Review of The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson

The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson
Carlton Stowers
Palmer Magic

Reviewed by Nick Christenson,

November 10, 2003

So many of history's colorful gamblers have been likened to characters from a Damon Runyon story that it has become a cliche. But, how many real-life characters were actually the basis for a denizen of Runyon's literary world? Titanic Thompson (real name, Alvin Clarence Thomas) was the model from which Sky Masterson was cast. Despite the skill with which Runyon could spin a tale, I believe that in this case truth is even more remarkable than fiction, and I'd wager that if he were asked, Damon himself would agree.

There was a time when the name Titanic Thompson was known across the United States as a poker player, golfer, marksman, and pool player. He was also known as a hustler, card cheat, dice manipulator, and stone killer. For more than anything else, though, he is remembered as a proposition bettor, probably the best who ever lived. Doubtless Runyon had Thompson in mind when he penned the famous advice given to his character Nathan Detroit about how to avoid an ear full of cider.

To say that his exploits were legendary is, if anything, an understatement. Tales of bets he won would spread across the country like ghost stories, whispered around pool halls and bars in order to alternately scare and inspire want-to-be hustlers. In The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson, Stowers tries hard to separate fact from fiction, but it must be hard to do so when the two are so inexorably intertwined.

Thompson was no saint, not by a long shot. While many admired his prowess as a bet maker, golfer, or in any of the other endeavors in which he excelled, his presence was rarely welcome. It was no secret that he was willing to do just about anything to obtain an edge. His less savory nature is depicted in the book, but it's quite clear that Thompson's life story is told from his own vantage point. No doubt there are other sides to many of these stories, and I'm sure plenty of them present this book's protagonist in a less favorable light.

Despite this The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson pretends to be neither a historical treatise nor a job reference for its title character. It's a story, and it should be measured primarily by its entertainment value rather than by more objective standards. While it is decidedly (and unashamedly) slanted in regards to its historical accuracy, it does a fine job of entertaining the reader. Stowers writes clearly, amazing the reader with the exploits of this remarkable character, and regardless of how Thompson may be judged as a person, that's what really matters in regards to his biography.

Titanic Thompson represents a place and time in American history, a piece of the "old school" that is on the verge of vanishing from our collective consciousness. In, The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson this piece of Americana is captured in perpetuity, and fortunately so. I would expect those readers who are fascinated by a smoky card room, run-down pool hall, or back alley floating craps game would experience joy and more than occasional amazement at what the late Mr. Thomas had accomplished. I did. This is a book that will be enjoyed by most gambling enthusiasts.


The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson is the biography of one of the most famous hustlers in world history. His gambling exploits are truly the stuff of legends, and nearly all of them are captured in the pages of Stowers' book. While the stories are definitely told to the protagonist's advantage, it's clear that Thompson is not a candidate for sainthood. At any rate, this is not a morality play, it's a collection of stories about a truly original character that is all but guaranteed to amaze its audience.

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