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Originally published Saturday, December 18, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'Titanic Thompson': Kevin Cook's biography of the ultimate gambler

A review of Kevin Cook's biography, "Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet On Everything," which tells the story of the man who was the model for Sky Masterson in Damon Runyon's "Guys and Dolls."

Special to The Seattle Times

'Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet On Everything'

by Kevin Cook

Norton, 248 pp., $24.95

All the world's a sucker for bold, shoot-the-moon gamblers and con men, and this crackerjack biography makes a convincing case that Alvin "Titanic" Thompson was one of the boldest. No wonder he was the model for Sky Masterson in Damon Runyon's peerless "Guys and Dolls."

Born in 1892, Thompson followed his father's career path as a gambler. The difference was that Thompson was a driven genius. Functionally illiterate, "Ti" nonetheless had a prodigious memory, an athlete's body, a tireless obsession with honing his skills, and a gift for numbers — they spoke to him as no words ever could.

For most of his long life — he died in 1974 — Thompson was a legend in the shadowy world of professional gamblers. When not losing and winning fortunes with the likes of Howard Hughes and Arnold Rothstein, the gangster who fixed the 1919 World Series, the restless Thompson crisscrossed America in search of hot poker games, high-stakes golf and other lucrative pastimes.

He was particularly brilliant at devising crazy bets — if he knew he could win. A favorite was wagering that he could throw a peanut over a building. Suckers who took the bet didn't know that Thompson exchanged the peanut for one filled with ball bearings.

He spent lavishly and never worried about losing — there was always more out there. But this rogue was not a nice guy. Titanic hated kids and split for good whenever one of his several wives got pregnant. He had no problem cheating and killed several men. Nearly as unforgivable: he never seemed to have fun. He was too driven, too obsessive.

Author Cook tells Thompson's story with ease and panache, though the golf play-by-plays (Cook has written extensively on the game) are too detailed for non-golf nuts. That aside, "Titanic Thompson" is the real deal.

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