(Soundbite of musical, "Guys and Dolls")
Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): (as Guy Masterson) (Singing) They call you lady luck, but there is room for doubt, at times you have a very unladylike way of running out...
AUDIE CORNISH, host:
That's Guy Masterson, the fictional hero of the 1950s musical "Guys and Dolls," a tale of inveterate gamblers and the women unlucky enough to love them. But there was a real-life figure behind the fedoras and razor-sharp suits.
Mr. KEVIN COOK (Author, "Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything"): (Reading) Tall and thin with a bland mask of a face, he had close-set eyes and 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. Alvin was his name but nobody called him that. They called him Titanic.
CORNISH: That's author Kevin Cook reading from his new biography, "Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything."
Mr. COOK: He bet on pool, he bet on horses, he bet on golf.
CORNISH: They called him Titanic because he could sink anybody. Titanic Thompson grew up dirt poor in Arkansas and took to the road as a teenager, moving from city to city looking for new suckers.
Mr. COOK: He bet on the horses, he bet on any game that you would offer him.
(Soundbite of musical, "Guys and Dolls")
Mr. BRANDO: (as Guy Masterson) (Singing) Luck be a lady tonight.
CORNISH: Titanic Thompson was part-athlete, part-huckster. In the book, Kevin Cook recounts a few of Titanic's best and most daring scams, like the time he wagered with Al Capone's gang in Chicago that he could drive a golf ball 500 yards.
Mr. COOK: And the clubs were made of hickory in those days. A 250-yard drive was sensational. He takes the money, writes down who has bet, how much, and then says, okay, now that the bet's down, one thing is I'm not saying when I'm going to get that 500-yard drive. He plays pool. They were all playing poker. This goes on for months. Finally, it's the middle of December when he stops and says I feel it. I feel that drive coming on right now.
A caravan of gentlemen goes out to a golf course along the side of Lake Michigan, takes a practice swing and then turns around, faces the lake and knocks the ball out onto the lake, which is frozen at the edges, and the ball is still skittering toward Michigan as we speak.
(SOundbite of laughter)
Mr. COOK: Way more than 500 yards. And he took the money that day.
CORNISH: Right. And what was interesting about reading these anecdotes about the bets is that he really - his hustle was built on the cheat but also on athleticism. He practiced a tremendous amount.
Mr. COOK: Well, that's right. And I think his philosophy was, if you can't beat them, cheat them. But generally, he would beat you with great physical skill. And nobody practiced his craft more than Titanic did. He would practice flipping cards, which you can do with great accuracy if you practice enough and you're dexterous enough.
CORNISH: And if you're flipping cards, say, into a hat or something like that from a distance.
Mr. COOK: Yes. Although one of Titanic's favorite tricks was to say, I can flip this playing card all the way across this restaurant and chop off the flower across the room over there. He wouldn't do it with one card - because it couldn't be done - but he was accurate enough to use a sequence of cards at the exact same spot on the stem until like a tree in the forest, that flower across the restaurant tumbles over and he collects his money.
CORNISH: You talk up in the book about how the great sort of population shift from rural areas to urban areas kind of fed this world of hustlers.
Mr. COOK: That's true. I mean, he goes back to the days of turkey shoots and before the Model T came out when most people lived between cities. There's no rapid communication. It helps him to be able to go into a city and to be able to take the money, get back out and be unknown when he motors into the next city down the line.
He was a road gambler. The people who were moving to big cities in those days were nostalgic for the old America. The frontier is now believed to be closed. It's the 20th century and there was a pining for the individual out there who was not subject to authority of any kind. And in a lot of ways, Titanic really represented that essential American character.
CORNISH: One thing about the book that surprised me is you have a lot of detail and stories about the world that he occupied, but it seemed very difficult to get into the head of this character and of this person. Were you able to find out what motivated Titanic Thompson?
Mr. COOK: Well, I did find he was married five times. And unfortunate in this case, he married women who were quite young. So even though he died in 1974, his fifth wife is still with us, wonderful person, with great stories about Titanic. And I think her reading was the closest, that he was always looking for validation. He was a boy who came out of the Ozarks with nothing, entirely self-taught, lived by his wits and his guile. He was proud of that.
You go through your entire life, you're testing yourself again and again, trying to assert your superiority against the people you're competing against. That's really what motivated him. And it was good to find that very much later in his life he started to seek a little warm human companionship mostly in his family.
CORNISH: Kevin Cook is the author of "Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything."
Kevin Cook, thanks so much.
Mr. COOK: Thanks so much. Enjoyed it.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.