Was it a famed pre-Socratic philosopher or was it Mae West who declared that the way down and the way up are the same? Whoever said it first sure got that right. And if you don’t believe it, then have I got a book for you.
I mean, what do you do when they pick on you in school and won’t give you a break, when you hate what you see in the mirror, and when you just don’t see the point of anything—when you’re so down, you can’t even get out of your own way? Well, if you’re Danny Basavich of New Jersey, maybe there could be a way up and out, but not one of set or prescribed methods. You might hustle baseball cards so effectively that the proceeds were considerable and the feeling of success was a high. You could drop out of school and get a diploma by studying in a special school for unwed mothers—no more bullies, and the credential problem was over before you were 16. And then there would be the chance to engage with that intriguing game played on what they call “the green felt ocean.” The more Basavich played, the better he got. The experience was therapy for deep depression and, therefore, its own reward. Yet it would lead to others, for there might be opportunities to cut some corners and maximize profits in ways unimagined by Sir Isaac Newton when he declared that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If Ike ever said, “Eight ball cross side, sucker,” it is unrecorded—but neither does the record conclusively prove that he never uttered those words.
As Danny Basavich honed his game at Elite Billiards in Marlboro, New Jersey, he learned more than mechanics—the pedagogy was more than physical. He learned about strategy, about the psychology, about the politics of the game. And he learned of ways to exploit his talents by deceiving others with misleading remarks, disguises, and faux naif masquerades. At Kean and Rutgers and even Princeton, he would acquire a local sweatshirt and smear it with chocolate cake. The fat boy would flash a roll of bills and only showed what he could do when it was too late for the big bets to be rescinded, and the college boys were cleaned out by the dropout and rube. It’s a piece of theater right out of American folklore, sure—if you have the stick and the nerve to back it up. The reward was not so much the cash but the high, the euphoria of success. Hustling pool was for this kid not a game but a necessity, for the only alternative was the depth of depression. He had to play, and that meant he had to hustle. He literally couldn’t get out of bed for anything else.
Hanging out with guys named The Claw, Neptune Joe, and Mark the Shark meant that Danny needed a nom de pool better than “Fat Danny” or “The Jewish Jester” before he could finally be “a man of the cloth.” And at the age of 17, after a tense match at Chelsea Billiards in Manhattan, he earned his sobriquet. Having bet everything he had—$4,200—against Eddie Hubler, known as “Kid Vicious,” and trouncing him before a shocked collection of sweaters and railbirds, Danny was honored as “Kid Delicious,” in part because of his affable nature. He now needed to complete his graduate education in pool, and he would need a partner for the road, as well.
He was told that he had to go to Chicago Billiards in West Haven, Connecticut, in order to develop his command of the game at the highest level. That sleaze pit, the hustler’s Harvard, put the finishing touches on the education of Kid Delicious. And it was there that he met Bristol Bob, who would become his hustling partner, and who would himself go through some bizarre adventures and misfortunes that are part of the story.
As the months went by, and as Kid Delicious survived and even thrived as a professional hustler, his own success was a kind of undoing. The Kid’s name was legend. He could play and compete, but finally he couldn’t hustle, because the truth about his devastating ability was known coast to coast. He had won serious money in every one of the lower 48 states. So—what next?
Wertheim’s book is part of the answer. Kid Delicious has been playing tournaments, authoring instruction, making appearances—and Running the Table has been optioned by Hollywood. After all, there’s something at stake—the Kid’s mental health. He has to make a transition to another mode, for one form of euphoria has been closed to him forever.
But Wertheim’s book also points in other directions. The legend of Kid Delicious touches on many chords of American cultural memory, and the names of Melville, Twain, and Barnum come to mind first, followed closely by the name of the legendary Titanic Thompson, who pleaded as follows to a judge before whom he had been hauled on the charge of operating a game of chance: “I’m not guilty, your Honor. Nobody in that room had a chance but me.”
I don’t think it’s hard to imagine why someone sees this book as the basis of a movie. The pool itself is not enough, of course, but the drama and the backstory are there. The story is one of recovery, and it truthfully combines two favorite Hollywood conventions: the road movie and the buddy movie. And the recovery story is redoubled by Bristol Bob’s own struggle with addiction. Add to that the brilliance and flair of Wertheim’s rendition, and you have a lot of appeal.
But we don’t need to anticipate the movie, because we have Wertheim’s book right now. The descent into a world of manic gambling, multiple addictions, shady characters, and life on the road is oddly exhilarating. What would justify such regressive thoughts? Well, why would a boy want to drop out of school? Or, to put it another way, have you read a newspaper lately? The falsity of the so-called world, the absurdity of a manufactured reality, might well justify another level of truth, and yes, there is sometimes honor among thieves and chivalry in the alleys. The billiard table—not a video game—offers a challenge and an answer, if you have the mystical power to see it. At either end, the cue is supported by a human hand and is centrally directed by a creative intelligence. And maybe the sign that seemed to say NO GAMBLING says NO NO GAMBLING—or is it four o’clock in the morning and are we seeing double? In any case, this is the book not only for those who can read and respond to the sign that says MASSÉ SHOTS ALLOWED, but for those who like their sermons rooted in the dirt, their metaphysical intuitions grounded in physics, their fancies tethered in fact—for all alert readers to whom nothing human is alien.
[Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, The Last Great American Pool Hustler, by L. Jon Wertheim (New York: Houghton Mifflin) 248 pp., $24.00]