Pocket billiards will always be a barroom favorite, but the big-money pool shark is set to go the way of the dinosaur. Listen to L. Jon Wertheim, who wrote this in a New York Times opinion piece last November: "Pool hustlers have joined American heavyweight-boxing champs, complete-game pitchers, hockey goons and drug-free cyclists as relics in sports." Wertheim blames the poker boom, which provided easy action to gamblers of all stripes, and the Internet, which allows an unknown hustler's big scores to reach a broad, distant audience overnight, thus alerting pool players in the next town to the hustler's identity. The failure of the International Pool Tour, masterminded by Kevin Trudeau (author of Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About and something of a hustler himself), was the final blow.
Wertheim's opinion piece is a lament for the loss of the hustling lifestyle. "The death of hustling marks the end of a uniquely American pursuit," he writes. "What's a more vivid extension of the frontier mentality than a man, carrying only a wooden stick, slinking into town and making a buck?" Hustlers are sympathetic crooks, individuals who drop in, make a scene and ride off into the sunset. Think Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. Wertheim's book Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler is about a young man with a talent for both billiards and the theatrics a successful hustle requires. But Delicious, a.k.a. Danny Basavich, is not your stereotypically slick grifter. He's an overweight, anxiety-ridden, gambling-addicted youngster who's about as different from Eastwood's character as Barney the dinosaur.
At 15, Basavich was an undistinguished New Jersey kid with a knack for gaming the system. He ran poker hands during study hall and was a favorite target of bullies. He'd been diagnosed as bipolar, and his parents feared he was suicidal. He eventually got into an alterative school—he was the only student who wasn't pregnant—and got his degree within months. To get out of the house, he began to bicycle to a nearby billiards parlor. The local players, noticing his natural ability, became mentors and initiated him into the ways of "the green ocean." The Kid had found his niche.
Basavich wasn't above using his slovenly appearance to lull his competition. He'd wallow into an Ivy League pool hall with cake frosting smeared on his Princeton sweat shirt, flashing a wad as he bought a soda. The frat boys would drool over what they saw as a sucker's bet—until Basavich turned the tables. The nickname came when he drove into Manhattan and racked up against Eddie "Kid Vicious" Huber, then the darling of the railbirds at Chelsea Billiards. After dispensing with Vicious to the tune of nearly five grand, one of the losing side bettors cracked, "Kid Vicious just got hustled by Kid Delicious."
Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, does a good job of re-creating the culture of sharking and its strange camaraderie, though he tries too hard at times to work in its lingo and larger cultural attachments. He faithfully establishes Delicious' rise through the pocket billiards ranks, from his apprenticeship at various halls to his first successes on the road. Wertheim also makes sense of the hustle itself, and in doing so, he creates a metaphor for our money-hungry, slightly crooked society. Hustlers, those lonesome strangers, have to be humble and present themselves as something less than what they are, something that does not come naturally to the male ego. This is how they entice the selfish, the stupid and naive. Maybe it was his weight problem or the humiliation he'd undergone at the hands of bullies or his struggles with depression. Delicious was skilled in making others think he was no big deal. It's easy to extend the lessons here to life at large. In a testosterone-drenched world filled with trash talk, the Kid's disarming felicity was a deadly weapon.
Pool hustling is not a celebrity sport. Becoming a known quantity dries up the available barrel of victims, and this is what eventually happened to Delicious. Back in the day, hustlers could just move on to the next town and start all over. Now, word travels fast over cell phones and Internet sites such as AZBilliards.com. There's a bit of tragic irony at the end of the book when Delicious can't get into big-money bets because of his reputation. He's forced to be content with a tournament prize of a few hundred bucks. In his struggle to become someone, Delicious forfeits the very thing that worked for him. Now everybody knows Kid Delicious.
Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler by L. Jon Wertheim; Houghton Mifflin. Hardcover, 248 pages, $24.