Cue Ready, Kid Delicious Finds Calling on 'the Felt' Danny "Kid Delicious" Basavich was a depressed, overweight teen when he found his true calling in smoky billiards halls. In his new book, Running the Table, L. Jon Wertheim chronicles Basavich's rise as one of the country's best pool players.

Cue Ready, Kid Delicious Finds Calling on 'the Felt'

Cue Ready, Kid Delicious Finds Calling on 'the Felt'

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Danny "Kid Delicious" Basavich dropped out of high school in the 1990s and went on to become a legendary pool player. Diana Hoppe hide caption

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Diana Hoppe

Danny "Kid Delicious" Basavich dropped out of high school in the 1990s and went on to become a legendary pool player.

Diana Hoppe

Danny Basavich found salvation from depression in smoky billiard halls.

Basavich was a depressed high school dropout when he started hanging out at pool halls. Eventually he became "Kid Delicious," professional pool's biggest sensation.

In his new book, Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler, L. Jon Wertheim, a writer at Sports Illustrated, documents the New Jersey native's rise from local pool-hall hustler to tournament pro. The affable, overweight Basavich started his career hanging out at Elite Billiards in Marlboro, N.J., and realized he loved the atmosphere and had a passion for the game. At 17, he took on the moniker "Kid Delicious" and found a sidekick, Bristol Bob, a suave pool perfectionist.

Running the Table tells the story of the unlikely pair's four years on the road. Wertheim describes the colorful subculture they encounter at billiards halls across the country. In one night, Kid Delicious and Bristol Bob make $30,000, only to lose it the next. When Bristol Bob becomes a crystal meth addict, Kid Delicious strikes out on his own, winning some major tournaments.

Scott Simon spoke with Kid Delicious about his life, and learned a few trick moves on the "the felt."

Excerpt: 'Running the Table'

Book Cover of 'Running the Table'

Chapter 1: The Opening Break

Credit the hungarian. Credit ol' Andy Nozsaly, or Nozaly, or maybe Sozaly. Something like that. He's no longer with us, and no one seems quite sure what the hell his exact name was anyway. But credit him for the opening break, as it were, in Danny Basavich's narrative.

During an oppressively hot summer in central New Jersey, when Danny was fourteen, he found a job working for Nozsaly's furniture restoration business. Doris and Dave Basavich were all for it. Their son was a heavyset kid, not exactly teeming with ambition, and this menial job would get him out of the house, fire him with some sense of responsibility, and even put a little money in his wallet.

So every weekend, in air as sticky as cotton candy, Danny would get on his bike and head to the Englishtown Auction, a flea market in Manalapan, New Jersey, to help out the old man. Sweating enthusiastically through his T-shirt, the kid would lug mahogany tables, apply coats of varnish to desks, and restring wicker chairs. At the end of the day, after he'd loaded everything into Andy's truck, he'd open his palm. The old man would do the math — "eleffen hours at vor dollars an hour, carry ze vun . . ." — and put forty or fifty hard-earned dollars in the kid's pudgy hands. Danny would blow his cash on video games and ice cream and other fleeting teenage pleasures. Then he would be back the next Saturday morning to repeat the drill.

Midway through that brutal summer, Danny spent a lunch break trolling the flea market for bargains. He stumbled on the baseball card concession and made a breathtaking discovery. That year, the Upper Deck brand scattered bonus cards in certain packs, which made them slightly thicker than the regular packs. Using the micrometer he had in his pocket, Danny could, without opening the pack, figure out which ones contained the valuable bonus cards. He would buy only those packs, then promptly resell the valuable cards at a huge markup.

And he realized something else: the Topps brand always put cards into packs in the same sequence. So if, say, Ken Griffey Jr. followed Carlos Baerga once, he followed him every time. By opening the wrapper the slightest bit and peeking at the last card, Danny could determine the contents of the entire pack. He would purchase choice packs for $1 and sell the contents for ten times that. Pretty soon, Danny had little use for Andy's sweatshop. Four bucks an hour to lug furniture? Hell, he could make a few hundred bucks a week buying and selling the right packs of baseball cards.

As Danny's spending habits grew more extravagant, Doris and Dave grew suspicious. He reassured them that, no, he wasn't selling drugs, stealing, or doing anything illegal. Beyond the money, the scheme filled him with an intoxicating rush. Using wile and guile, he was outsmarting the rest of the world. His conduct resided somewhere in an ethical gray area. He wasn't technically earning the money, but neither was he outright stealing it. A con. A grift. A hustle. A smudging of the line between right and wrong. Whatever, it came with a spike in adrenaline, and it felt good.

Doris and Dave Basavich owned a women's clothing shop in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, and for the first twelve years of Danny's life the family lived near the store. When the neighborhood started to slide, they decamped for New Jersey, seeking the trappings of suburban life. They kept the store, and for Doris and Dave, the hour-long commute from Jersey to Brooklyn was a small sacrifice to make in exchange for safer, more comfortable surroundings. But it meant that Danny and his younger sister, Kimberly, were frequently on their own. With his parents working late hours at the shop, Danny was free to eat as he pleased, and as any unsupervised teenager would, he made Big Macs, Klondike bars, and gobstoppers the cornerstone of his diet. He wasn't just growing up quickly, he was growing out quickly too.

If teen obesity is now a hot-button topic, affecting a staggering one in three adolescents, Danny was ahead of the trend. By the time he reached bar mitzvah age in the early 1990s, his weight was north of two hundred pounds. He wasn't just fat; he was shaped a bit like a brandy snifter, with normal-sized legs suddenly sprouting into a bulge of an abdomen. Before Danny's freshman year of high school, Doris and Dave sent him to Camp Shane, a weight-loss camp in upstate New York. ("Lighten up at Camp Shane!" gushes the familiar weekly ad in the back of the New York Times Magazine.)

Danny has two enduring memories from that summer. He made a fortune selling contraband candy bars to other plump campers with little will power. And not only was he agile and athletic enough to win the camp tennis tournament; he also beat the best player from the "thin kids' camp" across the lake. He recalls it as "a scene from a movie," all those heavyset kids cheering him on against the skinny, preppy kid from the monied camp. He doubts he was ever more popular than he was that day.

Danny lost thirty pounds that summer, but when he returned to New Jersey, he promptly gained the weight back. Not that it bothered him much. Like a lot of overweight kids, he cultivated both a thick skin and a finely calibrated defense mechanism, poking fun at his physique before anyone else could. He was an outgoing, modestly popular kid who didn't give his parents much trouble. He did well in school. He had friends. He was prone to "low periods," days of pitch darkness when he could scarcely haul himself out of bed. But what teenager doesn't have moody spells? Doris and Dave chalked it up to adolescence.

In the fall of 1992, Danny entered his freshman year at Manalapan High School. A massive public school in the belly of New Jersey, MHS could have been plucked from a Bruce Springsteen video. The suburban school had a rigid caste system, one that didn't much accommodate freshmen, particularly ones with squawky voices who looked as though they had swallowed a blast furnace.

Danny didn't fit in, but neither was he invisible. If Manalapan High had the usual tribes — jocks, geeks, Goths, stoners — Danny was a grifter. He was the kid who would buy candy and Rice Krispies Treats in bulk and surreptitiously hawk them at a steep markup between classes. He ran the poker game during study hall and the football pool on Fridays. School was less a place of learning than a place of business, his peers not so much classmates as suckers. Relishing the same rush he got fleecing the other guys by selling them prize baseball cards, Danny was making $500 a week just by going to school. He was always looking for an edge, an angle, looking for what he would later call "the nuts."

Early in his sophomore year, Danny got busted for running the football pool. The principal demanded names. Reluctantly, Danny ratted out some of his classmates, and, overnight, it wasn't only clothes that he had trouble fitting into. The bullies shoved him against lockers, hid his jacket, knocked books out of his arms. Danny and his parents met with a "child study team" at the high school: a school psychologist, a guidance counselor, and two teachers who vowed to help kids solve their problems. Nothing much came of it. Their attitude was: You're fat, you deserve to be picked on.

Danny once watched another target of the bullies try to fight back. The kid was hogtied to a motorcycle and dragged down the street. He woke up in the hospital. Danny decided that taking the abuse beat the alternative. As is usually the case with bullies, for all their punches in the gut and slaps on the neck, the real beatings Danny took were emotional ones. As a matter of ritual, he was being humiliated in front of his friends, and worse, in front of the girls. He was the object of an unending stream of fat jokes. He grew paranoid and thought his classmates were making fun of him even when they weren't. Danny realized that he was being so careful about what he said and did — sifting every comment, every move, to try to ensure it wouldn't trigger a taunt — he stopped being himself.

Eventually the bullies broke him. After a particularly brutal tormenting session, he ran out of class in the middle of the day and took refuge in the woods behind the school. He was asleep when the police found him. He vowed that he had spent his last day at Manalapan High.

An old saying has it that proficiency at pool is a sure sign of a misspent youth. In Danny's case, pool may well have saved his life. A high school dropout at the age of fifteen, Danny entered a period of unrelenting malaise. He would sleep for entire days and, when he finally woke, eat unholy quantities of food. He had always endured stretches — "full-moon phases," his parents called them — when his energy lagged, when he cried though he couldn't explain why, when he was consumed by feelings of worthlessness and sometimes worse. But now the full-moon phase was showing no sign of letting up.

He was suffering from what was obviously deep depression. Save eating, he lost interest in every activity that once gave him pleasure. His weight climbed steadily. He gave his prize possessions — bowling balls, tennis rackets, trophies — to his father and told his parents not to feel guilty if anything bad happened to him. That's when Dave Basavich got scared. My gosh, he thought, my kid doesn't want to live anymore. He and Doris took Danny to a child psychologist, who quickly made the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Danny already knew that his body was unsound; he didn't want to hear that his mind wasn't working right either — not realizing, of course, that his weight and his depression were inextricably linked. He tried his best to ignore the diagnosis and never returned for a second therapy session. The shrink prescribed antidepressants, but Danny claimed that they made him "feel like I'm not myself," and threw them away. So he suffered.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey child-welfare authorities, alarmed by the disappearance of the chunky sophomore, went after Doris and Dave. Danny would have to attend school until he turned sixteen or else he would be removed from home. Dave and Doris begged for their son to be transferred to the high school in nearby Freehold or Marlboro. The authorities said no: the semester had already started, and besides, what kind of message would that be sending the kid? He needed to confront his problems, not run away from them. Dave suggested home-schooling, but that request, too, was denied. "Look," Dave told the investigator on a home visit, "if he's forced to go back to school, he's going to kill himself." The investigator was unmoved.

Though Dave Basavich was Jewish and Doris was Protestant, they enrolled Danny in a private Catholic school. Doris and Dave dropped off their son on his first day. He felt ridiculous dressed in an ill-fitting white shirt, black pants, and clunky dress shoes that squeaked when he walked. But he made it through the first week without incident. Then, on the bus ride home, a thug friendly with the bullies at Manalapan High recognized Fat Danny and threatened to beat him up. That was Danny's last day at Catholic school.

Next Danny was enrolled in Old Bridge Adult High School, a nearby alternative school filled mostly with young mothers who had dropped out of high school when they'd become pregnant. He had to attend classes for only an hour a day, three days a week. The rest of the class work he could do at home. The only male in his class, Danny finished six semesters' worth of high school courses in less than six months. It was awesome, he says. He wasn't even sixteen, and already he had a high school diploma. Another fleece, another corner successfully cut.

He quickly realized, though, that when you're fifteen and through with school, when you have no girlfriend and no driver's license, and when you live in suburbia (before the dawn of the Internet and 200-channel satellite TV), there are a finite number of ways to spend your days. On a typical lazy afternoon not long after his graduation, Danny tried to thwart boredom by riding his bike down Route 9 to Elite Billiards, a pool hall in Marlboro. He'd been in Elite a few times and figured there were worse places to wile away some hours. Hospitable in its way, the hall had twenty-eight well-kept mahogany tables and a few seven-foot co-op seven-by-seven barboxes, the seven-foot tables. There was a genial owner, a full bar, and a cast of regulars who, like crazy uncles, were more endearingly quirky than dangerous. As pool halls went, Elite could almost pass for upscale.

Danny had always liked pool, though he played only casually. His introduction to the sport had come early: his maternal grandfather, John Schust, was an accomplished shark who claimed to have won a car by hustling back in the 1930s, and he taught his grandson basic technique. A Sears barbox table took up space in the Basaviches' basement, and though it was mainly used to fold laundry, Danny played sporadically and even won twenty bucks from time to time in money games against his friends. The act of thrusting a stick into a ball — sometimes violently, sometimes as delicately as swaddling a baby in a blanket — had come easily to him. And, odd for someone so restless in a school classroom, at the table Danny displayed exceptional patience and powers of concentration.

That afternoon at Elite Billiards, as he hit balls alone in the dim light, shafts of sun bouncing off the table, Danny was, for the first time, truly mesmerized. By the mix of simplicity and complexity. By the limitless possibilities every table presented. By the angles. By the peculiar rhythm. By the way you could lace a cue ball with just the right amount of spin and turn it into a guided missile. By the way time dilated when you played. Soon he lost himself in what serious pool players call "the green felt ocean." He'd break the balls and begin a game of solitaire, and when he next looked at the clock, hours had elapsed.

He'd rack the balls and walk to the other end of the table. Imitating the pros he'd occasionally seen on television, he'd chalk his cue a few times, survey the table, take a few practice strokes. Then he'd break the balls, an act he likened to cracking an egg, the contents splattering in different directions. Working his way around the table, he'd take aim at the balls in ascending numerical order. Each time one fell into a pocket, it provided Danny a small but unmistakable euphoric jolt. Soon he set challenges for himself. There were fifteen balls on the table. If he gave himself, say, twenty-four attempts, could he make all fifteen disappear? Okay. Now, could he clear the table in twenty-three tries?

He was back at Elite the next day, and the day after that. When he was with his parents and sister on the weekends, he could only think about returning to the pool hall and trying a new spin or a different pattern of balls. Fortunately, Jay, the kindly owner, had taken a liking to Danny and charged him a flat rate of $10 a day in table time.

His crying fits had subsided, and he was no longer waking up eighteen hours after he fell asleep. His parents and sister joked that Danny's sullen alter ego — the guy who moped and cried and ate and then went back to sleep — "had gone back into hibernation." Pool was in fact Danny's therapy, his sanctuary. Screw the bullies at Manalapan High. Screw the fat jokes. Screw the girls who didn't give him the time of day. Screw the unsympathetic teachers who blamed him and his physique for his troubles. The maple pool cue felt like a pistol in his hands, instilling in him power and self-confidence. The feelings of worthlessness and the suicidal thoughts were retreating. Relieved that their son's mental health had seemed to stabilize, Doris and Dave Basavich once asked Danny to explain: why pool? Danny stuttered and mumbled and then replied, "It makes me feel alive."

Already equipped with general technique, Danny soon picked up pool's nuances. Standing before the table, he could manipulate balls any way he wanted, finding angles and vectors that seemed to violate geometric axioms and the laws of motion. He could hit the cue ball just right and it would perform like a dog that had successfully completed obedience school. He noticed that other players were watching him, whistling in admiration when he drilled a cut shot or worked his way out of a cluster.

It was reciprocal romance. For the first time in his life, he was good — scarily good — at something. While Danny wasn't going to win the hundred-yard dash or dunk a basketball or break open-field tackles in football, he discovered that he was a world-class athlete of a different kind: his hand-eye coordination, his manual dexterity, his feel were one in a million. As for his bloated belly and his nonexistent physical fitness, well, they didn't much matter. Sure, a few minutes into a practice session he would be basted in perspiration, streams of sweat opening on his brow, under his arms, around his belly. Sure, lacking in flexibility, he might need to use a bridge (that implement that looks like a branding iron, used to reach distant balls) more often than other players. But he could still execute all the shots, and fueled, perhaps, by adrenaline, he hardly ever grew fatigued at the table.

He wasn't merely good at pool; he was a natural. Unlike the piano and tennis and other activities he'd tried as a kid, he didn't need an instructor. Everything about pool seemed to make such inherent sense. Of course you need to angle the cue ball to the left when aiming at a ball across the table. Of course you need to adjust your stick for more steeply angled shots. Anything else would have felt unnatural, illogical.

And Danny quickly grasped the cardinal rule for improvement: practice your weaknesses. He had mastered cut shots and tricky caroms and three-rail kicks and long shots. He knew how to apply the right amount of draw, or backspin, so the cue ball hits the object ball and retreats, as though it had suddenly thought better of moving forward. So instead Danny devoted his time to improving his break, his spin, his ability to break up a cluster. Before long, he had advanced from a C player to a B player.

Happy that something was finally igniting their son's pilot light, Doris and Dave said nothing when Danny spent upward of sixteen hours a day at Elite. They figured it was a phase, and the same way he outgrew his Star Wars action figures and baseball cards, this intense interest in pool eventually would abate too. When it did, they'd help him find a job or apply to college. But in a matter of weeks, Danny's high run of balls went from ten to twenty to thirty. Like so many serious players, he likened it all to an addiction. He woke up thinking about pool. All he wanted during the day was a dose of pool. And when he got it, he was euphoric. Then he went to bed anticipating his next fix.

If the sport itself held him in thrall, so did the ambiance at Elite. He loved the confluence of chalk and stale beer and the subtle undertones of secondhand smoke that lingered in the air. He loved the classic rock — Jethro Tull and Bad Company and Led Zeppelin and Bachman-Turner Overdrive — that served as a sort of auditory wallpaper. He loved the faintly menacing hustlers, the shortstops (good local players), the railbirds, and the other "men of the cloth," with names like Blood, the Claw, Neptune Joe, Gypsy Bob, the Exterminator, Mark the Shark, and the Peruvian Prince. They were twice Danny's age and seemed to have no obvious source of income or gainful employment. (Except for the Exterminator, who, as Danny came to understand it, really did slay vermin during the day.) But they took him under their collective wing and happily shared their tricks. He cracked them up with his jokes, awed them with his skill, and treated them with a reverence that suggested he felt lucky to be in their presence.

One afternoon, Mark the Shark bet Danny five bucks he couldn't make a particularly difficult cut shot. When Danny did, Mark reached for his wallet. "You can keep your money," Danny said, "if you look me in the eye and say at the top of your lungs, 'Danny Basavich is the future of pool.' "

Mark started to speak when Danny stopped him. "I'm just playin' around. I don't want no one to overhear you and think I'm cocky."

Danny may have been an outcast in the halls of his generic suburban high school or in the typical New Jersey mall. But in the pool hall, among this most motley of crews, he found kindred spirits. At Elite Billiards, the misfits fit in.

Self-taught at first, Danny leaned on the regulars for advice and tips. Instead of taking formal lessons, he spent incalculable hours "sweating" the top players and then unleashing a barrage of questions. When Neptune Joe Frady or Al Lapena, a refugee from the Philippines who hustled countless sops by pretending that he didn't speak English, would finish a game, Danny would be waiting. Why didn't you go for the nine combo when the seven was hugging the rail? What were you thinking when you played that safety? Why did you go for the cut shot and not the double bank? He made them all feel important, validating what they did and indulging them with a postgame interview, much the way athletes in other sports are besieged by reporters after hitting the winning jump shot or slamming the walk-off home run. Everybody benefited. They got their egos stroked; he got a wealth of free advice.

At one point, Neptune Joe offered Danny pool's version of a Zen riddle: "What is the difference between a very good player and a great player?" The answer: "A very good player will practice a shot until he gets it right; a great player will practice it until he never gets it wrong." Danny internalized the message.

The next step entailed taking on the superior players and getting "match play," even if it came at a price. Neptune Joe, the best player in New Jersey at the time, would spot Danny the five-and-out — Danny needed only to sink the five ball to win — and still beat him badly. For two years straight, Danny reckons he made a weekly habit of enriching Frady by $25 or $50. Donating, they call it. He figured that playing against stiff competition was the best way to improve his stick and rationalized it as a cheap private lesson. Plus, he was making plenty of money the other six days of the week by thrashing the weaker players. Before long, he was riding his ten-speed to Elite and often winning enough money to take a taxi home with the bike in the trunk. He'd pull up in a cab, give the driver a $20 tip, put some money in his parents' vault, and go to sleep feeling as if he were the biggest of the big shots.

He was an honest kid who stayed out of trouble and had no problem differentiating between right and wrong. But somehow the choreography of the bamboozle — the laying of the trap, the play-acting, the assumption of other identities — was almost as much fun as the game itself. As rapidly as Danny picked up the nuances of the table, he was also a quick study of the thermodynamics of the hustle. And the first rule of hustling — just get the other guy to the damn table; the stakes will escalate on their own — played to his core strength of making everyone in his orbit feel comfortable.

An early hustle entailed riding his bike to a nearby college campus — Kean, Rutgers, once Princeton. His first stop was the campus bookshop. If they had his size, he would buy a sweatshirt. Then he would finagle his way into the dining hall, grab a piece of chocolate cake, repair to a toilet stall, and smear some cake on his sweatshirt and face. He would then walk into the campus pool hall, provoking taunts and giggles, and purposely fumble a stash of hundreds as he tried to buy a Coke in the vending machine.

Invariably, he'd be asked to put $20 on a game. The college kid would win and then call his friends. Come down here quick! I got this clumsy, fatass freshman ready to gamble away a stack of hundreds! Eventually, when the stakes had reached sufficiently large proportions, Danny would run rack after rack, busting the frat boys — sweet payback for all those times he'd been teased about his weight.

Every Wednesday night, Elite was the site of a tournament that drew the best hustlers from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Everyone ponied up $50, and by the time fifty or sixty players had entered, a nice payday hung in the balance. Based on the honor system — always a dodgy proposition when pool hustlers were involved — the players handicapped their own games and were spotted balls accordingly. The pros were fifteens, the B players sevens and eights. Though Danny was a ten or eleven, he sandbagged down to a seven. Few knew how well he really played, and he sure didn't look like a pool shark. So when he played pros the likes of Neptune Joe Frady or Frankie Hernandez, Danny would get the five, six, seven, eight, and nine. Soon he was winning the $3,000 pot.

That's when he first started showing a streak of confidence that had eluded him in every other part of his life. He'd tell opponents that they shouldn't feel bad about losing because he was going to be a pro one day. "They're going to talk about me after I'm dead." Perhaps because he said it with a smile, perhaps because he had the sort of body that resisted serious treatment, no one paid him much mind.

At seventeen, he had a novel experience: he met a girl who liked him. Danielle Graziano wasn't just attractive, she was also unbothered by Danny's rolls of fat. "Who wants to snuggle up with a twig?" she told him. They'd met at the pool hall, and though they lived a few towns apart, they connived ways to meet at a mall or a park. Danny liked her plenty, but after a few weeks he had to cut her loose. "You're a great girl, but you're taking away from my pool playing," he told her. Here he was, a seventeen-year-old virgin, desperate for a steady, cute girlfriend. He finally wins the lottery and then rips up the ticket. That's how much pool meant to him.

Like mobsters and boxers, pool players don't truly come into their own until they assume a nickname. So it is that the Republic of Pool is populated with a Scorpion (Johnny Archer) and a Black Widow (Jeanette Lee), a Gunslinger (Dave Matlock) and a Rifle-man (Buddy Hall), a Freezer (Scott Frost) as well as an Ice Man (Mika Immonen). Not unlike acquiring a tattoo, taking on a handle is a rite of selfhood, a means of expressing a personal totem. Nicknames run the spectrum from the menacing ("the Lion," "the Cobra") to the geographic ("Spanish Mike," who is in fact Puerto Rican) to the euphonious ("Scott the Shot," "Shannon the Cannon," "Earl the Pearl"). Some are clever. "Weenie Beanie" Bill Staton, who once appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, was so nicknamed because he made his real money from the hot dog stands he owned. Others are quirky. Take the New York–based player George SanSouci, who goes by the moniker "Ginky," the first "word" he spoke as a baby. Apart from conferring a sense of status, nicknames also serve a practical purpose in the pool world. For a player who dreams of one day marketing himself to the mainstream, "Minnesota Fats" is a hell of a lot catchier than his given name, Rudolph Wanderone. (For that matter, as a player Willie Mosconi was far superior to Minnesota Fats but far less notorious, largely because he lacked the showbiz instincts, including a killer handle.)

As a teenager, Basavich was, inevitably, known as "Fat Danny." For obvious reasons, he hoped for a nickname that was a little more flattering. But, much like his clothes, nothing quite seemed to fit — not "Handsome Dan," not "the Jewish Jester," not "the Boss," an homage to Bruce Springsteen, the bard of New Jersey, who lived a few towns over. He was still Danny Basavich d/b/a "Danny Basavich" when, at age seventeen, he drove to Chelsea Billiards in Manhattan on a Saturday night.

Though it has since been reincarnated as a trendy, upscale hall that sells ahi tuna entrees and premium champagne at the bar, in its heyday Chelsea Billiards was a spacious, down-and-dirty "players' room" in the heart of New York City which in Danny's eyes took on the dimensions of an urban castle.

The place drew an evening crowd of casual players, bored college kids, and couples — gay and straight — on an inexpensive date. But as the night progressed and the last baseball and basketball games played out on the big-screen televisions, Chelsea morphed into a hustlers' paradise with lots of action. The best players on the East Coast showed up and brought their backers. The rail was a kaleidoscope of square jaws, flinty eyes, satin jackets, polyester pants, gold chains, and bad comb-overs. It wasn't unusual for players to get a game for a few hundred a set and then wager four or five (or ten) times that by betting on the side.

At the time, a slender, flashy, up-and-coming player, Eddie Hubler, was the beau prince among the railbirds. Nicknamed "Kid Vicious," Hubler was winning big and had a legion of backers. Danny hadn't smeared cake on his sweatshirt or poured beer in his hair, but when he walked in, he looked as slovenly as ever. He had been to Chelsea once before, several months back, and got hustled for a few hundred bucks. On this night, forty-two hundred-dollar bills were tucked in various pockets of his baggy pants. He took a table and warmed up alone without drawing much notice from the railbirds. At two in the morning, he asked one of them, "Who's the best player here?" When the bird answered "Kid Vicious," Danny nodded and said, "Think he'll play me even?"

Taking Danny for a fat slob, drunk on either Jack Daniel's or self-delusion, the railbirds quickly brokered a game. Danny and Vicious would play a set for $1,400. Danny then bet the remaining $2,800 in his bankroll with the railbirds. That $4,200 was all he had to his name. Had he lost, he would've had to drive back to New Jersey on local roads, to avoid turnpike tolls. But his thinking at the time was blissfully simple: there was no way he was going to lose. It was just not in the realm of possibility. So why not try to bet as much as he could?

The concept of mental strength takes on a curious dimension for a player given to pitched battles with depression and regular crying fits. But from the time he began playing competitively, Danny possessed an uncanny ability to shoo away distractions and conjure his best pool at critical moments. It wasn't so much that, like all the best athletes, he elevated his game when the pressure was ratcheted highest. It was more that he didn't perceive the situation as particularly stressful. "Why would I get nervous?" he wondered. "I'm doing what I love and I have a chance to win money. Why would anyone be nervous about that? I'm nervous when I'm depressed. The whole reason I play pool in the first place is because it doesn't make me nervous."

To the dismay and stunned amusement of the railbirds, the heavy, unshaven kid with the gravelly voice was a peerless player. His early lead took the noise right out of the place, and he polished off Kid Vicious with a flourish of shotmaking. Doing his best to conceal a smile, he took his $4,200. Suddenly his wallet was swollen like it had never been before. As he unscrewed his stick and prepared to leave Chelsea, an embittered railbird whistled and then cracked, "Kid Vicious just got hustled by Kid Delicious."

Everyone laughed. Danny figured it was yet another fat joke. But here he was, $4,200 richer than when he'd walked in. He had just played jam-up pool to pull off a score. It was going to take a hell of a lot more to dampen his mood. On his way out, he said it to himself: Kid Delicious. Kid Delicious. Damn if it didn't have a nice ring to it. Thus was born one of the catchier noms de pool the sport has ever known.

He had yet to turn eighteen, and already Kid Delicious was running out of honest competition around New Jersey, and hus¬tling near home had a limited shelf life. Sure, he could always head to a college campus and swindle a frat boy out of a few hundred bucks. But any local player worth busting for real money was getting the wire on that fat kid with the unforgettable nickname. Banging balls at Elite one night, Kid Delicious discussed his fate with the regulars. "Danny," Neptune Joe said, "I know what I would do if I was you and really serious about getting better. Get my ass to Chicago Billiards up in Connecticut. Start playing outta there and you'll get a Ph.D. in hustling."

Copyright © 2007 by L. Jon Wertheim. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.