mine ain't the kind of work publicity helps."

Thompson was raised in rural Arkansas at the beginning of the 20th century, and swore to leave poverty behind just as soon as he could. Which was pretty soon, because this boy could already hustle and gamble with the best of them at the age of 13.

Thompson was the last of the great American grifters – hustlers who moved from town to town across the vast expanses of the country, relieving the locals of their hard-earned cash by any means possible. To begin with, dice, cards and pool were his favoured tools of the trade, but he would literally bet on anything – as long as he knew that he couldn't lose. And through a combination of clever cheating and extraordinary amounts of practice, he very rarely did lose.

His success quickly brought him into contact with a lot of powerful and dangerous people. There are stories in here about Thompson hustling mobsters and sleeping with film stars, hanging out with great sportsmen and even crossing paths with Houdini. One astonishing tale sees him taking Al Capone for $500. While walking down the street together, Thompson stopped at a fruit stall and bet Capone that he could throw a lemon over a nearby three-story hotel. Capone took the bet. Thompson picked up a lemon, but Capone chose another one for him, squeezing it dry and handing it to him. Thompson threw the lemon over the hotel and Capone paid up, laughing. What he didn't know was that Thompson had planted a buckshot-laden lemon with the stallholder the day before, and switched the squeezed one for the heavy one without Capone knowing.

When Thompson discovered golf, he went at it with the obsessive nature he showed for everything, becoming undoubtedly one of the best players in the world. When the top professionals were earning $10,000 a year, he was conning country-club millionaires out of twice that per hole.

But eventually, Thompson's own notoriety caught up with him. His cons relied on people not knowing who or what he was, and as the country moved into the post-war era of mass communications, that became increasingly impossible for a man who – despite many faults and dubious morals – stands as a unique figure in America's secret history.