Gambling Legend Wasn't Always A Winner

NPR-10 years before

Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything During a life spent gambling -- and mostly winning -- he earned the nickname "Titanic Thompson" -- because Titanic could sink anybody.

Titanic Thompson became one of the most famous gamblers of the 20th century. Poker, golf, billiards, target shooting -- you name it, Thompson bet on it. And with a little creative cheating, he usually won.

The tall tales of Thompson's life are now collected in ... new biography by Kevin Cook called Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything.

According to the book, Thompson "had close-set eyes that looked a little dead. At least, until he offered you a bet. Then those dark eyes sparked, and he smiled like he had good news. 'Are you a gambling man?' he'd ask. 'Because I am.' "

Thompson even once scammed Al Capone out of $500, Cook tells NPR's Audie Cornish. The pair were leaving a poker game, and they passed by a fruit vendor. "I can throw this lemon all the way on top of that building across the street," Titanic boasted. Capone took the bet.

What the infamous gangster didn't know was that Thompson had prepared the bet the night before -- by filling a lemon with buckshot to make it easier to throw.

Kevin Cook is a former Sports Illustrated editor. Courtesy Kevin Cook hide caption

The gambler's reputation even inspired hard-boiled crime writer Damon Runyon to write Thompson into the story that became the musical Guys and Dolls -- as the character Sky Masterson.

Not bad for "a boy who came out of the Ozarks with nothing." Cook says Thompson was self-taught, living by wit and guile. "He was proud of that," Cook says. "He wanted to prove he was deserving."

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