Titanic Thompson – Golfer, Gambler & Hustler

Titanic Thompson

“A legend in his own lifetime“

I remember a close friend telling me, how he had this unexplained attraction to Hell Raisers, most of whom were some of the real characters in life you could ever meet.

I have also been fascinated by those characters and during my life I have been fortunate to come across the stories of some truly fascinating characters, two of which came to my attention through my career with Cathay Pacific and the time that I spent in Hong Kong in the 70’s & 80’s.

Hong Kong in it’s early colonial days must have been a wonderful lifestyle and was a real breeding ground for these unique individuals, who risked their life regularly, not only through the 2 World Wars, as well as the various Indochina conflicts. These two characters that I am referring to are firstly  – 

“ Earthquake McGoon McGovern “ and also 

“ Two Gun Cohen “.

Earthquake McGoon McGovern
Earthquake McGoon McGovern
Two Gun Cohen
Two Gun Cohen – Centre –  with the Revolutionary Army of Sun Yat Sen

What wonderful names, you can almost feel them jumping out of the page to greet you.

They lived hard and played even harder and left an impression on all that crossed their paths. 

I would have loved to have been able to have a beer with these two guys.

The former GM of Cathay pacific in Australia, a really lovely guy called Ron Pascoe, first told me about them.

Earthquake McGoon McGovern

Earthquake, born James B McGovern was a WW2 US fighter pilot, who flew in China against the Japanese as part of the Flying Tigers and then post war for CAT ( Civil Air transport ), which later became Air America, run by the CIA .

Earthquake died in 1954, when he was only 32,  ferrying supplies to the French outpost Dien Bien Phu in Laos, during the first Indochina war, when his aircraft was hit several times by the local guerrillas and crashed just short of the runway, following some heroic efforts to keep it airborne.

Two Gun Cohen

The second Two Gun, born Morris Abraham Mialczyn, a Jewish Canadian moved to England with his family becoming Moishe Cohen ( much easier to pronounce ) and then became involved with the Chinese community when he moved back to Saskatchewan.

Through that connection he joined the Tongmenghui and became an aide-de-camp for Sun Yat Sen in Southern China and an acting Colonel in his revolutionary army.

Like Earthquake, over the years he spent a great deal of time in Hong Kong, including during the Japanese invasion, where he fought and was then imprisoned at Stanley Prison Camp.

What really intriguing names and lives well lived, there are many real characters throughout history, but these two really struck a chord, I just loved their names.

I chuckle every time that I say them, however these two amazing characters and personalities, almost pale into insignificance when compared to – 

Titanic Thompson

Titanic Thompson  – again what an incredible name, again I chuckle,  I don’t think that we have characters like this in our society anymore.

Titanic Thompson
Titanic Thompson – The Snappy Dresser

Born Alvin Clarence Thomas in Monett, Missouri on 30 November 1893, he was raised mainly in the Ozark Mountains near Rogers, Arkansas.

His father, who was also a gambler, deserted the family when Alvin was quite young, his mother remarried and after not getting along with his stepfather or his other children and feeling unwelcome, Alvin decided to leave home at 16 years of age, virtually penniless and illiterate.

He was unable to read and write, not because he wasn’t smart enough, but because he hated school and hardly ever attended, preferring to hang out down by the river fishing and hunting.

He only met his father once more throughout the remainder of his life and decided that he didn’t really think too much of him, so never bothered to make contact with him again. 

Titanic had an amazing skill with numbers, card counting and a general ability at calculating odds, a skill that suggests that he was possibly suffering from a form of Autism. He didn’t like to be touched and was quite happy in his own company.

He was however very well coordinated, had remarkable eyesight and extra ordinary hand-eye coordination and as such was a crack shot.

This ability also very much assisted him in becoming a very talented golfer where he was truly ambidextrous playing equally well, either left or right handed. I challenge you to name anyone else that you know of, who could do that.

There have been numerous articles and books written about Titanic and his almost addiction to gambling, rather he was addicted to winning, so gambling never became a problem for him, he just loved it. 

One of his partners in hustling other gamblers, was Minnesota Fats, made famous by the movie The Hustler, starring Jackie Gleeson and Paul Newman. 

Minnesota claimed that – “ Titanic was a genius, the greatest action man of all time “

Titanic did have one major weakness with his gambling – betting on Horse Racing , where he supposedly lost millions of dollars on failed bets, throughout the course of his life .

So, for the purpose of this blog, I will concentrate mainly on his Golfing exploits.

Golfing Exploits

He then spent most of the rest of his life, travelling around the country, moving from town to town, only moving on to the next after he had exhausted his pool of well to do suckers.

He avoided publicity or being well known, as best he could, anonymity made it much easier to pull off a hustle.

He enjoyed life’s luxuries and travelled initially in a very handsome Packard, until one day another driver passed him in a jaw dropping Pierce Arrow, he then made it his mission to acquire one, it didn’t take him very long to get one.

So there was Alvin Thomas, an illiterate poor boy from Monett, Missouri driving around in a Pearl Blue Pierce Arrow with timber spoked wheels and white walled tyres – I thought he said that he tried to avoid being noticed.

The Pierce Arrow cost $6,750, compared to the car for everyman, a Model T Ford, which cost $300 and came in any colour that you wanted as long as you wanted black.

Having been raised in a very poor family, he did not live close to, or would have been welcome at any exclusive Golf Clubs, so he did not take up Golf until he was in his thirty’s.

His natural abilities were well suited to Golf and when he found himself in San Francisco for a longer than expected stay, he arranged to get lessons from a Club Pro, improving rapidly, with him becoming a very accomplished player.

He practiced intensely for more than 12 months, before he played his first round, concentrating his time mainly on chipping and putting, as they say – “ you hit for show and putt for doe “

Golf then became a very important part of his life, playing several times a week. It also suited his natural desire to gamble and hustle, giving him the opportunity to earn enormous amounts of money.

Nick “ The Greek “ Dandolos
Nick “ The Greek “ Dandolos – Titanic’s Betting accomplice

After a newspaper article printed his name as Thompson not Thomas, Alvin then let everyone think that his name was Thompson, after all Titanic Thompson sounded better than Titanic Thomas, don’t you think. 

The Titanic nickname stemmed from Alvin taking on a player called Snow Clark the owner of a Pool Hall in Joplin Missouri, beating him out of his money at anything that Snow could suggest.

Whilst Alvin was counting his winnings, Snow was asked by another punter who Alvin was, to which Clark replied –

 “ Titanic “  “ he sinks everybody “  and the legend of Titanic Thompson began.

A Mythical Figure

He became an almost mythical figure to those that crossed his path, the Forrest Gump of his time if you like. Many avoided playing any game against him being completely intimidated by this larger than life guy, but there were also many other punters who couldn’t resist the challenge, without really knowing what they were up against.They rarely escaped without being badly hurt in the pocket.

Rather than play on the Professional Circuit, which he could have easily done, he quickly realised that he could earn significantly more money hustling games with rich Country Club players who had Egos much larger than their golfing ability.

Tittanic once said  –  “ that playing golf without betting, is just going for a long walk with 3 other liars “ 

Amongst his golfing friends, partners and admirers were Golf legends Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Paul Runyan and Sam Snead, all of whom have been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

In the early 30’s, he travelled with, partnered with and became close friends with Ben Hogan , hustling any unsuspecting Golfers that they could, with Hogan describing Titanic as  “ the best shotmaker I ever saw “.  “ he can play left or right handed, you can’t beat him “.

When Hogan decided to join the Tour full time, Titanic continued to travel with a variety of very promising young golfers who teamed up with him to assist him with his hustles, making large sums of money in the process. For many this access to large sums of cash, helped fund their crack at playing full time on the tour.

Hogan, Sam Snead and Bryon Nelson were all born in the same year 1912.

Nelson said of Alvin – “ there’s no question, Titanic could have excelled on Tour, but he would have had to take a pay cut “.

Snead a hustler himself said of Titanic, “ he was golf’s greatest hustler “, although they never actually played against each other until some 20 years later.

At that time most of the leading Pro’s on the tour, also played for money on the side as a way to earn extra cash aside from the tour. 

Titanic was the last great player to ignore tour golf events.

On a visit back to Joplin, Missouri  with his third wife Jo Ann ( his second wife Alice, whom he genuinely loved dearly, had passed away suddenly ), he came across a Club Pro at the Oak Hills Golf Club called Ky Laffoon and instantly saw his gifted ball striking skills. Ti told him that “ he hit it too good to be working here “, so they teamed up and hit the road, hustling all comers as partners and made plenty.

Lafoon would go on to win 10 times on the PGA tour and join Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen on the 1935 Ryder Cup team.

Tommy Bolt another member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, was just a young teenager when he first saw Titanic play  said of him – “ he had a compact swing, that didn’t require much practice, a gamblers swing “. “ There’s no telling how great this guy could have been “

Paul Runyan, who was also a Ryder Cup team mate of Laffoon, admired Titanic’s golf, but not the man, said  – “ the best left handed golfer in the world “   

In fact Titanic could break Par with either hand and one hustle was to beat a golfer playing right handed and then offer to play him again for double or nothing , but this time playing left handed. The opponents never knew that he was actually naturally left handed and jumped at an opportunity that they thought would surely let them get their money back.

As such he always carried two sets of clubs in the boot of his car, one right and one left handed.

In an era when Pro purses were relatively small , Titanic could make as much in a week hustling as the Golf pro’s could earn in a year playing on the Tour.  No wonder he never joined the Tour.

He was the basis for the movie Tin Cup, a great movie starring Kevin Costner where nearly all of the gags in the movie were garnered from Titanic’s exploits including when Don Johnson wins a long drive bet using a 7 iron, fleecing the unsuspecting Costner by driving the ball bouncing down the bitumen entrance road.

Apparently Titanic won a bet that he could drive a golf ball over 500 yards and then he hit the ball across a frozen lake, Lake Michigan in Chicago. No conditions had been applied. 

Not sure how long the drive was, but it was certainly over 500 yards. 

In the early 1960’s when he was about 70 years of age, he settled in Dallas Texas and sponsored a young Raymond Floyd, then arranging a large money match for Ray with another relatively unknown golfer, an assistant Club Pro in El Paso Texas called Lee Trevino, played at Lee’s home course, Horizon Hills Country Club. 

This was to become the greatest game of golf ever played for money of all time.  

The match went on for 3 days , both players well under par each round with the Honors and Bets ending up even, but it gave tremendous publicity and notoriety to both players and really boosted their young careers.

Raymond Floyd would go on to win 4 majors and Lee Trevino 6 and both are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Raymond Floyd & Lee Trevino
Raymond Floyd & Lee Trevino –  Check out the money in each players hand

But it was not just golf where he amassed a large gathering of successful friends, he could also count himself close to well known identities such as Al Capone, Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes, Minnesota Fats and Harry Houdini. People just liked to be around Titanic Thompson and he certainly had a way of ingratiating himself with the powerful and wealthy.

Titanic’s Friend –  Chicago Mobster – Al Capone

As I said I have concentrated this Blog around his exceptional Golfing skills, for how many Golfers in the 1930’s could lay claim to beating Ben Hogan playing right handed and Byron Nelson playing left handed .

He quite liked Los Angeles, or rather Hollywood and Beverly Hills and tried desperately to get a game of golf with Howard Hughes, but Hughes had heard all about him in advance and managed to avoid ever meeting him.

Whilst chasing HH all over Hollywood, Titanic managed to infiltrate the Motion Picture industry’s close knit circle, hanging out at all of the famous venues that the Stars traditional haunts.

Ti claimed that Myrna Loy was his first great flame and maintained a libido of legend status, together apparently with “ equipment “ to match. They said that his “ equipment “ matched his nickname.

One of his golf partners quipped – “ He was magnetic, he’d look at a girl and she would go weak in the knees. 

I have omitted telling the endless stories of his gambling exploits, where he would use his natural mathematical skills to ensure that the odds were always in his favour, making enormous amounts of money in the process.

He was also not above setting up the result, well in advance of the game itself taking place, the hallmark of a successful professional hustler.

The Book

If this blog intrigues you and you would like to know more about this truly fascinating character, then I would encourage you to read the book – “ “Titanic Thompson – The Man Who Bet on Everything “ by Kevin Cook.

A Book Highly Reccommended

Cook has a really lyrical and endearing writing style and I am sure that you will get great enjoyment out of reading it.

Titanic passed away in a nursing home in Dallas, Texas in 1974, alone aged 81, having squandered all of the millions that he had hustled over the previous 65 years. 

Titanic was married 5 times, with each of his wives still being a teenager on her wedding day, it seems that he liked his women young.

He also killed 5 men, each one in self defence, as they were try to rob and kill him he claimed, but he was never charged, with police maintaining that he had done them a favour in killing very dangerous and notorious criminals.

He left behind 3 sons but was close to only one of them, who travelled with him for a while. He also left behind the legacy of his exploits, the admiration and envy of the many that had come in contact with him, but most of those were somewhat lighter in the pocket for the experience.

So now there are 3 characters who each have really intrigued and endeared themselves to me –

  • Earthquake McGoon McGovern
  • Two Gun Cohen 

 And probably most of all – Titanic Thompson

Titanic Thompson – Golfer, Gambler & Hustler

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