David Crane

Consummate con artist

‘Taylor, I dreamt of your lecture last night,’ the polar explorer Captain Scott was once heard to exclaim, after sitting through a paper on icebergs by the expedition physiographer, Griffith Taylor, that had reduced even its author to the edge of catalepsy: ‘How could I live so long in the world and not know something of so fascinating a subject!’ The True Story of Titanic Thompson is not going to be everyone’s book, but for those who can get beyond the child-brides and casual killings, Kevin Cook’s biography of a great American hustler might well provoke the same sense of wonderment.

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The True Story of Titanic Thompson

Kevin Cook

Picador, pp. 247, £

‘Taylor, I dreamt of your lecture last night,’ the polar explorer Captain Scott was once heard to exclaim, after sitting through a paper on icebergs by the expedition physiographer, Griffith Taylor, that had reduced even its author to the edge of catalepsy: ‘How could I live so long in the world and not know something of so fascinating a subject!’

The True Story of Titanic Thompson is not going to be everyone’s book, but for those who can get beyond the child-brides and casual killings, Kevin Cook’s biography of a great American hustler might well provoke the same sense of wonderment.

‘Taylor, I dreamt of your lecture last night,’ the polar explorer Captain Scott was once heard to exclaim, after sitting through a paper on icebergs by the expedition physiographer, Griffith Taylor, that had reduced even its author to the edge of catalepsy: ‘How could I live so long in the world and not know something of so fascinating a subject!’

The True Story of Titanic Thompson is not going to be everyone’s book, but for those who can get beyond the child-brides and casual killings, Kevin Cook’s biography of a great American hustler might well provoke the same sense of wonderment. A certain degree of anonymity is, of course, a crucial element of any conman’s success, and yet no amount of wilful obscurity can begin to explain how 30-odd years after his death a name that ought to be as familiar as Minnesota Fats or John Dillinger is about as well known as ‘Griff’ Taylor’s work on Antarctic glaciers.

Born in Arkansas in 1892, Ti Thompson grew up in a world of rain-makers, bible-peddlers, fair-ground shooters, itinerant revivalists and card sharps, for which he was uniquely well-equipped. There may have been the odd hustler who could match his skills at poker or on the pool table, but nobody has ever brought to the conman’s art the austere self-discipline or meticulous planning that Thompson did. As a ‘propositionist’ he was unrivalled for the simple reason that he only bet on challenges he had already made into near certainties. When he said he could flick 52 cards of a pack into a bowl at 25 feet he had hundreds of lonely hours of practice in Mid-West hotel rooms to back his money. If he bet on the number of greys they would pass on the train ride out to Aqueduct he could stake big because he had gone to the trouble of putting them there the day before. If he wagered that at least two of the next 30 people he met in Times Square would share the same birthday that was because he had taken lessons in probability from a Columbia professor of mathematics.

Even for an artist and sportsman as talented and dedicated as Thompson, though, ‘life,’ as the ageing Damon Runyon put it, ‘is six-to-five against’. There was never going to be any shortage of suckers to keep a hustler of his quality in business, but as America got smaller and communications better it became ever harder to find a city or state where he was not known. The country clubs of California, Al Capone’s Chicago, Arnold ‘the Brain’ Rothstein’s New York, the oil fields and oil millionaires of Texas, Thompson had played and fleeced them all, and had nowhere new to go. His America — that violent, thrusting early 20th-century America hovering uneasily between its frontier past and a more staid and regulated future — was fading into memory and with it the aura of impregnability that had made Thompson one of its legendary symbols. Some of the charm that had brought him five teenage brides still remained, but that was about all. The golfer who — right-handed or left — had once hustled the US Amateur champion out of his money could scarcely get a club above shoulder-height. The card-sharp with the hand-eye co- ordination to shoot an aspirin out of the air with a 2.2 bullet or decapitate a daffodil at 15 feet with a playing card was now blind. The man who had gambled golfers and poker players out of millions was finally buried with just $400 to his name.

A morality tale of sorts, perhaps, but none the worse for that and the story is told here with just the right pace and tone. Cook is good on the characters — Minnesota Fats, Capone, Rothstein, Hogan, Trevino — who washed through Thompson’s life. He is good, too, on the speakeasies, hotel rooms, county jails, desert fairways and river-boats that formed its inevitable background. And if, after a while, even the most brilliant scams can come to seem — as somebody once memorably remarked of the canals of Venice — ‘a bit samey’, it is hard to think which of them one would happily have done without.