Former Sports Illustrated editor Cook (Driven: Teen Phenoms, Mad Parents, Swing Science and the Future of Golf, 2008, etc.) provides a raucous retelling of the life of a consummate gambler, grifter and quintessential American character.
At age 16, Alvin “Titanic” (so called because he sank everybody he gambled with) Thompson (1892–1974) bet a man his dog could fetch a stone he threw into a river. Suspecting a trick, the man demanded an X be scratched on the rock. Sure enough, the dog retrieved the rock. Of course, Thompson had spent the day before throwing hundreds of X-marked rocks into the river. Soon after, around 1910, Thompson left Arkansas and for the next 50 years proceeded to gamble on anything and everything, fleecing suckers wherever he found them, killing five men (mostly in self-defense) and marrying five times, all of them teenage brides. He would win, and lose, millions. “His goal, his compulsion,” writes Cook, “was to prove he could beat any man at anything.” Blessed with astounding physical dexterity and a mind that could calculate odds like a computer (even though he was illiterate), Thompson beat the best at cards, dice, pool, horseshoes and anything else he could think of. A road gambler, he would “sail between towns like a pirate, skinning the locals and hitting the road again before they felt the breeze of his passing.” Along the way, Thompson found himself in the company of a pantheon of iconic American personalities, including Houdini, who did not much impress him; Al Capone (Thompson had the good sense to fleece him only once); Arnold Rothstein, fixer of the 1919 World Series; Damon Runyon, who based Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls on him; Minnesota Fats, to whom Thompson lost and then won back $1 million; and a host of other high and lowlifes. Time passed, Thompson got old and so did his tricks. He died broke, but that hadn’t been the point. Money had only been a way of keeping score.
Whether a colorful trickster or amoral predator, Thompson becomes an irresistible folk legend in Cook’s capable hands.