By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
To friends and music business associates, 43-year-old Ty Thomas is a former member of a popular early-'90s alternative pop-rock band from Dallas that called itself The Crossing; a gifted but frustrated musician who dropped out, only to recently return as a songwriter with a larger-than-life dream.
To another generation, however, it has never been his music that set him apart. Rather, it is the fact that he is the youngest son of Alvin Clarence Thomas, a.k.a. Titanic Thompson, a man called by many the greatest gambler-hustler-con man who ever worked a scam.
Throughout his adult life, Thomas has lived with the ongoing legend and folk tales that are the legacy of his famous father. It was his dad who was the model for the character Sky Masterson in Damon Runyon's immortal Guys and Dolls; was investigated for the shooting death of Arnold Rothstein; architect of the infamous fixing of the 1919 World Series; beat the legendary Byron Nelson at golf; shot pool with Nick the Greek; played poker with gangster Al Capone; and won and lost several fortunes before his death in 1974 at age 82.
He was a scratch golfer who routinely explained that the only reason he didn't try the professional tour was because he couldn't afford the cut in pay, a champion skeet shooter and so athletically gifted that he once won a wager by jumping over a pool table without a running start. And no one was better at marking a deck or palming an ace.
Titanic Thompson was, during his heyday in the glamorous and boozy 1920s, '30s and '40s, constant fodder for Walter Winchell's column and the man with a million ways to beat the other guy out of his money. He flourished in a time when the old ploy commonly known as the "proposition" was in vogue. And Titanic was the grandmaster. To wit:
Once, while visiting Michigan, he boasted to fellow gamblers that he could drive a golf ball 500 yards and quickly got plenty of takers. Arriving at the golf course, he turned on the tee box to face a frozen lake and hit away. The ball skidded along the ice until it was finally out of sight--and the pockets of his companions were emptied.
"I saw him do a lot of remarkable things," Ty says, "and have heard many stories that I believe to be true. But, over the years, they seem to get better and more outrageous. It seems like every old gambler or golfer you run into has a story about my dad. And some are pure fiction."
Like the oft-told account of his father earning his nickname when he cowardly escaped the sinking Titanic by putting on a dress and climbing into a lifeboat reserved for women and children. Not true, says Ty. "He got his nickname in a pool hall in Joplin, Missouri. One of the men he was playing asked his name, and somebody said, 'It ought to be Titanic, the way he's sinking everybody.' Dad liked that and took it as his name." Thomas evolved to Thompson when his name was printed incorrectly in news accounts of the 1929 Rothstein trail.
"Even after he was well into his 70s," Ty remembers, "he was always looking for someone to sucker into a bet. By then it was less about the money and more just the sheer excitement of winning. He would go out to this little par-3 golf course near where we lived in Colleyville and play every day. When he'd finally hook up with someone willing to make a friendly bet of $20 or so, Dad, who was naturally left-handed, would play right-handed. He'd let the guy win for a few days, then suggest upping the bet. When his opponent agreed to make it worthwhile, Dad would suggest he'd do the guy a favor and play left-handed. And then beat him like a drum."
As a youngster, Ty recalls his father spending hours perfecting some trick shot that he'd ultimately convince someone to bet he couldn't pull off. "He'd stand in the living room and chip golf balls off the carpet into one of my baby shoes at the other end of the room. He'd do it for hours and hours until at least nine out of 10 shots went into the shoe. Then, when he was satisfied he could do it consistently, he'd go in search of someone willing to bet he couldn't do it."
Though just 15 when his celebrated father died, Ty not only heard many of the colorful tales of Titanic's exploits but saw many of them firsthand. "He took me with him everywhere he went," Thomas remembers. "We'd spend days on the golf course and evenings in pool halls and bowling alleys." And always on the move, lured by wherever the big money players were waiting. "I lost count of all the places we lived," he says. "Dallas, Colleyville, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Tyler, El Paso, Hobbs and Lovington, New Mexico...Sometimes I'd go to three or four schools a year."
Not all of his education came in the classrooms. "One night in San Antonio we were leaving the bowling alley and as we got to our car this guy wearing a mask jumps up from the backseat with a gun and tells me and my mother to get into the car while he robs my dad." There remains a tone of awe in his voice as Thomas recalls the rest of the story: Titanic simply glared at the robber. "I don't want to have to kill you," the gambler said, not even bothering to pull his own gun, which he always carried, "but if you don't get out of here right now, that's exactly what's going to happen."
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