Darkness. Eighty miles from Albuquerque, and the 3 a.m. air is clear and still outside the tavern save for a chorus of singing tires fading down the highway. Shapes jumble together in the parking lot: Cadillacs, pickup trucks, even a police cruiser, all squatting near a faded frame building whose rusty sign urges consumption of a local beer. A visitor knocks on the front door, mumbles a greeting and is ushered inside and down a long hallway. Another door opens, and for an instant the heart quickens and pupils contract at the sudden glare, the smell of money and the hint of violence.
The room is stale and blue with cigarette smoke but it has a kinetic feel to it, and Danny DiLiberto, Danny D, is the center of attention as he stalks the rich, green-felt billiard table. Men in chairs with paper bags of money between their legs, men perched languidly on tables, men leaning at odd angles in a corner, all stare at Danny D as he considers his next shot. After 30-odd hours, two nights and a day, against a variety of changing partners, at times no longer caring about winning or losing but shooting on instinct, his mind filling with the combinations and possibilities, Danny D now has the shot to end it. His opponent is shirtless and slouching, looking bored and insolent, a young, redheaded boy of about 20, an amateur boxer with teeth too big for his freckled face. Danny D is playing him one pocket, the champagne game to some pool hustlers, spotting the kid two balls. Now he needs one more to win the game and go "five ahead," meaning five games ahead in the series, which means victory in the match.
He can play safe, or try a difficult cut shot on the 9 ball. If successful, he and his partner Sugar Shack collect $1,000. If Danny D misses, the kid surely won't. This is what pool is all about: action. The ball either goes in or it stays out.
"Nine ball," calls Danny D as Sugar Shack straightens up in his chair. There is a soft click and the yellow and white ball slips through an opening, edges up to the pocket and falls with a soft plop. Almost simultaneously a pool stick slams down on the table—thwack—and splinters into pieces. "Don't worry," says the kid with a crooked grin, holding the jagged stub of the shattered cue in one hand. "I'm just mad at myself."
It might have been a typical incident in Danny D's life. Who knows? Pool shooters have many stories to tell, some of them true, some of them perhaps shaded a bit. Danny DiLiberto, runner-up in the 1972 U.S. Open and one of the five best straight-pool players in the world, is a man who bought the dream, then found out that not only was it not worth the price, but worse—all sales are final. Now he slumps back and says with closed eyes, "How'd we do?"
"We've got about $2,800," says Sugar Shack. "Whaddaya think?"
"I think just keep right on goin' to Albuquerque because we've worn out our welcome and I don't think the sheriff is the only one with a gun in here."
That was a couple of years ago. Danny D is still figuring the score and looking for an edge in a world of perfidy, affecting disguises, playing dumb and shooting smart, a chameleon fitting into the background with a makeup kit filled with jars of deceit and trickery. His greatest satisfaction is that he is not a "square," or a "sucker," the pool shooter's demeaning terms for those who work for a living and curse their W-2 forms, or a "googan," which is a square pool shooter. But he is 42 years old and does not know if he will be a winner or a loser tomorrow—and he realizes that he must go on making his way in the shadows, as unobtrusively as possible, never really showing himself. On the rare occasions when he does, Danny D is a kitchen insect caught in sudden light, skittering away, hoping that a pool stick will not split his skull—thwack. "Every pool player in a local joint looks at Danny and wishes he could live his life," says Sugar Shack, a huge man with a thickening waist and an unsweetened look about him (the fierce countenance and allusions to Sugar Shack's arsenal of guns are what Danny calls "my deterrent to the violence"). "They have no idea. It's sad, but he can't let go of it because the saddest thing of all is a pool player without a game."
The British philosopher Herbert Spencer is credited with saying, "To play billiards well is a sign of a misspent youth." Danny's youth was spent in Buffalo, where he idolized his older brother, envied his ability to turn the 9 ball into a $5 bill—and ignored his admonition to stay out of the pool hall. On Sundays Danny would send someone to church with his collection envelope while he practiced. Eventually he was the city champion, what pool players call "a shortstop," the best of local talent. He moved on and for 25 years has existed mostly by his wits and temerity.
Now he lives in Hollywood, Fla., working on his second marriage and his first million, a short, trimly built man with a mustache and strands of gray woven in his hair, a nasal, singsong manner of speech, bad posture and a rocking sort of gait. If he ever had a time clock inside of him, it long ago rusted, although for a spell he did try working, talking his way into a job as a draftsman, then doing the unfamiliar work at home by copying from library books. He also was a manager of door-to-door kitchenware salesmen and made a good living from that, but found the paychecks could not buy what he needed—which is mostly time. Every top player requires daily practice to keep the indecision out of his stroke, and selling pots and pans kept DiLiberto away from the gently rolling balls. "I missed pool," says Danny with a shrug. "I missed not being in dead stroke, even though I'm not so sure that pool isn't a rejection of life. It's like trying to build a pile of toothpicks into a lumber pile. You hope to be good enough to catch lightning."