A few months later Delicious moved to Chicago Billiards, an appealingly seedy pool hall in a West Haven, Conn., strip mall off I-95. Chicago was to hustlers in the '90s what San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore was to beatnik poets in the '50s. Ralph Procopio, a wealthy businessman with a thing for pool and a soft spot for hustlers, owned the place, and he allowed the best players to live free of charge in the back rooms. Delicious and a half-dozen other squatters would rise in the afternoon and play money games of eight ball, nine ball and one pocket, mostly against each other, through the night. They'd spend the downtime practicing trick shots. Then, when the sun came up, everyone would crash. "There was always action there," Delicious says, "and when things got slow, Ralph would throw 500 or 1,000 bucks on a table, tell two of us to play for it, and, bam, the place would be jumping."
Delicious estimates that he won $100,000 in his first six months in West Haven. Unfortunately, he lost most of it back making what he calls "stupid bets." Like on cards? "Yeah," he says, "we played some cards--sometimes one of the [pool] tables would be used for poker games with $1,000 hands. But I mean really stupid betting. I'd beat a guy out of $5,000 playing pool, and then I'd go double-or-nothing betting that the next car out of the driveway would turn right. It would turn left, and I'd lose the cash."
The scene in West Haven laid bare one of pool's abiding paradoxes: The game's best practitioners might be scoundrels and scalawags--guys who live on the cultural margins, whose circadian rhythms are unlike yours and mine--yet the sport is predicated on precision and discipline and efficiency. Hitting a clean tee shot is nothing compared with sinking the ball of your choice in the pocket of your choice, all the while leaving the cue ball positioned perfectly for your next shot. Kid Delicious was an exemplar of this.
"Danny was known for having unbelievable natural talent," recalls Procopio. "But what really impressed everyone was that he could eat a whole cake before playing and still run a bunch of racks."
it was in West Haven that Kid Delicious met Bob Begey, a.k.a. Bristol Bob, another suburban boy whose life had been hijacked by pool. To the horror of his middle-class parents in Bristol, Conn., Begey dropped out of Central Connecticut State University as a sophomore to become a shark-in-training. On the surface, at least, Bristol Bob was everything Delicious was not: strikingly handsome, trim and unremittingly serious--"a real intense dude," Procopio recalls. The two players were united, though, in their belief that there was truth and romance to be found in hitting five-ounce balls across swaths of felt into a half-dozen unforgiving leather pockets.
In late 1997 Delicious and Bristol played in a tournament in Massachusetts. When it was over, and they had lost, neither of them wanted to return to West Haven, and neither wanted to return to his home. So they became road partners. They loaded their cues and their clothes into the back of Delicious's 1982 Cadillac Cimarron and went caroming across the country in search of action.
For the next four years the road was their home. Their places of employment were smoky roadhouses, upscale billiards parlors and sometimes the tables in the back of Mexican restaurants next to Dairy Queens. On smaller "bar boxes" and on standard-sized long tables, at all hours of the night, throughout the Lower 48, they played anyone who'd give them a money game.
The most successful hustlers will spend months at a time in one town, staying in character and cultivating the trust of the locals before making their sting. Lore has it that one-pocket legend Jack Cooney, a.k.a. San Francisco Jack, assumed the guise of an unassuming schoolteacher, spent months at a billiards parlor without hitting a ball, then took on the biggest whale in town in a $100,000 game. Delicious and Bristol had a different strategy: stick and move. "I'm not going to say we didn't want to make money," says Delicious, "but our goal was to play a lot, improve on playing under pressure and become pros. We didn't have the patience to hustle the old way."
Still, they did O.K. Better than O.K. Each hustle was different, but most unfolded like this: Bob would play first and win some money. Then the big fella, invariably underestimated because of his appearance, would come in and clean up. One of their first big scores came at a pool hall in Warsaw, Ind., a backwater halfway between Fort Wayne and South Bend. Begey played first and won a grand or so. The locals demanded another match to win back their money. "But this time," they said, "we want to play the big guy."
"Danny?" Bristol Bob said, brushing off the suggestion. "Aw, he don't hardly play."