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Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air: Legends of West Texas Music
by Christopher Oglesby
Published by the University of Texas Press:
"As a whole, the interviews create a portrait not only of Lubbock's musicians and artists, but also of the musical community that has sustained them, including venues such as the legendary Cotton Club and the original Stubb's Barbecue. This kaleidoscopic portrait of the West Texas music scene gets to the heart of what it takes to create art in an isolated, often inhospitable environment. As Oglesby says, "Necessity is the mother of creation. Lubbock needed beauty, poetry, humor, and it needed to get up and shake its communal ass a bit or go mad from loneliness and boredom; so Lubbock created the amazing likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and Joe Ely."

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"Indeed, Oglesby's introduction of more than two dozen musicians who called Lubbock home should be required reading not only for music fans, but for Lubbock residents and anyone thinking about moving here. On these pages, music becomes a part of Lubbock's living history."
- William Kerns, Lubbock Avalanche Journal

Titanic Thompson and Son
by Johnny Hughes

Titanic Thompson was America's most famous gambler, card cheat, and proposition bettor for decades. He was the model for Damon Runyon's character, Sky Masterson, in the Broadway play and movie, Guys and Dolls. Marlon Brando played Sky in the movie. In 1975, I caught his son cheating. He was equally skilled in all card cheating moves. This was in a huge poker game in Lubbock, Texas.

A con man and gambler called the Senator built a private tennis club in Lubbock, passing some bad fiction financial paper past a wide-eyed banker. The Senator opened a big no-limit Texas Hold 'em game in a terrific room at the club with the best chairs and table and a servile Cajun chef, formerly from some carpet joint in New Orleans. This was one fancy poker game. We were playing higher than a hawk's nest. The Senator could steer live ones to a poker game better than any one. A hustler couldn't get up to the table for all the suckers. In order to play, I had to give the Senator half my action. Giving a quarter of your play to the houseman was more commonplace. I would win every week and the Senator would pay me part of the score. He'd come with a story and some watermelon conversation about some of the richies being slow on their markers.

The Senator ran the only poker game I have ever seen where the house man keeps trying to loan large sums of money without juice to grinning strangers. He'd have young lawyers and accountants who had never played Hold 'em losing up to ten thousand their first time. After the first week, I played out of the chip box also. The Senator would give me about a thousand each week and owe me lots more. The debt was beginning to look a lot like monopoly money to me. It wasn't as if I didn't know the Senator was very careless with the truth. He'd brag about booking the Super Bowl in a fancy place like the Petroleum Club in Midland. He'd collect from the losers and stiff the winners and get back on the blacktop. That's what he was doing to this crypto high-class poker spread.
The Senator would brag about the time he borrowed money on a future grave yard, only he had the spaces figured in inchs and not feet. When I'd stroll around trying to collect, the Senator would be on the phone with savings and loans in god-awful places trying to borrow more money. The Senator was like crime. He did not pay. I tried to appeal to the Senator on a honor-among-thieves basis. Since he was dealing in some heavy money, why cheat me for a few dimes? He agreed and gave me a few more smoke and mirrors promises. He always lied and I wanted to believe him.

The Senator was full more short cons than a telemarketer. He'd have the Cajun serve vanilla ice cream floating in Amaretto when people arrived. Whipped cream and the cherry. He had people drinking early as a little snack. I laughed for several days in a row when the Cajun stole everything he could load in his old Chevy and headed back to some bayou. The ever larcenous Senator was the most outraged crime victim in Texas.

One night after the game broke up, the Senator suggests I play heads-up with this tall guy who had only watched the game. Curly taught me that if a citizen challenges you to play your road game, try him on the cheap but keep eye-balling the proposition. The idea is that if he can beat you, you can pull up. If you can beat him, he may go off on a big number. I agree to play and thought the Senator wanted half my action but he declined. I wouldn't let the Senator sit behind me because I thought he might "send me over." The tall guy was Jack "Treetop" Straus. He had already won one World Series bracelet. I only pulled out $400.

I could read the Senator's unhappiness and began looking around and rubbing my eyes. We both shuffled and dealt very slowly where they would be no room for doubt about cheating. We both were very aggressive and I knew it would not last long. I flopped top pair with big slick and Treetop flopped two pair with 8,9 off-suit. He busted me. I told him, "I've enjoyed all of this I can stand." We sat around swapping stories. Straus was one of he most colorful road gamblers I ever faced. My favorite story on him was the time he was going to teach Stu Ungar to play golf. Treetop beat Stuey out of $85,000 on the putting green. Jack Straus was a real bet-it-all gambler who often won big or got broke in huge cash games or on sports bets. When Straus won the World Series, he got all-in but forgot one five-hundred dollar chip that he had "accidentally" left under a napkin. They let him continue to play with the one chip. The ruling was so bad you would have thought the guy was a Texas legislator, but Straus won the tournament. That old chip under the napkin trick is older than God.

A few weeks later, the Senator ran in Titanic Thompson's son to cheat me. Fine partner he was. Titanic's son came by one time and passed out business cards and gave some phony name. Outlaw whisper joints were usually on a first name or road name basis. The first night he played, I noticed that he moved both hands up and down while he dealt. Curly Green had taught me that a cheater will use the move or the grip when he is not cheating to maintain consistency. From the first he touched the deck, I was bird-dogging him. It is best to make it obvious that you are checking for cheating. I took the deck and ran my thumb from the bottom to the top on the corner. This makes the cards fly by like the frames of an old movie. If any card is marked or different from the rest, it will jump out. I took a card and held it at an angle up to the light until the glare removed the pattern. If there was paint or marks, they would stick out. He was moving his hands like he could deal seconds or bottoms. You need marks or to peek to make seconds useful. Seconds make a little swoosh sound since a card is coming from between two cards.

The first two times Ti's son dealt, he flopped a flush. I was watching him like a paranoid hawk. The pots he won were not very large. I dismissed a cold deck because he would have put out some action hands and won a huge pot. He quit right after that, having only played a little over an hour. He went into some mumbo-jumbo explanation of where he had to be, as if gamblers cared.

At the end of the night, the Senator asked me if I thought the guy cheated. I told him I didn't think so but that he might be planning to cheat.

The next week Ti's son played and won several pots. I got in a hand with him and was pushing the top two pair, aces and eights all the way. I just knew he had flopped a pair of aces with a big kicker. When I moved in on him, he studied a real long time with his hand on his cheek. Then he suddenly brought both hands down to his hole cards. Now he had two aces in the hole for top trips. If he had the nuts, he would not study a long time after I moved all in.

I called the Senator out in the hall. When something is wrong, you go behind the back of your partner or friend and run your thumb hard across the middle of their backs. This is like the gambler's nine, one, one. It says something bad could happen. The Senator told me to go on home. He was Titanic's son's partner also. Later, when I went around in a futile attempt to collect, I saw Ti's son and Dandy Dan, a big-time traveling con man both trying to collect from the Senator. I saw Jack Straus a few times around Las Vegas. I asked him one time what happened to the Senator. He said,"He sleeps with Jimmie Hoffa." I learned later that Titanic's son was a real master at all forms of cheating. He held out a card between his hand and his cheek and kept cards behind his neck. He could cold deck out of the shirt jacket that was unbuttoned half way down.

Titanic Thompson was one of America's most famous gamblers and best dressed men from the twenties to the late seventies. He won millions of dollars at golf, poker, and his outrageous rigged proposition bets. He lost it back on huge horse and sports bets. He bet a group of gamblers he could drive a golf ball 500 yards. He took them to a golf course next to a lake in the dead of winter when the lake was solidly frozen over. He turned toward the lake and the ball rolled out of site on the ice. Amarillo Slim tells the story in his book of Titantic starting a squabble on purpose with a room full of gamblers. He raised his arms up high and everyone saw his big pistol. His adversary complained it was unfair for Titantic to be talking so tough when he was packing barking iron. Titanic bet everyone that would bet he did not have a pistol on him. All of them had seen it just seconds ago with their own eyes. Titanic had not left the room. After the bets were down, Titanic undressed and allowed a full search. No one found a pistol. They searched every conceivable place in the pool hall. How do you think he did that trick?

Once Titanic hired a man to drive a truck load of watermelons up to the hotel where the gamblers took the breeze on the porch. He'd had the man unload the watermelons and count them and put them back earlier. Titanic could talk up a bet in a marvelous fashion. If he wanted to bet me the sun would rise in the west tomorrow, I wouldn't go for it. With everyone betting on how many watermelons were in the truck, Titanic got long odds, he could guess within two of the exact amount.

The pro golf tour didn't pay much in it's early years. Titanic Thompson was America's highest paid golfer for decades. He would always win by one stroke and have side bets going. He'd beat a left-handed golfer and then offer to bet he could shoot a lower score using the other fellow's clubs. He could play golf, shoot skeet, throw horseshoes, bowl, and shoot pool right or left handed. Byron Nelson was one of the top pros of the day. When a group of gamblers got up a bet of Nelson versus Thompson for nine holes, Titanic shot a course record 29.

When Titanic met up with Johnny Moss in Lubbock, Texas in 1938, he bet Moss $8000, Moss's whole bankroll, that he couldn't shoot a 46 on nine holes with a four iron. They agreed to meet the next afternoon. Moss went to a welding shop and had his four iron welded down to a two iron. A small crowd of gamblers came to watch the match. Titanic had paid a man to go around and raise the rim of the cups making putting difficult. Moss caught on quickly and had a man go ahead and put them back. Moss won the bet.
Titanic Thompson had exceptional eye-hand coordination. He would bet on throwing all the cards into the hat from twenty paces. He could throw a key into a lock. He bet Al Capone that he could throw an orange over a building. He threw a palmed, hard lemon. A move on Al Capone takes a lot of balls. He would bet he could throw a playing card over a tall building where he knew there was an updraft. He wasn't all that hot a poker player but he was great at every cheater's move. He played the largest games.

Tommy Thomas, the son, toured the country's poker games, cheating. Now he has a new go. He sells DVDs about the horrors of gambling. He has reformed and come clean about the past. He's now a jake-leg preacher around the small churches of Texas. Wonder what his Daddy would say or want to bet on.

Stowers, Carlton. The Unsinkable Titanic Thompson. Eakin Press.
Jenkins, Don. Johnny Moss: Champion of Champions. Self-published.
Katcher, Leo. The Big Bankroll: The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein. Da Capo Press.

Johnny Hughes is the author of the upcoming novel, Texas Poker Wisdom.

This article appeared in Bluff Magazine, May, 2007.

For more Johnny Hughes' stories, go to: "Johnny Moss", "Hard Luck Harry & the Owl" or "Old 186"

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