Take Titanic Thompson with, well, an iceberg-sized grain of salt. In Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything, former SI editor Kevin Cook spins a rollicking tale around the life of a grifter who is said to have either hustled, or hustled alongside, the likes of Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Minnesota Fats and Ben Hogan.
Thompson's bag of tricks was as diverse as his roster of cronies. He was skilled at cards, horseshoes, bowling, billiards and, especially, golf—a sport at which, Cook asserts, he was one of the greatest at a time when it made little financial sense to go pro. Yet Thompson, who died in 1974 at age 81, seldom relied on skill alone in winning and losing some $10 million over the years. If he wasn't roping some rubes into a doubles match for which he got "stuck" with a "passerby" partner (in reality, a young Ben Hogan), he was tilting the odds in other ways. In the 1920s he bet Al Capone's men in Chicago as much as $50,000 (accounts vary) that he could drive a ball 500 yards, then teed off over a frozen Lake Michigan, skittering his ball to victory.
That things (the FBI, newspaper exposure) would catch up with Thompson was inevitable, yet he hustled till the end. Cook proves a pro here, situating Thompson in the evolving American landscape while questioning the validity of Titanic's tales, which, even if only half true, remain larger than life.
By Kevin Cook W.W. Norton & Co. 240 pages, $24.95