Inside the Florida pool room, DiLiberto's luck once again has taken a dive. After five torturous hours, Sigel was able to get the ante raised to $100 a game, which was good, but then his stroke ran off and hid, which was bad. No matter how much he narrowed his eyes in concentration, no matter how much he went to the whip, he could do no better than trade games with the pool room owner, who shuffled around the table in a trail of cigarette ashes. Even more vexing, the older man was sinking "harrigans," shots that appeared beyond his ability, and was becoming a chicken bone caught in Sigel's throat. Finally, exasperated, Sigel called it quits when he was $100 ahead, making a lame excuse that he would return the following evening. "You're smart, kid," sneered his opponent. "You know when to quit. Come back tomorrow night when you're ready to play some pool, if you have the guts." Sigel walked out, gritting his teeth.
On the return trip to Miami, the atmosphere in the car was leaden as Sigel tried to explain the situation, talked of seeking revenge and cursed his dark luck. Danny D was magnanimous. To him, it was obvious that Sigel's inexperience had cost them. Pool players go to extreme lengths to disrupt their opponents. The great Onofrio Lauri used to sit in his foe's sight line and polish his bald pate with a towel. It is said that Lauri could shine his dome at an opposing player like a searchlight. Sigel had fallen prey to his opponent's gambit much in the way "Fast Eddie," the Paul Newman character from The Hustler, did. Newman wound up with his thumbs broken. Sigel was able to get away with $100, but it had been a costly evening. A good spot had been lost, and it was a dwindling market. "Fighting was easier than this," said Danny D, wincing at a morning sun that was three hours into daylight.
Several days later the pool players are in Dayton for a professional tournament. These events offer only a smidgen of prize money. The big attraction is the chance for some serious playing among the top talent. In the main room are what Danny terms "the gambling degenerates." The room has a squalid air, with a bank of pinball machines blinking on one side, tables covered with empty bottles and coffee cups, a dirty carpet littered with cigarette butts, gum and peanut wrappers and other refuse. As the lower Mississippi piles high with silt, so also does this confluence of hustling tributaries. The room is crowded with people, most of them unkempt and slack-eyed, some standing, others sprawled in chairs or dozing at tables, holding their chins in their hands. Whenever a stranger with shined shoes sits down, the slovenly straighten up and, after a few judicious pauses, inquire gently if the newcomer would "like to play some gin?"
On one wall is a NO GAMBLING sign, ubiquitous in pool rooms. Below the sign sits a woman trying to be happy through too much makeup and a hedge of false eyelashes, her attention riveted to a stack of money that keeps growing in front of her as her boyfriend, a dapper fellow in a blue safari suit who is backing a hot player in the game, keeps handing her more. The woman quickly gathers it into a neat pile. "This makes me feel just flat super," she says a little too loudly, drawing out the last syllable. "All we do in eastern Kentucky is shoot pool, and make home brew, moonshine and babies. Honey, I've never seen this much money in one place. Look at this!"
"Money to a pool player is like a glass of water," says Joe Burns, a tall, thin man who is the tournament sponsor. "It doesn't mean anything to him unless he doesn't have it. And he needs it every day." Watching the players shoot "payball" at $50 a ball. Burns compares them to lions in a cage. "If you feed them they'll stay under control, partially. But you need someone in there with them or they'll devour each other."
Standing to the side is a man who makes customized cue sticks. The best ones sell for up to $1,000. The cuemaker was once a hustler, but he got tired of trying to use excitement for collateral. Now, watching the players shoot, he has a wry smile on his face. "They don't have anything to do," he says. "They're just burning up their lives." When one of the flamboyant hustlers begins making droll comments, trying to disguise his embarrassment after flubbing a shot, Danny D says, "He'll put on a show, but he won't win. He burns up $100,000 a year of his backers' money."
The players are shooting on a snooker table, an oversized surface with small pockets. One hustler, young Jimmy Reid, is shooting barefoot. He pulls a wad of crumpled money from his jeans and asks a bystander to hold it. Danny D is on the sidelines, his eye out for a backer. Rumor has it that one of the Dayton players was recently staked to a $100,000 score. "The guy's not a good player, but he's a super lemon player," says Danny D with admiration. "He keeps winning, and players still think they can beat him." At the moment, however, all but one of the players are working a dry well. Denny Searcy, from the San Francisco Bay area, is making the most of his first trip East, a packrat emptying the other communicants' pockets and leaving groans behind. Minnesota Fats once said, "Dressing a pool player in a tuxedo is like putting whipped cream on a hot dog." There are no cummerbunds in this pool room. Searcy, a chunky fellow with the beginnings of a mezzanine under his chin, wears old blue corduroys and a T shirt with a bulging pocket into which he pauses to stuff more bills every time he pockets a payball. Between shots he slouches off to the side, looking uninterested. Joe Burns whispers that as of last night Searcy had $20,000 from the 70 or so players who had passed through the game. He knew the figure because he had counted the money and locked it in his safe.
Before television shrank the world and skepticism succeeded gullibility, pool players were fancied. In the early years of the century there were 400,000 tables in this country alone. Sir W. S. Gilbert, librettist of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, was a billiards player who made reference to his avocation in his works. In the song from The Mikado, "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime," he sentences a culprit to play a game "On a cloth untrue, / With a twisted cue / And elliptical billiard balls!" Shakespeare mentioned the game in Antony and Cleopatra, and decades ago American newspapers were fascinated by such characters as Tony the Weasel, a Broadway figure who reportedly ran headlong into walls when he lost a match and once became impaled in plaster and lath and had to be extricated by the fire department. There is a story that Ralph Greenleaf's wife. Princess Nai Tai Ta, hit him on the forehead with an ashtray and then he sued for divorce, all of which caused the sensitive Greenleaf to arrive in less than satisfactory condition at a 1933 world championship. Slowly, however, the public lost interest in the game, and five-time world champion Irving Crane remarked a few years ago. "Pool is the poorest sport in the world." Today the public gets its excitement from police SWAT teams that do battle every evening at 9 p.m. In Dayton the best pool players in the country went all but unnoticed by the square public.
Now the money is changing hands quickly. A shooter collects double if he sinks all the eligible payballs, and even these professionals are feeling the pressure. Detroit Whitey, once one of the finest shotmakers in the game, eyes an elementary straight-in shot that counts double, and takes aim much longer than usual. When he finally strokes the ball, Whitey jerks spasmodically; his bridge hand flies off the table and his cue stick makes a sickening sound as it scrapes off the ball. The room falls silent. Detroit Whitey gazes up numbly. There are a few muffled laughs, and everyone is thinking the same thing. After a few minutes, Detroit Whitey all but runs from the room, followed by silent reproach.
In Joe Burns' office, Denny Searcy has a beer and a sandwich, enjoying a respite from the game. He has given another player $400 to shoot his stick while he rests, and with a shrug he estimates that during the surrogate's fill-in he could lose $4,000 in potential winnings. "I never figured I'd get tired of shooting pay-ball," he says wearily, "but I am. The table is mine and those guys are mine. It's my game. It's not like I worked for it. It's like free money. Maybe if I worked for it, I wouldn't go out and shoot pool with it. But I don't know. I've never worked. Sometimes I think about it, what it would be like, going to work every day, getting some security. But I don't know. How could someone like me open up a business? What do I know about running a business?"