By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
The 64-year-old DiLiberto is here to teach pool. His pupils, Aleksandre and Yorence, are wily and energetic kids, ages six and eight, respectively. DiLiberto implores his young students to master the basics: a firm bridge hand on which to rest the cue, and a level stroke. "No sharking," he admonishes the kids as they attempt to sabotage each other's shots. "This is not a shark game."
On this particular Tuesday, the teachings of Danny D., as he has long been known, also include boxing. Yorence is being bullied by tough kids at school, and his parents want him to learn to stand up for himself. DiLiberto stands in front of a Chuck Norris punching bag and demonstrates the correct form for a pugilist, his 120-plus-pound body coiled, his gloves protecting his face. The bearded, gray-haired featherweight crouches, bobs, and throws punches with fierce alacrity.
Then DiLiberto pulls up short. He is in evident pain. "I'm bleeding," he mumbles.
Less than a week ago, he was in the hospital for surgery. Doctors in Miami cut him open and removed his cancerous prostate. He should be home in bed, hopped up on pain killers, dropping in and out of a tranquilizer-fueled sleep.
Instead he works. For his two-hour nanny gig, he gets $100. "I'm like Richard Pryor in The Toy," he says. "That's what I am to these kids."
DiLiberto feels guilty accepting money because he enjoys teaching the kids. But the cash is needed. "I have to make money every day," he says. "Every single day. The nut is too high."
Danny D. has covered the "nut" many different ways in his life. He was once a professional boxer, retiring undefeated. He played semipro baseball, bowled perfect 300 games, and won money chucking golf balls between the arms of a man more than 100 yards away.
He is also one of the greatest pool players ever to chalk up a cue. He has won major tournaments in each of the last four decades. He's made more than 200 shots in a row on more than one occasion. He can control a cue ball on the felt in ways that seem to defy physics. "I'd be a zillionaire if I was in the same position playing golf," he says.
But Danny D. plays pool. He's a hustler in a time when hustling is on the wane. The game of deception and gambling, practiced in smoky, all-night poolrooms (and mythologized by the films The Hustler and The Color of Money) has almost ceased to exist. Even 15 years ago, serious pool-hall gambling was taking place in major cities across the country, including those in South Florida. Pool halls stayed open all night, and the wagering never stopped. But the proliferation of professional and amateur pool tournaments, coupled with the popularity of government-sanctioned forms of gambling, has made pool-hall action less vital. The rise of upscale, female-friendly venues has also helped transform the game from an all-male bastion of deviance into just another form of entertainment.
Danny D. is a member of an endangered species. In all of his 64 years, he has never held a steady job for long. He says he's allergic to work.
In The Hustler Fast Eddie Felson (played by Paul Newman) walks into Ames pool hall in New York City. "No bar?" Felson asks the house man. "No bar," the man replies. "No pinball machines. No bowling alleys. Just pool, nothing else. This is Ames, mister."
It's a description that could almost be applied to Gold Crown Family Billiards and Lounge, just west of the railroad tracks on Hollywood Boulevard. With the exception of a pair of video games that nobody plays and a few video poker machines, pool is its only diversion. The "o" in "Crown" is missing from the sign out front. The once-red carpet is patched together with electrical tape. Strings of beads, for keeping track of pool games won and lost on the ten tables, hang across the room. The only light comes from the overhead lamps of the few occupied tables and bits of afternoon sun seeping through unevenly shaded windows.
A handful of old smokes drinking coffee hover near the table closest to the small bar. Danny D., wearing dress pants, a button-down shirt, and a pair of battered white shoes, is shooting a solitary game of straight pool. He cradles his Bludworth cue in his right hand delicately, as if holding the neck of a violin. From the elbow down, his arm ticks back and forth, like a pendulum, as he prepares to strike the ball. The first finger of his left hand is hooked around the seasoned wood of the cue as he leans over the table.
DiLiberto's stroke is sharp, crisp, efficient -- like a jab. By the time the object ball has settled in the pocket, he's setting up the next shot, his intense brown eyes shining. Danny D. pockets 13 balls straight before missing an easy shot on the nine ball. He follows that with runs of 6, 10, and 17 balls, all the while keeping up a conversation with one of the skells at the bar. Rhythmically, he empties the table again and again.
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.
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."
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.
Mizerak now runs a successful business in Mangonia Park, selling pool cues and other equipment to major outlets such as Service Merchandise and Sports Authority. His latest line of sticks features the likenesses of professional wrestlers "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Sable, the "Femme Fatale." Three years ago, Mizerak also started a senior's tour, for pool players over 50 years of age. The annual tour consists of up to six tournaments played across the country.
Grover Lines, a veteran pool player who runs Grover's Hip Pockets, a pool hall in West Palm Beach, is friends with both Mizerak and DiLiberto. He claims that luck is all that separates the two.
"Danny was shortchanged, I feel," says Lines, who followed DiLiberto out of Buffalo and onto the pool-hustling road. "Danny was just as good as Steve, or at least potentially as good, but he just never caught the breaks. He worked at poolrooms and hustled while Steve did Miller Lite commercials. Now Steve's worth seven million dollars, while the other guy's worth nothing."
DiLiberto has made his own small-scale forays into entrepreneurism but without success. In the early '70s, he, along with three other prominent pool players -- Mike Sigel, James Rempe, and Larry Lisciotti -- put together a group called the Roadrunners. The idea was for the four of them to tour the country, giving trick-shot exhibitions, playing matches against each other, and teaching pool. A photograph from the time shows the Roadrunners dressed to the hilt in flared pants and wide collars, but the enterprise fell apart before they ever got out on the road. DiLiberto says the problem was too many competing egos.
He expresses little bitterness about his fate. "I hate nine-to-five, and [playing pool] kept me out of work," he says.
Resentment only creeps in occasionally, such as when he speaks of the late Minnesota Fats. Rudolph Wanderone, once known as New York Fats, rechristened himself Minnesota in the wake of The Hustler in order to take advantage of the popularity of the character played by Jackie Gleason. In what became a lucrative, lifetime schtick, Fats traveled the country (much as DiLiberto later hoped to do with the Roadrunners), putting on joke-filled exhibitions that amounted to a billiards version of the Harlem Globetrotters. In DiLiberto's scrapbook, which is filled with yellowed newspaper clippings covering bowling, boxing, baseball, and pool, only one article is not about Danny D. It's a 1985 clipping from The New York Post: "Minnesota Fats Behind 8-Ball for Shoplifting," the headline reads. It details Fats' arrest, for stealing Ex-Lax.
"His best game was eating," DiLiberto says, spitefully.
As for the game of pool itself, the professional tournament circuit is more lucrative today than ever. It's now possible for the best players to make a decent living exclusively playing tournaments. Compared to most professional athletes, including jockeys, however, pool players are still the blue-collar underclass of the sports world. The Camel Pro Billiard Series holds ten tournaments a year, each with purse money of at least $75,000. The top winner last year, Francisco Bustamante, took home $122,505. Five other players made more than $40,000 from the Camel tournaments. Mizerak's seniors' tour usually offers a top prize of about $6000. The Florida Pro Open, one of the top regional series, offers prize money of $1500 to the winners of each of its ten events.
It's the women's tour, however, that has gone the farthest in establishing pool as a legitimate professional sport. The most famous pool player in the world today is not Bustamante or Buddy Hall, another top men's tour finisher, but the "Black Widow," Jeanette Lee. What TV exposure there is for pool is generally limited to late-Sunday-night ladies' nine-ball matches on ESPN. And it's not difficult to see what part of the allure is: Lee is not only a skilled player, but she's attractive, as are many of the female players.
Amateur tournaments have also proliferated in the last decade. These $10- and $20-entry-fee tournaments -- which offer jackpots worth hundreds of dollars -- provide a salve for pool players' gambling joneses. On Tuesday nights, for example, South Florida pool players can test their mettle at the nine-ball tournament at Hollywood Billiards or at a similar competition at Kiss Shot Billiards in Jupiter.
"What's hurt gambling more than anything is tournaments," says John Foster, the house man at Gold Crown and one of the top nine-ball players in the state. "The $10 tournament has killed the action."
Legal forms of gambling have also taken some of the action away from the pool halls of old. People who want to gamble can now board SunCruz and other casino boats, where slots and card games are available, or take their chances at the Miccosukee gaming hall in Hollywood. The dog tracks, horse tracks, and jai alai also compete for gambling dollars.
Danny D. has beaten the odds before -- in the poolroom, at the dog track, and on death's doorstep. In 1980 he spent several weeks in the hospital suffering from what doctors diagnosed as diverticulitis, an inflammation of the intestinal tract. He was read his last rites. But DiLiberto came up with his own diagnosis: boredom. For more than three years, he'd eschewed the pool table for a slightly more reliable form of income, buying and selling goods at the dog track flea market. He had become a square. The money was good, but the routine was stifling.
"All of a sudden my flare was gone," he says. "I was a dull person." Shortly after DiLiberto recovered from the illness, his brother died of a heart attack. "I'd been through that, I'd broke up with a woman; life was horrible," he says.
He dealt with the situation by getting back into pool. He again became a force on the tournament circuit, winning a series of prestigious competitions in the early '80s. Danny D. knocked off opponents in eight ball, straight pool, one pocket, even nine ball (supposedly a young man's game).
DiLiberto is hoping pool will prove an anodyne once more. He is still looking for one last hustle, one last road trip. Despite prostate cancer (from which he expects to make a full recovery) and cataracts, he has long-shot dreams of another run at pool glory. Just three years ago, he points out, he was the top finisher on the senior's tour, on which many of the best players compete. The bravura, at least, is still there: "There's nobody on earth that knows more about this game than I do," DiLiberto says.
Although pool requires little of the physical rigor of most other sports, age can take its toll. "As we get older our eyes go," says Mizerak. "As we get older our nerves go. As we get older our coordination goes." The adage is particularly true for nine ball, by far the most common tournament format, in which the ouctome of a match is often decided by the snap of a muscular break.
Every day, in between shifts at the dog track, DiLiberto is in the pool practice room. He tries to hustle up some action, but there are few takers. Everybody knows the speed at which Danny D. plays, and they are loathe to give him their money.
On a recent weekday afternoon, DiLiberto manages to arrange a $20 game of one pocket against one of the Gold Crown regulars. One pocket is a glacier-paced game in which each player has one corner pocket in which to make balls. Defense predominates. Even for a $20 game Danny D. must give up weight: his opponent only has to make seven balls to win while DiLiberto must pocket ten.
"Tough game," he laments. "But it's the only game I can get."
DiLiberto talks of going on the road again. "Every now and then action will spring up, and every pool player will try to get there," he says. "Like in Baton Rouge right now, they're betting sky high." Before that the action was in Bellflower, California, and before that, Detroit. In Charlotte, North Carolina, DiLiberto says, people are always playing for high stakes at a place called Mother's. "What creates this usually is one main guy who has lots of money and isn't afraid to gamble it," he explains.
DiLiberto also talks of competing in the Camel Pro Billiards Series. He says that the year 2000 will be a big one for him. He wants to win a major tournament in five different decades.
The year 2000 will be significant for another reason as well. DiLiberto will start receiving the first regular income of his life: a social security check.
Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address: Paul_Demko@newtimesbpb.com