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Reality to a pool player is this: if the bet is even he has a 50% chance of losing. A pool player always wants "the nuts," meaning the best of the wager, ideally a cinch bet. Danny D carries tattered scraps of paper with him that list "spots" around the country, places where a hustler can walk in, tell a few stories and get a game that will reward him for the trouble he has taken to get there. "A player will tell another about a spot," says Danny D. "He will talk about the short-stop, how he will be dressed, how much money he will have on a certain day, what his best game is and where he will be sitting in the room."
Thus, on a chilly night in late November, DiLiberto is huddled down in the front seat of his car outside a pool hall in a small Florida town, sweating out what he hopes will be a big score that will provide Christmas presents for his family. Inside, Mike Sigel, a New Yorker in his early 20s and Danny D's prot�g�, so to speak, is playing one pocket with the proprietor, a dour, slovenly man with a cigarette in one corner of his mouth, a sneer on the other. He thinks Sigel is from Ohio, a punk kid to be hustled, and is certain he has "the nuts." After all, the older man is an accomplished player shooting on his own table and playing his favorite game, one pocket, which hustlers think demands more skill than any other. Instead, he is facing a "lemon player," someone disguising his ability. The proprietor, in fact, is the unsuspecting googan.
On the trip up from Miami, Danny D patiently coached Sigel as to his approach: how to wander into the pool hall 30 minutes before closing, where the owner would be and what he would be wearing, what to say and what the man would answer, how to feign inexperience so the sham would go undetected. Sigel does not have DiLiberto's skill at such ploys; he is too young. But his natural ingenuousness, plus the fact that the parlor owner believes he knows the name and face of every top player in the country, are his credibility. Danny D tells Sigel, a slim, pasty-faced youth with a stark, lean silhouette, "You're going to have it rough when the word goes out on you because no one fits your physical description."
Nothing is more certain in pool than that nothing is as it seems. Danny D once dressed up as a pizza delivery boy, arrived at someone's house with a carton of pies and then joined in the pool game in progress in the den. He has seen enough "business" always to be wary. Business is when a game is crooked, when one of the players is using his "dump stroke" much in the manner of a jockey holding back a horse. Danny D has had friends dump games when he bet on them to win. Afterward they would tell him, "Danny, it's business." He understood. He remembers one game involving a top hustler who had worked out some business with a player who was several speeds below him in ability. After four hours the men were dead even, and the hustler's nerves were all but jumping out of his skin because he thought the rest of the house was catching on. So he quit, and told his opponent, "You don't play good enough to look like you're beatin' me, and it's stinkin' up the joint."
Inside the Florida pool hall, Mike Sigel was pale and swallowing hard while his opponent shambled around the table, goading him with remarks. Part of a hustler's repertoire is his Don Rickles act. The insults serve a dual purpose, upsetting the opponent but at the same time making him sore enough to want to continue playing, and even to want to return for revenge. Minnesota Fats once won all of a player's money, then won his car. When the crestfallen victim walked out the door, Fats crowed after him: "You came in here a motorist, but I made a pedestrian out of you." Maybe he'd come back. Sigel's instinct was to dispatch this disagreeable creature with perfect shotmaking, because nothing is as grating as a fool who does not know he is a fool. But Sigel was pulling hard on the reins, hoping to get the ante raised from $50 a game. He knew it would be a long, slow night as he began to trade games, winning two, dropping a couple, not showing too much too soon.
The young player had $1,000 on him, 20 barrels' worth. A barrel is one betting unit, and an air barrel is when you are broke and you bet with nothing but air; this is also called shooting with the air rifle or being barreled out. "When you're out of ammo, you got to give up the machine gun," says Danny D. Actually, DiLiberto would prefer to give up the gun, to settle down, but now it is too late. The fringe benefits are too good to give up. Danny D, working on the downside of middle age, is accustomed to getting up mornings when he feels like it, accustomed to never feeling a yoke around his neck or having a memo pad on his desk, accustomed to not being accustomed to anything.
Yet Danny D must sometimes feel like a non-person, not the superb athlete he is. He says that he cannot get a credit card, which is about as anonymous as you can be in this country. The Washington Touchdown Club never calls him and asks if he will be a guest speaker. The people from Mr. Coffee are not on the line inquiring about endorsements, and there probably are not too many pool players being recruited by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Once it looked like a glamorous life, but here he sits in a car outside a pool hall in this little Florida town, three hours into his vigil, waiting for Sigel and telling hustling stories. Like the one about the guy who had two legs severed in an accident. He received a huge insurance settlement and spent most of his time gambling in pool halls, stretching for shots from his wheelchair. The hustlers descended like vultures around carrion. "The most heartless thing I ever saw was when a guy would not let him sit on the table to shoot a shot he couldn't reach," says Danny, wiping the steam from inside the driver's window. "The guy said he had to keep one wheel on the floor."
That week Danny D had visited Angelo Dundee in his Miami Beach office. Dundee is Muhammad Ali's trainer, but he also tutored Danny during his days as a boxer on the Florida professional circuit. Danny's story is that he fought under the pseudonym Danny Torriani because his older brother had been a fighter and the family had been dead set against it. Danny made his debut in Tampa against an experienced, heavier foe. In the first round, the seasoned boxer bombed Danny D with blows, but with eight seconds left, the reeling novice uncorked a wild uppercut that might have been stolen from Rocky. The punch caught his adversary flush on the jaw and dropped him, although the bell saved him from being counted out. In the second round, Danny D took advantage of his opponent's dazed condition and dropped him three straight times, the last time for the 10-count. Danny Torriani was undefeated in 14 fights, with 12 knockouts, a draw and a decision. Unfortunately, he kept breaking his hands, four times to be exact, and a fighter without hands is like a farmer without soil. Just as there are technical knockouts, his was a technical retirement. "You were good, Danny," Dundee told him, "but you weren't lucky."
Once again the question comes up. Is it better to be good, or lucky? For Danny D, too often his payoff comes in memories. He has scrapbooks filled with accounts of his exploits as a baseball player, a fighter, a bowler, a pool player, along with wrinkled pictures of himself posing with Fred Astaire, Peter Falk, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Mosconi. As he pores over the yellowed clips, recalling incidents associated with each item, the lines in his face seem to deepen with each turn of the page.