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The man who hustled Al Capone
Titanic Thompson, Amarillo Slim and Nick the Greek are the stuff of American legend. These chaps dedicated their lives to the hustle. Titanic Thompson reigned as supreme hustler from the Twenties all the way to the late Sixties. Apart from being gifted with incredible hand-eye coordination which meant he could shoot and throw cards with extreme accuracy, he was also a scratch golfer. It was reputed that long before the PGA he was the best golfer in the United States. His favourite hustle was to play people and win narrowly, before claiming he must have got lucky and offering them a chance to get their money back. He’d propose a double-or-nothing bet and would offer to play left-handed to give them an even better chance. Truth was Titanic was left-handed! He trained himself to play a very decent game right-handed.
Hustling America was inspired by Titanic who rose to fame in the Twenties, travelling the country, making bets in local pool halls. He once bet Al Capone that he could throw a lemon over a five-storey building; Capone having spent time with Titanic chose the lemon himself, squeezed out all the juice and gave it to Titanic to throw. He rolled up his shirt sleeves, gave it his best throw and got it over! He had Capone’s respect for the rest of his life.
Americans, unlike the majority of Brits, have a true willingness to gamble. Perhaps it’s passed down from generation to generation, an echo of when their ancestors set out to try their luck in a new country. In those days a sore loser was rare, a bet was a bet and a win was fair and square.
In order to truly understand my idols I had to go off the beaten track, visit their historic haunts and experience first-hand the life that real-life hustlers led in order to discover whether their infamous bets could actually be done. I was visiting Texas, Vegas and New York, but I wasn’t going to be a tourist. I was going to be a hustler, and I was going to meet some incredible people along the way.
In Vegas I had the opportunity to meet Bobby Cotton. Bobby is a pool hustler, has lived in practically every city in the US and spent time with Titanic. He makes you realise that the life of a rogue gambler is much like holding down a “normal job”. You have to show true dedication, and if you’re no good at it, you won’t make any money. Hustling isn’t how it appears in Ocean’s 11. I have spent a lot of time practising card throwing, hours on end in empty rooms, just me, some cards and a hat. The glamour!
On my trip across the USA, I took on all sorts of bets, from trying to throw a walnut over a building to racing a horse on foot. I’m a bad loser though. I hate to lose at anything, especially something physical, so when there was money and pride at stake how was I going to cope? I bet for cars, hotel rooms and food, and I had some nasty forfeits to avoid – spending the night in jail or having to wash dishes. On top of that I was going to look pretty silly on TV when I lost… which I did quite a few times!
My trip started in Texas, where I met Titanic’s son Tommy. Now in his late sixties and a preacher, Tommy Thompson followed in his father’s footsteps as a professional gambler, despite never having really known him. Tommy’s life reads like a movie waiting to be made. He came close to being shot one too many times, which made him choose another path. But the look in his eyes is that of a man who’s seen the real meaning of hustling.
Tommy gave me an insight into one of the stories about his father. Legend plays a big part in the gambling world, but it’s hard to tell the man from the myth. The legend has it that Titanic was able to throw hotel keys into locks, a seemingly impossible trick that earned him free nights in some of the best hotels. Suffice to say Tommy untangled the truth from the myth: Titanic’s trick was to throw a room key into a pigeonhole at the reception desk.
I was particularly excited about doing Titanic’s first-ever bet which he did in his school years. He would be fishing by a river and bet that you could take a stone, mark an “X” on it, throw it in the water and his trusted dog Carlo would jump in and fetch it. I went to the location it may have taken place and gave it a shot! Did it work? You get to find out in the first episode.
In Hustling America, presenter Alexis Conran goes on the trail of Titanic Thompson and the world’s most infamous gamblers to find out the truth behind some of America's greatest proposition bets
posted by Icon Staff