Jeez, that fat man, look at the way he moves. Like a dancer. And those fingers, them chubby fingers. That stroke, it’s like he’s playing the violin or something.
Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), marveling at Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in The Hustler
The big fella waddled down the hallway of the hotel, grinning and nodding graciously. The pool tribalists called out his name or patted him on the back. When you’re five feet nine inches and tip the scales at 320 pounds or so, it’s not easy to walk without breaking stride. But Danny Basavich had no choice. He’d overslept on this listless morning in January 2006 and now was minutes from forfeiting a match in the Derby City Classic, a twelve-day gambling marathon masquerading as an annual pool tournament.
His personality as generously proportioned as his physique, Basavich tried to acknowledge everyone at the Derby City venue the Executive West Hotel, a shopworn hostelry hard by the Louisville Airport, designed by someone with a deep appreciation for the 1970s. As he shuffled down the hall, Basavich smiled his infectious smile, quickly pressing his stubby right hand into his admirer’s, a handshake that effectively conveyed the message Luv-ya-but-I-gotta-run.” In a disarming voice that recalled Wolfman Jack with a New Joisey accent e’s screeching like old train brakes, p’s and t’s popping like fireworks he shouted out a stream of Catch me when I’m done playing, Chris” and You got my cell number, right, Petey?” and Let’s grab a drink later, Alex.” Without exception, everyone was called by his first name, a Dale Carnegie lesson he’d learned years before.
He arrived at table 17 just in time. With his girlfriend, Danielle, a clutch of friends, and dozens of railbirds looking on from aluminum bleachers, Basavich unsheathed a custom-made Pechauer cue. His opponent in this early-round Derby City match was José Parica, one of the brighter stars in the pool cosmos. A slightly built Filipino who looks to be in his mid-fifties, Parica performed with an even disposition, neither surly nor affable; just focused and impassive, his body language betraying nothing.
Minnesota Fats famously wore a carnation in the lapel of his bespoke suit. Though comparably built, Basavich didn’t go quite so far with his fashion. Still, he looked resplendent in drooping black trousers, black loafers, and a herringbone jacket that did its moaning best to cover his girth. His thatch of straw-colored hair had been generously gelled and his goatee neatly trimmed. Like many hefty men, he’d tried to drown his insecurities in an ocean of cologne. He somehow looked both older and younger than his twenty-seven years. His boyish, contagious smile was, as ever, in full bloom. At the same time, his swollen belly and arthritic movements suggested a man well into middle age. His green eyes sparkled and swiveled from side to side as he stared at the configuration of balls on the table.
The best American pool players were once irrepressible, wild and woolly figures straight out of Damon Runyon, all trash talk and color and bluster. But once they started getting beaten by Asians and Europeans who, the conventional wisdom went, weren’t better players but simply possessed superior powers of concentration the Americans grew stoic and emotionally frozen. In this sense, Basavich was a pure throwback. Above the crack of the balls on the surrounding tables and the echoes of clinking beer bottles, Basavich directed an ongoing monologue to the folks on the rail, to his cue, to himself. After one particularly dazzling piece of shotmaking, a smile stole across his face as he said, to no one and everyone, Didn’t think a big guy like me could pull that off, did ya?” It’s always big” with Basavich. Never fat.” Derby City had already crowned champions in bank pool and one- pocket, and now the tournament culminated with the nine-ball championship. A form of rotation pool, nine-ball requires players to rack only the first nine balls in a diamond formation. A player wins by pocketing the yolk-colored nine ball, but on every shot he must hit the lowest ball on the table first. Usually the player devises a pattern of shots through the rack, or what remains of it, that has him pocketing the one, the two, the three, and so on, until he’s taking aim at the nine ball to win the game. At Derby City, the first player to win the race to seven games wins the set and advances to the next round.
In the movies, pool is played at warp speed. The balls invariably collide violently on impact. The pace is rapid-fire. The players attempt high- risk, high-reward shots. It’s all pyrotechnics. Real pool, at least at the highest level, is much more clicking than clacking; it’s a sport of ellipses, not exclamation points. The balls don’t often rocket into the pocket. They tend to enter casually, as if they’re slipping out and quietly leaving the party, landing with a gentle ka-tonk. The players discharge their duties at a leisurely pace, especially Basavich, whose excruciatingly slow playing is as much his hallmark as his overstuffed physique and bottomlessly charismatic personality. Sizing up shots like Tiger Woods studying a putt, he takes his time, rocking back and forth in the manner of a man who has to pee.
In professional pool, you can go for hours without seeing a holy- shit-you-gotta-be-kidding-me shot. It’s all about positioning and control. Because of the way they expertly maneuvered the cue ball, Parica and Basavich went entire games without having to hit a single shot that would give a decent recreational player trouble. Of course, it’s where the cue ball ends up after hitting the object ball that makes it all possible. That’s where the genius resides. It’s position play that separates the pros from the ball- bangers.
There’s something both absurdly simple and impossibly complex about the way Basavich plays. His backswing, not unlike his body, is short and compact. His break is more about control than force. Little about his style could be described as exciting. But there is an undeniable artistry and dignity a majesty, you could even call it to his game. He has that highly developed pool cortex that enables him to think four or five shots ahead. Often he even sees the whole rack unfolding right after the break. He is steady and balanced and supremely confident. With the equilibrium of a Zen archer, he plays as though the mere prospect of misfiring hasn’t crossed his mind. Then, just when his game takes on a mesmeric quality, he plays a dazzling shot that defies the conventional laws of physics.
Tied with Parica at six games apiece, Basavich sized up a three- rail kick shot on the six ball. After determining that it was merely geometrically improbable not impossible he took aim. He inhaled, exhaled, and pulled off the shot. The railbirds clapped and whistled. Parica shook his head in a sort of gracious resignation, a rare show of emotion. Impervious to any pressure, Basavich ran out the remaining balls to take the set. Basavich seven, Parica six. After shaking his opponent’s hand, Basavich playfully pumped his pudgy fist for an imaginary television camera. Then he kissed his girl.
There was a time, not long ago, when this kind of performance at the table would have earned Basavich $5,000 or $10,000 or, if everything really broke right, twenty-five large. He would have celebrated with a trip to the local diner or watering hole, lavishing on himself three or four cheeseburgers, washing them down with a tankard’s worth of Coors Light. Maybe later that night, for good measure, he’d have fired up a joint or sprinkled his cash at a strip club. As the old pool joke goes, he would spend his money on booze and women and gambling, and he’d simply fritter away the rest of it.
But that was when he was a road hustler, crisscrossing the lower forty-eight on unending ribbons of asphalt, slinking from town to town, busting the locals, prospecting for that next big score.
Pool hustling is a dying art. In recent years, road action has been knocked” by everything from the poker boom to the proliferation of casinos (which seduce the same species of young, hypercompetitive, incurable gambling men who once frequented pool halls) to three-bucks-a- gallon fuel prices to Internet forums that expose the identity of even the stealthiest of hustlers. But as recently as 2003, no one was plundering the pool halls of North America with more success than Basavich. Back then he was anonymous; only his bloated belly not his reputation preceded him when he walked into a room. Eventually he took on a quality that spells doom for a hustling career: he became notorious. Athletes in other sports gorge themselves on the nectar of fame. But for any pool hustler worth his chalk, even demi-monde celebrity is a professional death sentence. By the winter of 2006, Danny Basavich was no longer a hustler; he was a pro pool player.
After beating Parica, Basavich unscrewed his cue, carefully placed it back in its leather holster, and walked through the Executive West lobby. He headed for the room on the fourth floor that he and Danielle were sharing with another player, Chris Bartram, to defray the $69-a-night tariff. He picked at some leftover Thai food in a container on a desk next to a pile of dirty socks and a well-worn road map. He then cocooned himself in his blanket, trying to get some sleep for the first time in two days. He had another match later that night. If he could win that, he’d be assured of finishing in the money. Which meant he’d be eligible for a whopping $160 jackpot.
Throughout the Derby City Classic, large placards hang high over some of the pool tables, adorned with the words No Gambling.” Or so it appears, anyway. If you look closely, it really says No No Gambling.” In other words, you must gamble,” Greg Sullivan, the event’s organizer and a leading billiards supplier, says with a glint in his eye. A double negative. You follow?” The signs are as good a metaphor as any for the sport. And let’s be clear before we proceed any further: it is a sport. Pool is all angles and perspective and spin. It’s illusion and guile. It’s subterfuge and artifice. And the self-contained culture of the Derby City Classic is contemporary pool distilled to its flavorful essence. The event is like a giant magnet, drawing thousands of hustlers, hucksters, backers, and assorted grifters for an around-the-clock gambling marathon. Derby City,” as everyone calls it, is a top-flight event on the pro pool circuit. But the tournament play can often seem about as relevant to Derby City as religious observance is to Mardi Gras.
It’s about the no no gambling.
At any hour of the day, most of the fifty-one tables throughout the hotel are being used for money games, designated as such by the stack of bills held in escrow atop the fluorescent lights above the tables. The stakes range from a dinner tab to serious timber” one backer called in advance to ascertain whether there was a vault that could hold his $250,000 in cash. The cleanup crew that washes the balls and tends to the table felt every morning has strict instructions to work around games in progress. Gambling and pool have always been intertwined. Even the sport’s name derives from gambling: pool” refers to pooling money to determine odds. The repeated efforts to divorce the two and sanitize pool, to class it up” with smoke-free rooms and sterile, franchised halls with bistro menus and wine lists, have, predictably, failed. Like it or not, the chance to beat the other guy out of his cash is ultimately the lifeblood of the sport.
As Basavich played Parica in a sanctioned match, Cliff Joyner, a portly Atlantan with caramel-colored skin, battled with Cincinnati’s Eric Durbin, an intense, slightly haunted-looking pool sorcerer who claimed he was a few weeks removed from a ten-month drug-related sentence in an Ohio prison. The game was one-pocket as much a mental as a physical exercise, it requires players to sink eight balls into a single designated pocket and the stakes were considerable. Both Joyner and Durbin had arrived in Louisville accompanied by backers. When Joyner offered Durbin a two-ball handicap and the right to break in a four-ahead set” (the first player to seize a four-game lead would win), the backers put up $5,000 apiece. Once word of the handicap passed through the crowd at the hotel, the set generated exponentially more side action, as railbirds scrambled like Wall Street traders to throw money on the break” (Durbin) or the rack” (Joyner).
Joyner and Durbin had started their duel at six the previous evening, and as momentum swayed back and forth like a pendulum, the birds on the rail” who had wagered a small fortune grew more animated. Never mind Basavich versus Parica in the sanctioned match; they were tangential. This was action. As night turned into day, the two players kept at it, taking only brief breaks to drag on cigarettes, mainline Red Bull, or hit the rest room.
Finally, around 6 a.m., Joyner came up with a brilliant flourish of shotmaking and, to the delight of half the room, closed out the set. That’s my motherfucker!” screamed one of Joyner’s backers, now several thousand dollars wealthier, patting the player on his Atlanta Braves cap. For a guy who had just finished twelve straight hours of playing and lost a lot of people a lot of money, Durbin was hardly the picture of despondency. I’ll win it back, no problem,” he said with a thousand-yard stare. Just gotta get back in action.” Almost by definition, pool players are gamblers. Most would put money on a cockroach race if you laid the right odds. The action at Derby City was hardly restricted to the tables. The halls were lined with gin rummy games. Texas hold ’em games were as easy to come by as male pattern baldness. Players flipped coins and pitched quarters and bet with each other on card tricks. Thanks to the wonders of WiFi, one backer played online poker on his laptop as he watched a nine-ball game. There were reports of head-butting contests, spitting contests in the parking lot, high-stakes coin flips, and clubless golf matches, in which players sneaked onto a nearby course and threw their golf balls for eighteen holes. The previous year, Charlie the Hillbilly” Bryant, a well-known pro player, had memorably broken another player’s ulna during a $500 arm-wrestling match in the Executive West bar.
With all the testosterone coursing through the hotel, it was not surprising that word got around of a high-stakes bet over genital endowment. (The loser allegedly glimpsed his adversary’s manhood and forked over his money without enduring further humiliation.) A more resourceful grifter reportedly made bets that I have a cock that hangs below my knee.” When skeptics put up the money, the man rolled up his pant leg to expose a tattoo on his calf: a rooster with its neck in a noose. See?” he said, smiling. A cock. Hanging. Below my knee.” He revealed to one player that he wins around $1,000 a year with the trick, but it has also occasioned a few broken bones. So,” he was said to have explained philosophically, it’s a win-some- lose-some kind of deal.” For those old enough to remember it, Derby City recalls Johnston City, a month-long rackhanalia held in the smoky poolroom of a small Illinois town and nicknamed the Hustlers’ Jamboree.” Run by the infamous Jansco brothers, Johnston City featured such intense gambling that when one player dropped dead of a massive coronary the hustlers at the adjacent table continued their game, repositioning themselves, until the police arrived and took away the corpse.
Johnston City thrived for years. ABC’s Wide World of Sports even filmed the annual event six times, and the show’s director, Chet Forte, a notorious whale of a gambler, allegedly tried to hustle big action in between shifts. But in early 1972, Johnston City was raided by the FBI and the IRS. The feds shut the hall down, padlocking the doors and confiscating the players’ cash and Cadillacs. The soul of Johnston City lives on here in Louisville,” says Toupee” Jay Helfert, a bald-pated veteran roadman, nicknamed for his trick of beating suckers out of their money and then returning a few weeks later disguised in a hairpiece to win again.
The pool world has a vocabulary all its own. Fans are sweaters” and railbirds,” financial backers are stakehorses,” punks and quitters are nits,” double-crossers are dump artists,” and money is cheese,” bones,” cake,” cabbage,” timber,” or dimes.” The Inuit have nineteen different words for snow; the pool world has at least as many for money. It has its own circadian rhythm and internal clock, one that is about twelve hours different from the rest of civilized society. It has its own customs, leather-and-denim-based dress code, even its own cholesterol- laden cuisine. Pool has its particular values and social mores, as folks come and go, appear and disappear intense friendships and alliances form and then dissolve with unusual speed.
And it’s a culture that keeps to itself. Rich and rambunctious as the Derby City Classic scene is, you suspect that the vast majority of Louisvillians have no idea it takes place every year. It certainly isn’t covered in the newspapers or on local sports-radio shows. You wonder how many people drive by the Executive West, see the jammed parking lot, and just assume the Shriners or the Fuller Brush salesmen are holed up inside.
Danny Basavich used to be at the gravitational center of the pool phylum, hustling suckers and getting big action. But now like most pros, suffciently well known that they’re no longer able to play incognito he’s been displaced to the margins. At three or so one morning, he figured he’d spotted one mark he could take down for a few grand, a cocky-looking local kid named Dale, wearing a Louisville Cardinals cap backwards, a brown leather bomber jacket, and a pair of sweatpants. As he’d done countless times before, Basavich would pose as the slovenly fat guy, ask the kid if he wanted to hit a little nine-ball for money, and let prejudice take over. No way can that fatass beat me.
Basavich was on the verge of getting his first money game of the week when the kid’s stakehorse, a lanky Asian slickster in a rugby shirt, intervened.
Dude, you can’t play him,” the stakehorse said, pulling his boy aside and pointing to Basavich. I ain’t backing you against him. He’ll annihilate you.” What are you talking about?” Dale pleaded. You know how good I play.” Fuck, man. Are you fuckin’ kidding? You know who that is?” Nah, who?” said Dale.
Shit, man. That’s Kid Delicious.” The stakehorse then stated what so many others knew, that Kid Delicious guy that obese, hail-fellow- well-met with the ice-breaking personality and paint-peeling voice may well have divorced more pool players from their money than anyone else under the roof.
Copyright © 2007 by L. Jon Wertheim. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.