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The philandering, compulsive gambler you hate to love
by David McKee | posted November 23, 2010
SO-CALLED PROPOSITION BETS (Which team will score the first touchdown in the Super Bowl?) have become a staple of Vegas sportsbooks. But decades ago, gambler Alvin Clarence Thomas raised "prop bets" to an art form. He'd routinely win hundreds of dollars wagering on whether he could throw a peanut onto a rooftop. It's just one of the colorful anecdotes in author Kevin Cook's recent biography, Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything, published by W.W. Norton & Co.
Arkansas-born Thomas (1892-1974) was the consummate hustler -- and cheat. He wouldn't bet on anything he couldn't rig. He made countless bankrolls through skill, chicanery and the occasional firearm, killing five men ... all in self-defense. Thomas got the nickname "Titanic" because of the many marks he took down, and "Thompson" was a newspaper error that stuck.
[Read David McKee's take on another kind of history: Developers restoring historic properties in the valley]
He was a compulsive gambler in the sense that he needed to master every hustle he encountered, and many of his card-marking tactics are still in vogue with cheating rings today. Benny Binion invited "Titanic" to grace the first-ever World Series of Poker -- but forbade him to play in it. After teaching himself to golf ambidextrously, Thomas snookered so many hackers that he joked he couldn't join the PGA tour because it would be a pay cut.
Eventually, Thomas' reputation preceded him, reducing him to fleecing suckers in the boondocks. Vegas casinos, with their plastic cards and professional dealers, also flummoxed him, although "Titanic" still made a killing on Sin City's links and skeet-shooting ranges. A philandering, absentee husband and father, Thomas flourished only when hustling bets, marrying a string of teenage brides and then absconding the moment boredom struck.
The gambler's picaresque exploits inspired the character of Sky Masterson in Damon Runyon's "Guys and Dolls." If many of those exploits sound more entertaining than true, they're divertingly regaled by sportswriter Kevin Cook, even though his prose often obtains a purplish hue. Alvin Thomas' brazen trickery, after all, would be difficult to understate.
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