Every so often Hollywood will present a romanticized version of a pool player's life, put a Paul Newman in the lead and call it something like The Hustler. In such movies there is always a lot of money involved and the good guy, the good player, always seems to win by the time the closing credits roll. In actual life, it might be better to be lucky than good, although it does help if you can run the rack. Danny D says that the most money he ever saw in a game was in Detroit—$247,000 in the room when the police broke down the door. But mostly it is a life of nickels and dimes, trying to scuffle enough to pay the bills and mollify your backers while dodging the police, the losers and lopsided luck. It's not easy. A few years ago at a self-proclaimed "hustlers' tournament" in Johnson City, Ill., lawmen swooped down, padlocked the doors and confiscated a bunch of cash and several Eldorados.
P. T. Barnum said, "There's a sucker born every minute," but the fact is not many of them play pool, and the ones that do are chary and suspicious. The real hustle is this: the hustlers usually hustle one another. The rich squares are reserved for country-club gin rummy games. "The trouble with millionaires is that it's not a fluke that they're rich," says Danny. "The googans and the squares call us hustlers, but we don't like their tone when they say it. Every once in a while we dress up like penguins and perform on television, but they don't tell you about the hotels that padlock a player's room until he pays his bill.
"It seems like we open one door, and right behind it is another, and another and another.
"It isn't our fault that we have to fake, lie in the weeds and try to hustle someone. We're athletes and we can't get a game. We're honorable people. Everybody is a hustler to some extent, a stockbroker, a salesman, the mayor of a city. Did you see that movie where the sailor and the rich woman get tossed up on an island? Then they were equal. If I were shipwrecked on an island, I wouldn't want to be with the president of Standard Oil. I'd want to be with Cornbread Red.
"Pool players ought to work for the FBI. Talk about The Sting. I've grown a beard, smeared grease on my face, driven up to a place that is nowhere, limped in the door and the first thing a guy says to me is, 'Aren't you Danny DiLiberto?' I've had a gun aimed at me, and I've had to fight my way out of spots. I beat a guy once 26 games of eight ball. He won one and he quit. He said, T just wanted to win one.'
"It's impossible to figure. You have to figure out suckers, then you have to worry about what will make them quit. You have to worry about the 'knockers,' the 'eyeballers' and the 'sweaters.' Those are the guys that just watch. They sit there and whisper to a guy that he can't beat you and the guy quits."
As a man grows older and more proficient at his work, his opportunities for advancement normally increase, but the opposite is true for a pool player. It is rare that you find a pool player who ever accumulates anything other than empty dreams and promises, because when pool players reach their peak and become famous, they find that no one will play them. The saddest thing is not having a game, so they accept bad games and take chances. One of the early world champions, Emmet Blankenship, wound up as a sodden, one-armed hobo. The legend has it that he was bitten on the hand in a fight and drank away the pain. Infection and amputation followed; one might say that he lost his arm to drink, but he lost his soul to pool. Ralph Greenleaf, 14 times a world champion and a man who could make his cue stick talk, finished broken and a heavy drinker, dead at 50. Willie Mosconi once made 526 straight balls and he led Greenleaf in world titles, but he had a stroke in 1957 and retired to the exhibition circuit. Even Danny D finds himself relegated to the exhibition song and dance occasionally, and one of the best players in the world, Steve Mizerak, teaches school in New Jersey. Probably the only one who makes a good living from the game is Rudolf Walter Wanderone Jr., Minnesota Fats. Wanderone used to be called New York Fats, but he changed his first name after The Hustler came out, and he became a celebrity.
Some species of animals have the disconcerting habit of eating their young, and pool players can be carnivorous toward their own, also. They seem bent on mutual destruction. "Everybody's a knocker," says Danny D. "Somebody gets something going, and right away the other guys are knocking. We don't have any organization. Every time we try, everybody knocks it."
Danny D can hustle at other things besides pool. Bowling alleys once had pool tables the way most country clubs boast tennis courts. Danny D is an excellent bowler who once rolled a 300 game in the afternoon, then ran off 200 balls on the pool table that evening. He also played a fair game of baseball around Buffalo as a strong-armed outfielder who had tryouts with two major league teams. He does tricks with a golf ball. He can throw one 125 yards, can sail it through a man's upraised arms for a field goal from 110 yards away and can roll it dead against a wall from 90 feet. He knows a player who can bank a billiard ball into a pocket using his nose for a cue, and another who can spit the cue ball from his mouth and run the table. He knows a fellow in North Carolina nicknamed "Mountain" who butts walls with his head. "I've got a guy I'm going to take up there to butt heads with him," says Danny. "My man once dented a car bumper with his head."
Frustration hangs around a pool hustler as surely as chalk slides on the end of a cue. Bobby Riggs is lionized for his shrewd hustles; pitchers like Whitey Ford are considered cunning for being able to outwit umpires with doctored baseballs; golfer Lee Trevino brings chuckles when he reminisces about his hustling days with a Dr Pepper bottle. In general, athletes are praised for their guile if they can circumvent the rules, but there is something about a pool shark that people will not forgive. Danny D is a hit on the college exhibition circuit with his array of trick shots. "All the kids love me," he says wistfully, "but 10 years later, after they've got the business suit, they don't want to talk to you."