One Last Shot

At age 64, pool hustler Danny DiLiberto is one of a dying breed. He's not ready, however, to hang up his stick.

By the mid-'80s the recently opened Q Master had become the most illustrious venue for gambling on billiards. A couple of players literally lived in the pool hall, sleeping in a backroom. Every Friday night players from Melbourne or Naples would punch the clock, drive to Davie, spend the rest of the weekend playing pool and sleeping in the bleachers or the parking lot, and drive home Sunday night.

"One guy came and stayed here a year," says Bill Sinclair, the owner of Q Master. "The pool playing was 24 hours. We locked the door for the booze, but we let 'em keep playing pool." Sinclair recalls one Fort Lauderdale lawyer who lost $37,000 one night, only to come back the next and lose another $67,000.

The dingy strip-mall joint was ripe with hustlers -- guys with names like Randolph the Indian, Airport Steve, Cornbread Red, Trucker Joe, Squareheaded Frank, Pittsburgh Eddie, The Oaf, Gator, Three Fingered Ronnie, and Kentucky Jim. "From '83 to '88 or '89 it was the pitstop for all the fucking road men in the country," says Sinclair.

Q Master is now a bar and nightclub that on weekend nights caters to barely pubescent punk rockers. Only seven of its eighteen pool tables remain. The Congress is now defunct. A Miami Herald story last year reported that Gold Crown was no longer in business, but it continues to struggle along. The 40-year-old Hollywood pool hall, which Willie Mosconi christened at its grand opening, relived some of its past glory several months ago, when Mario Cruz and Kid Delicious battled for high stakes in a nine-ball match that spanned two days.

"People just don't fucking get out and play like they used to," says Toby Sweet, who once owned Gold Crown and says he's played pool in "a thousand small towns and most of the major cities." He now runs the poolroom at the Hollywood Greyhound Track. DiLiberto concurs: "Not as many road players come through town as in the past."

But people still play pool -- in fact, more than they did during the '80s. According to the Billiard and Bowling Institute of America, 42.2 million people shot pool at least once in 1997, a 20 percent increase over 1987's figure. Basketball and bowling are the only sports that attract more participants.

The biggest reasons for the pool-playing boom are the efforts of businessmen and marketing executives to transform the game into a family activity. This trend is nothing new. As far back as 1967, Polsky, the sociologist, wrote of attempts to polish pool's image: "In the poolroom business this process is known as 'cleaning up the game,' and currently it revolves about such things as installing carpets and bright lights and pastel colors, curbing obscene language, getting rid of hustlers and hoodlums and alcoholics, and trying to bring women in."

The prototypical pool hall of the late '90s is upscale, female-friendly, and not so hospitable toward hustlers and road players. Chains such as Jillian's and Buffalo Billiards have flourished, while mom-and-pop pool halls like Gold Crown have seen their customer bases erode.

Gatsby's, in Boca Raton, is an extreme example of how the game has morphed into a leisure activity. Started four years ago, Gatsby's gears all its advertising toward women, boasts a market research-tested menu of tapas, a cigar room, and dining tables with white linen cloths. Thirty-two wines are sold by the glass, and waitress service is provided at the 18 pool tables. The company spent six months visiting poolrooms around the country, searching for ways to make the game appealing to young professionals.

"The conception of pool is a dimly lit pool hall with smoke and hustlers and guys with tattoos and leather [and] chains," says Steve Marino, Gatsby's marketing director. "One of the things that makes Gatsby's successful is we go out of our way to make women comfortable."

The idea seems to be working: Gatsby's recently opened up a second location in West Palm Beach and has plans to open three more Florida venues.

The fourth floor of the main building at Hollywood Greyhound Track attracts professionals of a different sort: gamblers. This is where DiLiberto spends a good portion of his time. He is sitting in front of an eight-inch TV screen, worrying over a dog race taking place in West Memphis, Arkansas. "I just think that the three's gonna fly out of the box and win it easy," DiLiberto says. "Come on, three. Push out fast."

DiLiberto used to bet on the local dogs, but he says the Hollywood track is sloppy and the greyhounds are second-rate. Now he focuses exclusively on the simulcast races from Southland Greyhound Park. Each week four evening sets of races, or "cards," take place, as well as three matinees. "Three months ago I switched to this, and it's been OK," he says.

Reading glasses perched on his nose, DiLiberto takes notes fastidiously, jotting down observations after each race. He knows the characteristics of each dog: their best starting position, what lengths each greyhound prefers, and under what track conditions they do well. "I don't miss a card," he says. "You either go every day and take notes, or forget it."

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