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Gambling Legend Wasn't Always A Winner

His name was Alvin Thomas. But nobody dared call him that.

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 a 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.

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."

Though he made millions over his lifetime, Thompson died almost penniless in 1974. Despite the glamorous tales, he lived a lonely life, moving from town to town looking for new suckers. Through five marriages and a scattering of offspring, Thompson really never connected with any person -- only with the games.

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NPR Staff