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.

DiLiberto has taken home as much as $80,000 from the track on a single day, but today he's cautious with his bets. He's working for a day's wages, rather than the big score. He has a wife and two kids (ages 6 and 15) to take care of, a monthly "nut" of about $2700. "If I don't make money, I got people who won't eat," he says. He supplements his dog-track winnings with semi-regular money earned by giving pool lessons and by providing color commentary for pool-match videos produced by Accu-Stats.

Betting the dogs day after day may be as close as DiLiberto comes to a nine-to-five job. He worked construction once in Buffalo, where he grew up, but quit after developing a rash and determining that he was allergic to work. "I could be an accountant and all that, but that's boring," he says.

In the mid-'50s, after playing a season of semipro baseball, he made his way to Miami to seek out legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee. Like his brother before him, DiLiberto wanted to be a fighter. He boxed under the name Danny Torriani. The pseudonym was a failed attempt to keep his parents in the dark about his career as a pugilist. His cover was blown at his first fight when two Buffalo acquaintances recognized him from ringside. That first match took place in Tampa, against a hometown hero who was 19 and 0 and outweighed DiLiberto by more than 15 pounds. DiLiberto knocked his opponent out in the second round. The only blemish on DiLiberto's record in 14 fights was a draw. "He could flat-out fight," says Dundee, who trained such boxing greats as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard and now resides in Weston.

DiLiberto had just one problem: fragile hands. He broke his hands four times and finally had to come up with a less-destructive means of earning a living. "He just had fragile bones, the poor boy," says Dundee. "I really had to retire the kid."

DiLiberto returned to Buffalo after his boxing career went bust. He bowled in leagues and began playing serious pool. In 1963 after winning the Buffalo city championships and the New York State championships in straight pool, he decided to concentrate on the billiards tournament circuit. The Hustler had been released two years earlier, and pool was supposedly undergoing a renaissance. People in the billiards industry told DiLiberto that tournaments were the way to go. Professional pool was on the verge of going big time, they said. Like golf. And tennis.

DiLiberto won the Billiard Congress of America's U.S. Open tournament for straight pool in 1968. The next year he took home top honors at the U.S. Masters Straight Pool Tournament. In 1972, in Johnston City, Illinois, DiLiberto triumphed in the World Hustler's Tourney, one of the greatest competitions ever assembled.

But the big money never came. "I got conned in '63," DiLiberto says. Instead of the six-figure jackpots he'd expected to collect as one of the top players in the world, the awards were nominal. DiLiberto says that the top prize for a major tournament in the '60s and early '70s was only about $5000, and that the annual haul wasn't much more. "I was top money winner in '72, and I won $12,000," he says.

"The money's not good today, and back then there wasn't any money at all," says Toby Sweet, who in a lengthy career as a pool player largely ignored organized tournaments for backroom gambling. "It's no good for the bills," he adds.

Tournaments were also detrimental to DiLiberto's other way of making a living: hustling. In 1977, when Sports Illustrated published a lengthy profile of DiLiberto titled "Easy Times the Hard Way," the magazine didn't run photos so as to protect his cover. But the damage was already done: DiLiberto was known, through TV coverage and word of mouth, as a top tournament player. Gamblers knew to keep their distance.

Sometimes he got lucky. DiLiberto recalls traveling to Shreveport, Louisiana, in the late '60s to gamble with a well-heeled player known as the Major. In the middle of the match, Danny D. glanced up at the TV only to see a broadcast of himself playing in the Johnston City tournament on ABC's Wide World of Sports. "No one ever noticed it," he recalls. "He never looked up at the TV."

Danny D. often went to extraordinary lengths to disguise himself. "I wore a Texaco outfit, wore a beard, put grease on myself," he recalls. Most times it made no difference. Once, in Macon, Georgia, he attempted to play incognito. But every time he got ready to shoot, one of the men in the room would whisper, "Danny, Danny."

"As time went by, you couldn't sneak up on people anymore," DiLiberto says. "You go to the top of a mountain in New Mexico and the guy says, 'Danny, how you doing?'"

Not every old-school pool player has been ruined by the tournament circuit. In poolroom vernacular to "shit out" means to make a lucky shot, a concept that could be applied to life as well. Steve Mizerak, age 54, could be said to have "shit out." He originally made a name for himself by winning four straight U.S. Open tournaments between 1970 and 1973. He then settled down as a seventh-grade teacher in New Jersey, playing pool on the side. After 13 years in the classroom, Mizerak got a call from the Miller Brewing Company, which was looking for a cast of self-deprecating, aging jocks to hawk Miller Lite. Over the next few years, Mizerak did dozens of commercials with other minor sports celebrities, including long jumper Bob Beamon and baseball catcher-clown Bob Uecker. Mizerak also landed a cameo role in The Color of Money, for which he served as a technical advisor to director Martin Scorsese. The Miz became the most renowned pool player since Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi.

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