The Stacks: Portrait of the Consummate Con Man
Titanic Thompson could beat you at cards, hustle you at golf, and bet you on anything, so long as the odds were in his favor. Unknown to the public, he was a legend among his peers.
John Lardner was painting a prose portrait of a legendary con man when he wrote: “On a small scale, Titanic Thompson is an American legend. I say on a small scale, because an overpowering majority of the public has never heard of him. That is the way Titanic likes it. He is a professional gambler. He has sometimes been called the gambler’s gambler.”
Lardner might well have been writing about himself, although calling him a writer’s writer is entirely inadequate. In a career that spanned three decades, the ‘30s through the ‘50s, he wrote for The New Yorker about everything from movies and TV to the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. But it was as a sports columnist for Newsweek that Lardner left his deepest footprint, and he underscored it with long, brilliant magazines pieces like this one on Titanic Thompson, which originally appeared in True in 1951.
In an age of legendary sportswriters, Lardner was every bit the equal of Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, A.J. Liebling, Joe Palmer, and W.C. Heinz. He is overlooked today because he was never as famous as his father, Ring, and because he was a humorist and essayist in the age of the novel. Lardner wrote for newspapers and magazines, ephemeral institutions at best, and yet he didn’t enjoy Smith’s longevity or possess Cannon’s flair for self-promotion. Mostly he is forgotten because he died a month before his 48th birthday, in 1960, too young to achieve the lasting greatness that he surely seems to have been building toward.
Fortunately for us, there's been a Lardner revival the past few years. The University of Nebraska published The John Lardner Reader: A Press Box Legend's Classic Sportswriting, and Southwest Passage, Lardner's World War II dispatches from the Pacific theater. Several of his best magazine pieces have also appeared online, notably “Down Great Purple Valleys,” which features one of the great opening sentences of all time: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Last year, “Battling Siki” was also reprinted online.
Please enjoy this gem, reprinted with permission from Lardner's family, on Titanic Thompson.
One day not long ago, a St. Louis hotel detective tipped off a cop friend of his that there was a fellow in a room on the eighth floor who packed a gun. They decided to do a little further research. They went into the room without knocking, and it didn't take long to find the gun. It was pointing at them. The man who held it was tall, dark, thin, well dressed, and fiftyish.
“Take it easy,” he said. Then, observing the cop's uniform, he set down the gun, a small Army model, on a table, and smiled pleasantly. “I thought it might be a stick-up,” he said. “I have to be careful.”
Down at the station house, where the man was taken to explain why he was armed and why he drew his hardware so quickly, they got a polite and possibly a truthful answer. He happened to have $3,930 on him. He was expecting to claim a race horse with it. When he carried cash, he liked to feel protected. He had a license for the gun. His name was Alvin C. Thomas. At this point, the police lost interest in the details of the story and merely sat looking at the speaker with the frank curiosity of zoo-goers looking at a duck-billed platypus—for Alvin C. Thomas, as they knew and as he readily confirmed, is also Titanic Thompson. All the cops in the house took a good, long stare. Then they released him, and he went on his way.
On a small scale, Titanic Thompson is an American legend. I say a small scale, because an overpowering majority of the public has never heard of him. That is the way Titanic likes it. He is a professional gambler. He has sometimes been called the gamblers' gambler. He does not resent his fame among fellow hustlers as a “man with a million propositions,” as a master of percentage, but he likes to have it kept within the lodge. In the years of his early manhood, no one knew of him except gamblers, a few rich suckers, a few golf pros, and, by rumor, the police of New York City, the Middle West, and California, his favorite bases of operation. The cops had heard that he clipped people at everything, from golf to throwing quarters at a crack in the floor. But the people he clipped were mostly members of his own profession. Those outside it, honest suckers, did not complain. Suckers seldom do. Besides, they believed—and often they were right—that they had been beaten by pure skill.
One night in 1928, the most celebrated card game in American criminal history took place. As a result of it, Arnold Rothstein, a so-called underworld king, was murdered. And then it turned out that someone named Titanic Thompson had sat in on the game, and might know something about the killing.
That was the end, for a while, of Titanic's obscurity. Members of the Grassy Sprain Country Club, near New York City, blurted out a story that had been on their minds for a month. One day, some time between the Rothstein killing and Titanic's arrest as a material witness, Leo P. Flynn, a big-time fight manager and matchmaker who once handled Jack Dempsey, had brought a stranger out to the club. Leo was known there as a sport and a pretty fair golfer. This time, though, he didn't want to play golf himself. He wanted to match the stranger, whom he called Titanic, against the club professional, George McLean.
A side bet of $2,500 was arranged, with Flynn backing Thompson and several members pooling their funds in support of the local pride. That day, McLean won. He won with ease—the stranger, though he hit some good shots, did not seem to be in George's class. Besides, he was left-handed, and top-notch left-handed golfers are almost as rare as left-handed catchers. The McLean faction listened to Flynn's talk of a return match. McLean listened to the stranger's mild appeal for a ten-stroke handicap.
“I'm not in your league,” said the unknown, running his hand through his floppy dark hair, “but I think I can do better than I did today. Give me a real edge in strokes, and we'll bet real dough.”
The handicap, after some needling back and forth, was fixed at eight strokes. The real dough, supplied mostly by Mr. Flynn and another golfing sport, a Mr. Duffy, was $13,000, and the members covered every dime of it in behalf of their pro. Mr. Duffy, it happened, was Big Bill Duffy, a jolly henchman of Owney Madden, the racketeer. The members did not know this, but it would probably have made no difference if they had. They did not see how you could fix a golf match, and they did not see how an amateur could beat a good pro. It may not have occurred to them that for $13,000 Titanic was not, strictly speaking, an amateur.
The stranger shot much better, or luckier, golf this time than he had in the first match, but at the end of sixteen holes he had used up his eight-stroke advantage. The match was dead even, and McLean prepared to close in. On the short seventeenth, his tee shot stopped six feet from the pin. Titanic studied the distance and dropped one four feet closer. Perhaps that shot unnerved McLean. At any rate, he missed his putt. The stranger sank his. Titanic stood one up. He halved the last hole in par, and Mr. Flynn and Mr. Duffy picked up the $13,000—of which they gaily gave Mr. Thompson his share—and called for drinks for the house. The members went home to brood on the fact that a golf match can indeed be fixed—“fixed upward,” as gamblers say—if the fixer is a talented athlete who knows how to hide the symptoms until the price is right.
On the day the news broke of Titanic's arrest in the Rothstein case, Grassy Sprain started the legend rolling. It has been gathering strength ever since. Generally speaking, New York newspaper readers forgot Thompson soon after the trial of George A. McManus for Rothstein's murder (Titanic was a state witness who gave the state no help at all). To most of the rest of the world, he was then, and still is, unknown. But in the small circle in which his name is famous, Titanic Thompson stories have been collected, pooled, and warmed over slow fires for nearly a quarter of a century, till now they amount to a kind of saga—the sharpshooter's Adventures of Robin Hood.
Rothstein's death reminded Broadway story-swappers of what might on other levels be called the Adventure of the White Horses. The horse playing set to which Titanic and Rothstein belonged had formed the habit of spotting white horses from the train that took them to the Belmont or Jamaica track. One morning, some twenty of these smoking-car handicappers made up a pool, of $50 each, on the number of white horses that would be counted on the trip that day. Rothstein's estimate was surprisingly high; Titanic studied the tycoon thoughtfully before he made his own guess, just one horse above Rothstein's. There was an outburst of white horsemeat along the Long Island Rail Road tracks that day—a batch of fifteen animals at one crossing, a batch of twelve at another. The first batch had been planted by Titanic, the second by Rothstein.
“That will teach you not to be close with your money,” said Titanic to Rothstein, as he pocketed the pool. “For thirty bucks, you could have had a whole livery stable.”
Bear in mind that if Titanic had taken from the rich to give to the poor, as Robin Hood and Jesse James are said to have done, the legend-makers of the gambling world would want no part of him. He would be the wrong kind of hero. But Mr. Thompson has always taken very frankly to give to himself, or to split with the people who stake him. He has seldom made a bet he wasn't sure of winning. He always carries a gimmick—sometimes his hidden athletic skill, sometimes his trained knowledge of percentage, and occasionally a little something extra.
Here are some of the tales they tell:
1. Titanic once bet a peanut vendor $10 he could throw a peanut across Times Square in New York. He took a peanut from the vendor's stack, palmed a loaded one in its place, and pitched the phony goober up against the marquee of the Hotel Astor, across the street.
2. Billy Duffy once backed Titanic in a bet against a powerful amateur golfer, noted for his long drives. Titanic offered to let his opponent make three drives on each hole and play the best drive of the three. It sounded like a big margin to spot a strong hitter, and the party of the second part snapped the bet up. Playing his best drive, he piled up a big lead on the first nine holes. By that time, his arms were so tired from three full swings a hole that he could hardly knock the ball off the tee. Titanic breezed home in the last nine.
3. Titanic once bet $10,000 that Nick (the Greek) Dandolos, another high operator, would not sink a 25-foot putt. Kissed by the goddess Athena, the Greek holed the ball. Thompson, however, was not one to let $10,000 of his money rest long in someone else's jeans. He bet Nick double or nothing that he could hit a silver dollar with a gun eight times out of eight, from ten feet away. After the ceremony, the Greek gave back the ten grand and kept what was left of the dollar for a souvenir.
4. Titanic's mathematics were as sound as Pascal's. In fact, they were based on the reasoning of that great seventeenth-century Frenchman. He once bet a fellow gambler that two of the first thirty persons they met and spoke to would prove to have the same birthday. Strong in the thought that he had 365 days running for him, the second hustler was pleased to accept. Suspecting, not unnaturally, a frame-up, he was careful to approach total strangers and chance passers-by, who could not be known to Titanic. He lost the bet on the twenty-eighth question, when a duplicate birthday turned up.
“To tell you the truth,” said Titanic afterward, “on each of the last five guys we spoke to, the odds were better than even money in my favor. I'll explain the mathematics to you some time.”
Your correspondent will also be glad to explain the mathematics some time, to any reader. He does not quite understand them, but he knows what they are. Titanic's reasoning on the birthday proposition was founded on the fact that the chance against him at first was 364/365th, which, when multiplied by the succeeding chances—363/365th, 362/365th, and so forth—came fairly soon to represent 1/2, or one chance in two, or even money.
5. Tony Penna, the golf professional, tells of a bet by Titanic that he could throw a pumpkin over a three-story house. The pumpkin, when he produced it, was the size of an orange—but still a pumpkin. Going perhaps into the realm of pure myth, Penna adds that Titanic once bet he could throw a baseball over the Empire State Building. He won it (says Penna) by taking an elevator to the top platform and throwing from there.
6. Titanic once bet a dice impresario named Nutts Nitti that he could find a hairpin in each block of a stretch of twenty consecutive New York City blocks. He won. The hairpins had been planted in advance.
7. Titanic once bet he could throw a quarter at a potato, from fifteen feet away, and make it stick in the potato at least once in ten tries. Encountering resistance from his opponent, he agreed to settle for seven tries, and scored on the fourth one.
8. Titanic was motoring into Omaha, his temporary base, with a friend one day. As they passed a signpost on the road, Titanic, without looking at it, offered to bet that they would reach the city limits within ten minutes. The signpost made it ten miles to town. The friend, a noticing sort of man, took the bet. He lost. Titanic had moved the signpost five miles closer that morning.
9. There is a standard prop in Titanic's repertory—a two-headed quarter, which he uses with more than standard speed, skill, and acting talent. His opening line, after dinner, is “Let's toss for the check.” His next line, while the coin is in the air, is “You cry.” If his opponent cries tails, Titanic lets the quarter fall—heads. If the other fellow cries heads, Titanic swings his hand nonchalantly, catches the coin, puts it back in his pocket, and speaks to this effect: “Oh, to hell with gambling for ham and eggs. Let's go Dutch.”
10. Titanic is credited with being the man who introduced Rothstein to the art of betting on automobile license plates, at Rothstein's expense. He bet Rothstein, as they stood on a Broadway corner, that the first New Jersey plate to come along would make a better poker hand than the first New York plate. Thirty seconds later, from his parking spot around the corner (there were parking spots in those days), a colleague of Titanic's drove into view in a New Jersey car. His plate number carried three threes.
11. In a Hot Springs, Arkansas, stud-poker game, a player named Burke became justly incensed one evening because he could not win.
“That deck is ice cold, and so is the other one,” he bawled. “I ain't had a pair in an hour.”
“You ought to know,” said Titanic soothingly, “that the odds are against getting a pair in any five-card hand. Now, if you dealt yourself six cards—.”
“With these cards,” yelled Burke, “I couldn't pair myself if I dealt all night!”—and the way was paved for a Thompson proposition. Titanic offered to let Burke deal himself ten cold hands of six cards each. Before each hand, he offered to bet that there would be a pair in it. They say that the agony of Burke, as he paired himself in eight of the ten hands and thus lost $300 by the sweat of his own fingers, was something to see. Titanic had known that the addition of a sixth card changes the odds on catching a pair from 13 to 10 against to nearly 2 to 1 in favor. And to bet even money on a 2-to-1 favorite, he would walk quite a distance and stay quite a while.
12. In his early days, Titanic, going through a storeroom in the basement of a sporting club in Ohio on his way to the men's room, spotted a rat and nimbly tipped a barrel over the animal. Later, in the course of the dice game upstairs, he raised the subject of the prevalence of rats in Ohio sporting clubs and made a bet that he could find and shoot one any time. The bet was taken. Titanic returned to the cellar, shot the dead rat, and brought it back to the table with him.
13. Titanic, shooting right-handed, lost a close golf match to an amateur who played in the 90s. Next day, he bet the winner double their first bet that he could beat him playing left-handed. Left-handed, his natural style, Titanic shot an 80. The victim continued to shoot in the 90s.
14. Titanic once bet he could drive a golf ball 500 yards. The bet was popular on all sides, and the interested parties followed Titanic out to the golf course of his choice, on Long Island. He picked a tee on a hill overlooking a lake. It was wintertime. His drive hit the ice and, it seemed to his opponents, never did stop rolling. It went half a mile, if it went a yard.
Titanic, as the district attorney found out in the Rothstein case, does not talk much. All that anyone knows about his origins and early life comes from stray remarks, spaced far apart, that he has let fall to other gamblers on the golf course or at the card table. This writer has seen him only once. It was in the “private” or “upstairs” crap game at the old Chicago Club in Saratoga. Joe Madden, the literary barkeep, pointed him out to me from the sidelines. I saw a slender fellow about six feet tall, his dark hair cut long, wearing a neat gabardine suit and two fair-sized diamond rings. When Titanic left the game a little later, Madden said, “He's going down to the drugstore to get a load of ice cream. That's his dish.”
“That's his dish for breakfast,” corrected one of the gamblers at the table. “But he don't eat breakfast till he gets up for the races, maybe two o'clock in the afternoon.”
A discussion of Titanic's habits ensued. It reminded me of a session of fight men on Jacobs Beach or in the press room at the Garden, discussing some figure of legend like Stanley Ketchel. I asked where the name Titanic had come from. The answer was one I'd heard before, the only one I've ever heard. It may or may not be true.
In a poker game in New York on Thompson's first tour of the East, one player said to another, “What's that guy's name?”
“It ought to be Titanic,” said the second player. “He sinks everybody.”
The logic here was a little unsound—if I remember the S.S. Titanic story, “Iceberg” would have been the right name. But gamblers are seldom good on names. Thompson, for instance, is an easy garbling of Titanic's real name, Thomas. There seems to be no doubt, judging by police files, that he was born Alvin Clarence Thomas, in the state of Arkansas, about 1893. He still talks with a slight Southwestern accent. As a boy, he once said, he acquired the throwing skill that served him handsomely later by killing quail with rocks. He was a good horseshoe pitcher and an expert shot.
Athletic talent is a rare thing in a professional gambler, but what surprised the golf pros of the Pacific Coast and the Southwest, who knew him in his early days and accepted him as an athlete to begin with, was his lightning speed of mind at gambling. He would make twelve to fifteen bets on a single hole, keeping track of them in his head while others took time to make notes. He would lose one bet and make another on the next shot that would bring his stake back doubled. Penna and others noticed that his bets during the match often were bigger than his bet on the match as a whole.
“Yeah, that's right,” said Titanic, when someone spoke of this. “I like to bet 'em when they're out there on the course with me. Especially on the greens. Why? Figure it out for yourself.”
It was not hard to figure. When a golfer is out there on the course, any new bet he makes is probably made with his own money, without the help of a backer. When he bets with his own money, he gets nervous. Especially on the greens.
In Titanic's youth, they say, he was impatient with mental slowness of any kind, but it could not have been long before he came to recognize that quality, in the people around him, as so much bread and jam for him. Among the money golfers who knew him at one time and another were Penna, Dick Metz, Len Dodson and Ben Hogan. He always told them, as he often told the cops when they picked him up on the curious charge of shooting golf too well, that he was “a former pro.” It may have been so, but the chances are that he was a former caddy who, on discovering his own skill at the game, almost immediately became a professional gambler rather than a professional golfer. It was a nice economic choice. The best professional golfers in the country, even in these days of rich prizes, do well to earn $30,000 in a year from tournaments. Titanic has sometimes made $50,000 in a few weeks of well-timed chipping and putting at golf resorts.
“I've been broke,” he told a Coast newspaperman once, “but never for more than six hours at a time. When I tap out, somebody I once helped loans me a stake, and I'm back in action again.”
Titanic Thompson broke into the Rothstein game, as a young man, because he was good company and a good player—though the state of New York tried to prove, a little later, that trained fingers had something to do with it. The fateful game that led to Rothstein's death and to Titanic's first appearance in print took place on the night of September 7-8, 1928. It was held at the apartment of Jimmy Meehan, a regular member of the circle on the West Side of New York. Rothstein, because he was rumored to have a finger in every branch of organized crime in the city, was the best-known player in the game, but all the others were noted figures in the gambling, bookmaking, and horse-playing worlds. They included Martin “Red” Bowe, N——- Nate Raymond, Sam and Meyer Boston, Abe Silverman, George A. McManus, and Titanic Thompson. The game was stud poker, but as it went along it took on a pattern familiar in that group—it became a “high card” game, with the biggest money being bet on the size of the first-up card in the stud hand.
There were rumors along Broadway in the following week that Rothstein had lost a packet. There were also rumors that the winners had not been paid in full. It took a gunshot, however, to make the story public property. On November 4, 1928, someone put a revolver slug into Rothstein's body in Room 349 of the Park Central Hotel. Rothstein staggered from the room and died just outside it. The killer pushed aside a screen and threw the gun into the street below. The New York newspapers went to town. It became the biggest crime story since the murder of Herman Rosenthal by Whitey Lewis, Dago Frank, Lefty Louie, and Gyp the Blood.
The overcoat of George McManus, a smiling gambler, brother of a police lieutenant, had been found in Room 349. Soon afterward McManus was indicted for murder, along with three gunmen who never did show up for trial. On November 26, the D.A., Joab H. Banton, arrested Jimmy Meehan, Red Bowe, Sidney Stajer (Rothstein's secretary), N——- Nate Raymond, and Titanic as material witnesses. All of them but Bowe were held in $100,000 bail. For some reason it was Titanic, then and later, who caught the public's fancy—maybe because he was said to be a Westerner, a lone wolf, a romantic, and single-duke gambler of the old school.
It turned out that Titanic had a wife, Mrs. Alice Thomas, who had been living with him at the Mayflower Hotel. A few days after his arrest, she paid him a tearful visit at the West Side prison on Fifty fourth Street. Titanic then sent for the D.A.'s men, made “important disclosures” (the papers said), and was released on $10,000 bail. What kind of minstrel show he gave to win his freedom is not known. Unofficially it was reported that he had admitted to being in Room 349 just before the murder, leaving when he saw that there might be trouble. Whatever he said, it was plain that the D.A. thought he had laid hold of a fine, friendly witness. The D.A. was very wrong.
When the McManus murder case came to trial, in November 1929, Titanic was running a night club and gambling spot in Milwaukee. He was also running a fever in a Milwaukee hospital. So important was his evidence considered by the prosecution that the trial was delayed for a week. Titanic, in Milwaukee, showed for the first time that he was in no mood to blow whistles.
“I don't know what they want me as a witness for,” he told reporters, whom he received in scarlet pajamas in the hospital. “I wasn't with Rothstein on the night of the murder and hadn't seen him or McManus for two months previously. We played cards at that time, and McManus lost a lot of money. That's all I know about the case.”
When he did get to New York to testify, the courtroom was packed. Titanic sat in the rear of the room, twisting his fingers nervously, till he was called. The crowd buzzed as he took the stand. McManus, in the dock, sat up and smiled at Titanic. Titanic nodded to McManus. Ferdinand Pecora, later a famous judge, then an assistant D.A. and a strong trial lawyer, moved in on Titanic confidently. It had been established that McManus had lost $51,000 to Rothstein in the celebrated high card game while Rothstein was losing about $219,000 to some of the others. Pecora's pitch was obvious. He implied that Rothstein, possibly with Titanic's help, had fleeced McManus of the fifty one grand. Titanic would have no part of this hypothesis. After identifying himself by saying that he gambled on everything from golf to horse races, and referring to McManus as “a square and honest guy,” he began to spar Pecora to a standstill.
“Was the game on the level?” asked the prosecutor.
“It couldn't be any other way on high cards,” said Titanic with a deeply scornful gesture. “A man who never dealt in his life was peddling the papers. We had to show him how to shuffle.”
To “peddle the papers” is to deal. The crowd was delighted with this local color.
“Now, think,” said Pecora angrily, after a while. “Wasn't this game crooked?”
“Anyone ought to know,” said Titanic, still scornful, “that that's impossible.”
“Couldn't a clever dealer give the high card to any man he chose?”
“Certainly not,” said Titanic. “It ain't being done.”
On other questions, his memory failed.
“You see,” he told Pecora patiently, “I just don't remember things. If I bet on a horse today and won ten grand, I probably would not be able to recall the horse's name tomorrow.”
While the public gasped at this specious statement, the defense took over for cross examination. At once, Titanic's memory improved, and his attitude got friendlier. He said that McManus had shown no ill will after the game.
“He's a swell loser,” said Titanic tenderly. “Win or lose, he always smiles.”
In short, he probably gave the state less change for its money than any state's witness in recent memory. And it's a matter of record that George A. McManus was acquitted of the murder of Arnold Rothstein.
It's a matter of record, too, that Titanic was annoyed by his notoriety during the trial. For several months afterward, he complained that he could no longer get a “good” game of golf, by which he meant a game with gravy on the side. He may have misstated the case a little. Recently I asked Oswald Jacoby, the card wizard, about a story in the newspapers that said that John R. Crawford, an ex-G.I. and a spectacular newcomer to card playing circles, resented the publicity he got in a big Canasta game for charity because no one wanted to play cards with him any more.
“Don't you believe it,” said Mr. Jacoby. “People always want to play with a man with a big reputation. The more money they have, the more they like it.”
Be that as it may, Titanic, in Tulsa soon after the trial, was bothered by the galleries that followed him—but he did find one man who wanted to play golf with him just to be able to say he'd done it. Titanic fixed up “a little proposition” for him and won $2,000. There must have been other men with the same ambition, or else Ti's celebrity began to fade, for we cross his trail again in Little Rock, Arkansas, soon afterward, playing golf for $2,000 and $3,000 a round.
True, even a roving gambler likes to stop and run a “store” now and then, but since the time of his first fame, Titanic has found it more comfortable to keep on the move. He and a large restaurant operator and racketeer, whom we will call Tony Rizzo, were moving by train not long ago from California to Tony's base at Hot Springs.
“Tony,” said Titanic, “do you ever regret being illiterate?”
“Whaddya mean?” said Tony, hurt. “I ain't so dumb.”
“I'm going to teach you to spell two ten letter words,” said Titanic. “The words are 'rhinoceros' and 'anthropoid.' If you can still spell them when we get off the train, I'll pick up the checks for this trip. But take a tip from me—keep spelling them or you'll forget them.”
For the rest of the trip, Rizzo kept spelling out, in order, the letters r-h-i-n-o-c-e-r-o-s and a-n-t-h-r-o-p-o-i-d. He still knew them at the Hot Springs station. Titanic paid off.
The gambler set the second stage of the proposition for Tony's restaurant. He first brought an unknown partner, a respectable-looking fellow as shills go, into the act. He rehearsed the shill in the spelling of ten ten-letter words, including “rhinoceros” and “anthropoid.” The next night he sat down in Rizzo's restaurant, as usual, with Owney Madden and other lovable tourists. Rizzo himself as usual, was sitting at a table by himself, wolfing his pizza in solitary grandeur.
“Do you know,” said Titanic confidentially, “that that Rizzo just pretends to be ignorant? He puts on a dumb front for business. The guy has got diplomas from two colleges.”
This speech aroused great skepticism at Titanic's table, which in turn aroused bets. Titanic covered a thousand dollars' worth, his argument being that Tony could spell any ten-letter word, any one at all, that Mr. Madden and the boys chose to mention. As Titanic expected, a pause followed, while the boys tried to think of a ten-letter word to give Tony. They were somewhat embarrassed. At this point, Titanic's partner hove into view, and Titanic hailed him.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but you look as though you might be able to help us. May I ask your business? A lawyer? Fine. Would you mind writing down ten ten-letter words on a piece of paper here, for these gentlemen to choose from?”
The stranger obliged. Looking around, he wrote down the word “restaurant,” which appeared on Tony's window. He wrote down several others he found on the bill of fare, such as “cacciatore.” In and among the rest he inserted the words “rhinoceros” and “anthropoid.” He turned the paper over to the boys, who immediately set to work making scratches in the morning line, to protect their bets. They scratched “restaurant”—Tony saw it on the window all day, he might know it. They scratched “cacciatore.” “He's Eyetalian,” said Mr. Madden, “and he might know all that kind of stuff.” This left them, in the end, with “rhinoceros” and “anthropoid.” At random, they scratched “rhinoceros.” They summoned Mr. Rizzo and desired him to spell the word “anthropoid.”
“Sure,” said Tony, taking a deep breath. “R-h-i-n-o-c-e-r-o-s.”
Titanic paid off the $1,000. The bet belongs to his legend partly because he lost it and partly because he won the money back, with galloping dominoes, the same night. As I said before, he is prosperous just now. A fellow gambler who ran across him in Evansville, Indiana—you are apt to find him anywhere—says that Titanic's pajamas and dressing gowns, always brilliant, are more brilliant than ever. His supply of jewels, rings, and stickpins is at high tide. A man like Ti, my informant explains, buys jewels whenever he is in the money, to sell or hock when times are hard.
The Titanic legend would not be so solidly honored in the gambling world, it would not be complete, if the quiet Mr. Thompson had never used the gun he always carries, in defense of the money he takes from the rich to give to himself. The police of Little Rock, years ago, found a letter in Titanic's room which demanded “2 thousand cash or you will be sorry.” The police of St. Louis, more recently, found him ready to draw at the sound of a door being opened.
And in Tyler, Texas, a few years back, it was proved clearly that in matters involving Titanic Thompson and his money there is very little kidding. Titanic had had a good day on the golf course. His caddy noticed it. The caddy was sixteen years old, but he had grown up ideas. At a late hour the same evening, a shot was fired in Tyler, and the police arrived to find the caddy with a bullet in him, while Titanic stood in attendance.
“I shot him,” said the gambler. “It was self-defense. He tried to stick me up for my roll.”
The young man died next day. A mask and an unfired gun were found on his person, and the plea of self-defense was allowed. Titanic moved along, with a stronger toehold on history than ever.