By Terrence McCoy
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By Deirdra Funcheon
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In between shots DiLiberto barks out stories. He's always telling stories. Although he speaks in the present tense, they are stories from the past, of tournaments and road trips, of hustles and high-stakes gambling, of a time when the action in South Florida was going 24 hours a day. Pocket billiards was first imported to the United States as a gentleman's game in the 17th Century, played exclusively in the private homes of the upper classes. But as public poolrooms, open to the unwashed masses, became more prevalent, the game quickly became associated with criminals, shysters, and gamblers. In his book Hustlers, Beats, and Others (1967), sociologist Ned Polsky writes that "ministers were always denouncing [poolrooms], police were always finding wanted criminals in them, and parents were always warning their children to stay out of them." The sport reached its peak of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when, as Polsky puts it, the Western frontier began to recede and poolrooms took over as a "male escape-hatch from effete and 'feminized' urban civilization."
DiLiberto eschews the term "hustler" in describing his life's work. "I had to gamble because I had to feed the family," he says. "I was an athlete in a game where you couldn't afford a family." He often matched up against people who did not recognize him as one of the top players in the world. When he had to, Danny D. put on disguises, feigned ignorance of the game, or hid in cars so as to go unrecognized.
His road trips lasted weeks, sometimes months. He drove from pool hall to pool hall in a van and stayed at Holiday Inns because the management didn't mind the pitbulls he brought along as company. "I would make money, then come back and fish 'til I was broke again," says DiLiberto, who has lived in South Florida for much of the last 40 years, with brief stopovers in Las Vegas and Phoenix.
In 1971 he embarked on a road trip through the South with his buddy Dick Hall. The money-making expedition was timed to coincide with the arrival of the tobacco crop, when farmers in Kentucky and elsewhere would be flush with cash. In Nashville Danny D. picked up a game of nine ball.
The sole objective of the fast-paced game is to pocket the nine ball. In most matches, the balls are shot in ascending order, and whoever makes the nine ball first wins. But through combination shots, or even a lucky break shot, it is possible to pocket the nine almost immediately, thus ending the game.
If one player is superior to another, he may give his opponent "weight," meaning that the inferior player can pocket more than just the nine ball to win. If he's given the eight ball as weight, for example, he wins the match by sinking either the eight or the nine ball.
Danny D. started off by playing a regular game of nine ball in Nashville, and he wiped the felt with his opponent. Then he gave the guy some weight to keep him at the table. With side bets picked up from spectators, Danny D. and Hall stood to win as much as $200 off each game. "[I] give him the eight, rob him some more," DiLiberto recalls. "Give him the seven, rob him some more. Six, rob him some more. Five, rob him some more."
After several hours of this drubbing, Hall walked over to his partner and whispered in his ear: "Danny, there's a guy over here with a gun. He says you run out one more rack, he's gonna shoot you. Thought I'd let you know." Hall then departed the poolroom.
Danny D. tossed a hundred-dollar bill to the bartender, told him to buy drinks for everyone in the house, and excused himself to use the bathroom. His hands were sticky, he told the crowd. "Most of the places I go in, I check the bathroom out anyway," DiLiberto says. "So I go in the bathroom, jump out the window, and take off."
The rest of the trip through the South was only slightly less hair-raising. In Mount Sterling, Kentucky, an opponent shattered his pool cue across the table after getting tortured by Danny D. at nine ball and bank pool. In Lexington the only action they could wrestle up was rolling a golf ball across a room to see who could stick it closer to the wall: Danny D. won $700. In Bainbridge, Georgia, he beat a black player known as Shake n' Bake out of $1000. Danny D. then proceeded across town to a redneck hangout, where he whipped a local guy at nine ball until everyone in the bar was broke, sparking a drunken brawl.
"The whole trip was like ducking bullets," DiLiberto recalls. "Real nice country folk that will kill you in a minute." Apparently the tobacco crop was bountiful that year; despite the constant specter of violence, DiLiberto says he and Hall drained about $16,000 from poolrooms and bars in Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Not long ago Broward and Palm Beach counties were homes to a few pool halls where $16,000 could be earned in a week or two, if not a weekend. Between the '60s and the late '80s, in particular, South Florida was where road players came to winter. Snowbird hustlers. At places like Q Master Billiards in Davie, Gold Crown in Hollywood, and the Congress on 125th Street in Miami-Dade County, high-stakes pool often went on all night long and into the next day. DiLiberto spent much of his time at the Congress. "At three in the morning, it looked like the middle of the afternoon," he says.