The onetime terror of the Barracks Bar stood in the grand ballroom of New York's Biltmore Hotel last week and faced up to an unsettling truth. "It was the first rime in my life that I wasn't the best pool shooter in the house," says Mike DelNagro, whose story on the World Open Pool Championship begins on page 84. Which is not to say that at 31 DelNagro is the world's youngest retired hustler, merely that he had something of a misspent youth.
DelNagro has been a pool player since he was 12, and even in service he somehow managed to spend more time at the base pool hall than on KP. He was the two-time champion of McGuire Air Force Base (1969, '70) and the champion of Hickam AFB in Hawaii (1972). As for the Barracks Bar, it is a popular watering hole just up the road a piece from the main gate at McGuire in Wrightstown, N.J. in which DelNagro worked as a bartender on off-duty evenings. "The bartending paid me $15 a shift," says DelNagro, "while the pool games brought in from $60 to $70 a night."
DelNagro was well prepared for military sharpshooting by his boyhood in Buffalo. "There was an elegantly shabby old pool table in the basement of St. Ann's School," says DelNagro. "The kids played baseball by day and shot pool by night." It was the early handicaps that made the game so much easier later on: at St. Ann's the kids played with warped or broken-off cue sticks, and also decided that certain shots had to be made blindfolded. By the time he went into the Air Force in 1968, DelNagro was ready to take on all challengers. The trophies he won are now door-stops back home, a fair indication of how the family regards Mike's talent.
But, tournaments aside, the toughest test of a pool player is how he reacts under pressure, and this is where DelNagro lives. "When money got short at the end of the month, I would occasionally play for $5 a game—when I didn't have the $5," he says. "That's real pressure. It was close a couple of times, but I never lost."
Time was when Mike and wife Mary would visit a poolroom owned by a brother-in-law. By way of introduction, Mary would unplug the jukebox and then announce proudly to the suddenly hushed crowd, "The best pool player in the house just walked in. Does anybody want to play him?"
DelNagro cautioned her against that sort of introduction when Mary accompanied him to the opening night of the Biltmore tournament. "I rarely play pool anymore," he says. "And not at all in the last six months or so. All of the 52 competitors would have beaten me."
But that was last week. After writing his story, DelNagro has gone back into training. With good reason: he plans to enter next year's world open with the assurance that SI will pay his $300 entry fee and also underwrite the cost of renting a tuxedo. It seems a fair enough proposition for one who plays well under pressure. If DelNagro doesn't win the tournament, he's fired. Or at least banished to the Barracks Bar until he earns our money back.