"Running the Table"
Editor's Note: "Running the Table" recounts the story of Danny (Kid Delicious) Basavich, who, after dropping out of his New Jersey high school in the 1990s, went from being a suicidal, morbidly overweight teen to a legendary pool hustler. (Click here to watch a short video clip of Kid Delicious hitting trick shots.) During his time on the road, he won money in each of the Lower 48 states, took $20,000 off the Philadelphia mob, and disarmed as many players as he hustled with his irrepressible charm. His unlikely road partner was (Bristol) Bob Begey, a handsome, physically fit, ruthlessly intense hothead -- everything Kid Delicious wasn't.
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The man with the throaty Chi-CAW-go accent could have passed for an extra from the old "Da Bears" skits on Saturday Night Live. His thinning hair was slicked back, his gut that had clearly housed its share of kielbasa and amber-colored beverages, and his jowly face carried an I'm-being-dead-serious-here expression. He was wearing a satin jacket and a pair of jangling bracelets that reflected in the overheard light. He spoke with a strange cadence, his voice suddenly shooting up as he emphasized words that didn't necessarily merit emphasis. Hard as he may have tried to play the part of tough-talking badass, the facade was quickly overwhelmed by his natural charisma.
His name was Greg Smith, but he had identified himself to Bristol and Delicious as a "Pool Detective," whatever the hell that meant. They weren't sure why he had arranged this meeting in non-descript Merrillville, Indiana. Weirder still, it quickly morphed into a pool quiz.
"So if me and you'se playing for $500 A RACK and you bust me and walk out with $5,000, how many racks have you beat me?"
"Uh, ten," Delicious replied.
"Wrong," Smith growled. "Eleven. KNOW why? Because if you're a REAL POOL PLAYER, you give the guy a free game. A gapper, a walking stick, CALL IT whatever you want. You beat him five large and you say, 'This one's on me. Beat me and I pay you $500. I beat you, and you owe me nothing."
"Why would you do that?" Bob snapped.
"Two reasons. First, out of respect. He had the heart to gamble with you. He's another pool player trying to make a living. He got kids that need food and diapers, a car that needs gas. Second, your reputation is crucial. You never know when you're going to bump into him again, when you might need a spot or a loan or whatever. Treat people right and you get PAID BACK in spades."
Delicious and Bristol exchanged looks: This guy is a trip but he's making sense.
"Okay, here's another one," Smith said. "If you see me playing and think you can beat me, what the first thing you say to me?"
"Know anyone here who likes to play for a little money?" Delicious offered.
Bristol suggested, "Know anyone who likes to play some pool and make it interesting?"
"Not bad," Smith said approvingly. "But you just gave yourself away as a guy who talks the talk. You say something goofy,''Know if there's any MONEY sticks in here?' and they'll think you're such a DOO-FUS they'll be linin' up to play ya!"
Then, with the passion of a preacher in a revival tent, Smith recounted the story of "California" Jack, a renowned road hustler from San Francisco. Jack is a hell of a pool player. But he is an even more adept hustler.
Jack is known to get the name of a "rainmaker" -- a guy who thinks nothing of losing six figures -- and then thoroughly research everything he can about the guy. Jack will then move to the town and meticulously set his trap. A favorite ruse: he poses as a disheveled, unemployed school teacher and spends weeks getting to know his whale at the local diner or the VFW hall, never even venturing into the pool hall. Finally, the whale will ask his nerdy schoolteacher friend if he wants to play pool. A few weeks later they'll play for a little money. A few weeks after that, they'll play for a bigger sum. Finally, when the stakes are sufficiently high -- and Jack had insinuated himself so deeply into the community that it is inconceivable he is a hustler -- he'll play full speed and bust the guy for $100,000. "That guy made more money than anyone because HE WAS smart," Smith asserted, now, unaccountably, screaming. "You know what he looks like? No? Neither do I. Know why? Because he's smart. He only shows up when he knew THERE WAS action. "
Finally, after the long prologue, Smith offered his sales pitch to Bristol and Delicious. "It's obvious you guys have talent and can make some real money," Smith said matter-of-factly. "But it's also obvious that you don't know what the heck you're doing out here. You gotta be smart. You gotta KNOW in what ORDER to play guys. You gotta KNOW who to stay away from. You gotta KNOW who has the big backers and who doesn't. A few bad decisions and you're DONE."
Here, Kid Delicious lines up a shot.
He looked at Delicious and scolded him for showing his face at the Merrilville tournament. "You know how many guys are here that you'll want to hustle one day? They're all gonna REC-A-NIZE you now!" At some level, Bristol and Delicious knew the central tenet of road playing but it had never completely crystallized. Now Smith spelled it out in unambiguous terms. "In other sports you want to be known. In this one, once you're known the jig is up. The clock IS TICKIN', always tickin'. You can make a lot of money or a little money. It's UPTA you."
Finally, Delicious took the bait. "What are you gonna do to help us?"
A star high school athlete -- so he asserts, anyway -- in Illinois in the 60s, Smith has spent the past forty years on the fringes of sports. One of his many best friends was a harness racer at Arlington Park and Smith was often at the track, making use of inside information. Another purported best friend, Chico Walker, once a Cubs outfielder of minor distinction, had tried to get Smith a job working the clubhouse at Wrigley Field. Smith worked in the locker rooms of various posh golf clubs around Chicago where, he claims, NBA players would regularly tip him hundreds.
Early on, Smith discovered that his real talent in life was handicapping pool matches. He always played a decent game, certainly well enough to know what to look for. One glimpse at a player, and he didn't just assess the talent level but also the guy's ballast under pressure, his stamina, his temperament. Plus, with an easy manner, Smith was a social guy, able to chat up anyone. He gleaned plenty of information about other players -- who was looking for action, who had just come into money, who was playing well, who was getting divorced or drinking too much or had a habit of giving too much weight -- without arousing suspicion.
Before long, Smith became a one-man clearinghouse for information about the Chicago pool scene -- what's player X's true speed, what's player Y's game of choice, what's player Z's gambling weakness. Then his territory expanded to all of Illinois, then to the Midwest and, finally, the entire country. Today, Smith rarely sets foot in pool halls. But, by working the phones, cultivating a network of bird dogs, and housing countless road players as they pass through Chicago, he is, in this circumscribed world, all-knowing. When big action rolls into Oklahoma City, Smith hears about it. When that rich kid in Atlanta is burning through his inheritance playing 9-ball games, Smith is on the case. "When I call myself the Pool Detective, I mean it," he boasts. "I got eyes and ears in every pool hall in the damn country."
Intelligence and inside information have value in every industry. Pool is no different. With a spot book -- a pool Rolodex of sorts -- the size of the Manhattan phone book, Smith has a real cottage industry going. A pool lodestar of sorts, he steers players to action. When they win, he gets a percentage of the bounty. In the rare event that they lose, he has risked nothing. "But that don't never happen," he says breezily. "Go where I send you, you play who I tell ya to play and you don't lose."
How does Smith know whether he is properly compensated? "Like I say, I got eyes and ears in every pool hall. A guy wins five grand and tells me he only won two thousand, I'm gonna find out real fast what really happened. I'm not gonna do anything crazy to get my money. But I'm not gonna take his calls again. But, honestly, there have only been a few times I ever got stiffed. These guys are pretty honest. At least when it comes to me."
For Bristol and Delicious both, their interest was piqued and Smith could sense as much. "Here's how it works with me: the games are won before you ever set foot in the place. You just do as I tell you, play everyone in the order I tell you, and don't do anything stupid once you win a little money, and everyone wins."
"How much of a cut do you get?" Bob asked.
"Twenty percent jelly roll."
"What if we lose?"
"Do what I say and you ain't gonna lose. These ain't FIFTY-FIFTY propositions. They're EIGHTY-TWENTY propositions. At WORST."
"How do we know you're not working for someone else and setting us up?"
Like a drug dealer who gives a potential client his initial hit of crystal meth for free, Smith offered Delicious a "no-obligation" spot. "Warsaw, Indiana. Small town not far from Fort Wayne. Take you just a few hours to get there from here. Nice place. Went there the summer before last. Did some fishing by a lake during the day and won a bunch of money playing straight pool and nine ball at night. Guy named Earl owns a pool hall. Loves to gamble. Guy from Ohio, Bucky Bell, has been living at Earl's hall for weeks. Bucky's been around forever and he used to play great, beat everyone in the country on a bar table. Now he's showing his age. But over there at Earl's, everyone thinks he's the Tiger Woods of pool. There's a Chinaman backer who's won a few grand with Bucky and thinks he's automatic money.
"Here's what you do. Check into the motel down the road from the pool hall. Bucky is living there too, so be careful not to make yourselves known. Have yourselves a nice dinner. Get down to Earl's. Have Bristol get a game real fast against DEM KIDS always hanging out there. Win a little money, maybe twenty bucks a game. But don't show no speed. Then beat Bucky pretty close. He'll get his backer and come back wanting you, Delicious. Set up a game, try to get some weight and then beat up on ol' Bucky. Then get the hell outta Warsaw."
When he was finished, Bob and Delicious held each other's gaze. They didn't need to confer.
"You got a deal," Bob said. "How do we pay you when we've won? Western Union?"
"SCREW WESTERN Union!" said Smith. "They take like ten percent. It'll cost you a hundred bucks to send me a thousand. Just go to DA POST OFFICE. Fill out a money order and send it overnight. It'll COST YA a few bucks."
"What do we call you, anyway?" Danny asked.
"Whatever you want, long as you pay me."
"How about 007?"
Bristol and Delicious slept into the early afternoon and then motored back across northern Indiana, bound for Warsaw. The view from the various state roads was all patchwork farms, cornfields and water towers. Still shaking their heads about 007, they shared a measure of skepticism, but figured they were risking little. And reluctant as they were to admit it, a "pool detective" was precisely what they needed. They shared an ironclad confidence in their abilities -- both individual and as a unit -- but they also knew that their inexperience could bite them in the ass. Bouncing around the country like so many pinballs, popping into pool halls without much of a gameplan, was hardly the blueprint for longevity -- never mind success -- on the road. If 007 was half as good as he claimed to be, he was worth 20 percent.
Bristol and Delicious arrived in Warsaw, quintessential small town America, a blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet in the northeast corner of Indiana, roughly halfway between South Bend and Fort Wayne. Warsaw boasted a modest main drag, a few mom and pop stores, and a complement of family-owned restaurants. They stopped into one for a late lunch. Bristol ordered his customary salad and grilled chicken sandwich. When Delicious asked the comely hostess if there were any Indiana delicacies on the menu -- "Give me something I can't eat nowhere else in America," he said enthusiastically -- she responded that the tenderloin sandwich was the house specialty. A few minutes later, a pork loin stretched out to the size of a small pizza and then deep-fried, arrived.
The sandwich was precisely the kind of cholesterol-heavy, arterial-coagulating mucilage that Delicious would once have devoured with pleasure. He summoned the waitress and handed back the tenderloin, glancing furtively at her nametag. "Sorry, Shannon," he said, pushing the tenderloin away. "Go ahead and charge me for this, honey, but can I have a salad instead?" Bristol looked on, smiling approvingly. He didn't even mind when the bill came and Delicious, upon realizing that Shannon hadn't charged him for the tenderloin, left a $20 bill as a tip.
They then checked into a nondescript local motel and with a few hours to kill before heading over to Earl's, Bristol suggested they go for a jog. Delicious' response was short and to the point. "F--- off." With uncharacteristic patience, Bristol explained that if Delicious were really serious about losing weight he would have to exercise as well as eat better. They went for a jog and while Delicious barely made it beyond the parking before sucking wind and eventually quitting, he had to admit that it felt good to be doing something active and sweating a little. He returned to room and tried to squeeze off as many push-ups and sit-ups as he could.
It's exciting to win a big money game!
"Who's Bucky Bell?" Delicious asked.
"Player who stops in here from time to time," Earl responded.
"He any good?"
"Ain't bad," said Earl, practically pulling a muscle in his arm as he reached for the phone to summon Bucky to get his ass over and take down a pair of out-of-town suckers. "Bucky's not bad."
Even at the age of 56, Clarence "Bucky" Bell was better than "ain't bad." A lifelong road player, Bell had trolled the Midwest for action since the 60s and partnered with road hustling legends the likes of Billy "Cornbread Red" Burge and Clem Metz. Bucky was born in a rural pocket of eastern Kentucky where his father was a judge. In Booneville County, Kentucky, anyone under 18 needed a permit to play pool. When Bucky was eleven, his father wrote him a permit to play one game of pool at the local poolroom. Bucky forged the permit and kept returning. Soon he was gambling, winning everything from 24 gallons of molasses -- "I sold them to the A&P manager for two bucks a gallon!" he says cackling -- to a field of cucumbers.
As a teenager, he commandeered a friend's truck and drove from Booneville, Kentucky to the big city of Cincinnati as a teenager to play a pre-arranged game. His opponent, though, got into a fight and had been carted off to prison the night before the match, never to be heard from again. With no high stakes match, Bucky killed the day playing some locals. He won enough money to buy his own truck and has essentially been living on the road ever since. A career hustler, Bell was particularly adept on bar tables, the preferred equipment in the Midwest. He allegedly made a small fortune in Jackson, Michigan in the 1970s, busting a string of Detroit drug dealers. Asked about the score, Bell neither confirms or denies it. "It's just money: one day you have it, the next day you don't. In pool, money is just like a token. But I'll tell ya this, for a long time, not nobody could beat ol' Bucky Bell."
For all his time on the road Bucky never lost his country roots. He made no attempt to curb an accent that verged on unintelligible when he crossed over the Kentucky state line. A small, sinewy man who might weigh 130 lbs. soaking wet, he dressed in sausage-casing tight Wranglers jeans and a flannel shirt. His features were hard and craggy, his face pleated by years of hard living. Behind a pair of unfashionable eyeglasses, his eyes were strikingly close together and they almost appeared crossed as he squinted to concentrate on the table. He was governed by a certain old-time code of honor, never doing drugs or drinking to excess. Even as the destructive synergy of age and failing eyesight exacted a price on his game, he seldom declined a challenge and never declined to pay up. "Bucky is that rare road player," says Bob Flinders, the proprietor of Rhinos Billiards in Cincinnati and a longtime friend of Bell. "If you lend him a few hundred bucks, eventually you'll get it back."
Bucky had found an ideal situation in Warsaw. The cost of living was sufficiently cheap that he could live at the motel down the road from the poolhall for $25 a night or so. Plenty of action was passing through. And at Earl's there was a plentiful supply of the hustler's oxygen: backer money. Bucky's reputation as a reliable road player preceded him and, after the first night, locals were lining up to subsidize his games. He wasn't putting up a dime of his own money for the chance to earn half of the cash resting above the table. For all intents, he was playing with house money.
Just as road partners do an elaborate shuffle when they walk into a joint, sometimes the locals have a well-choreographed dance as well. A "scout team" of lesser players is often deployed to help get a read on the visitors' games. As Bristol and Delicious practiced on the large table, taking pains to miss balls and gripping the cue awkwardly, within minutes, they were approached by a tough-looking kid with dirty blond hair, a blond mustache, and a Metallica t-shirt. The kid challenged Bristol at the "just for fun" rate of ten bucks a rack on the bar table. Delicious playing the role of clueless friend, consented on his buddy's behalf. "Why not?" he said in his best aw-shucks voice. "It's not everyday you can tell people you hustled a game of pool!"
Metallica wasn't near Bristol's phylum as a player, but their games were closely contested. Recalling some of the pearls of wisdom he'd gleaned at Chicago Billiards, Bristol didn't just miss his share of balls, but he made strategic moves that camouflaged just how well he knew his way around a table. He also muted his convulsive break, which would have been a dead giveaway that he was an elite player. With Bristol $40 to the good, Metallica quit. The guy was out some money, but he was secure in thinking he had done his job setting the table for the estimable Bucky Bell.
As Bob "labored" to beat the local kid, Delicious and Earl struck up an amiable conversation.
"You just passing through?" Earl asked.
"Where ya headed?"
"Back to New Jersey, Earl," Delicious responded. "We were visiting my uncle outside Chicago."
"How come you got off the interstate?"
Delicious didn't miss a beat. "Highway driving gets boring. Figured I'd rather see real America, even if takes longer. Know what I'm saying, Earl?"
"Sure," Earl said agreeably. "Wanna play a little?"
"Nah. I don't really play."
"Me neither. Just for like, fifty bucks."
"Okay," Delicious said. "I think I can afford to lose that."
Kid Delicious playing Earl of Earl's Billiards in a set to ten on one of the coin-operated bar tables, was akin to Shaquille O'Neal playing a lunchtime pick-up basketball game at the YMCA. But he kept it close, missing shots that he was capable of drilling in his sleep, attempting ridiculous combinations, and taking a prolonged time to study configurations that required little examination. All the while, Delicious relished the method acting, muttering "Damn!" in frustration when he missed. He did just enough to win the first set but then obliged Earl's offer for a rematch and promptly lost.
"Guess we play about even," Earl said, proudly reclaiming the same two twenties and a ten he had surrendered.
"Guess so, Earl."
Around that time, Bucky arrived with his Asian backer in tow. With his avian features and tough, leathery skin, Bucky looked every bit the hard-boiled veteran hustler, as he strutted in the hall. He wasted no time issuing a challenge to Bob. "So, are you small time or big time, buddy?"
"Depends what big-time is," Bristol said, standing his ground.
"Five hundred bucks a rack."
Bristol looked to Delicious as though he were his backer. Delicious shrugged and nodded.
Bucky screwed his cue and walked to a bar table. Bristol took issue, demanding they play on the big table, "not that barbox." Bucky snapped, "You don't just walk in off the street and call your table, boy. We play on the bar table or we don't play."
Bristol snorted and relented. As they lagged to see who would break, Earl sidled up to Delicious. "Y'all just made a mistake," he said smiling wryly. "I don't think Bucky Bell has lost on a bar table in twenty years."
However long his streak was, it came to an end an hour or so later. As with athletes in any sport, there comes an age when a pool player's skills, irretrievably, desert him. In the first game against Bob, Bucky missed two balls that, in his prime, he would have made without with his eyes closed. Bob ran out the rack.
Playing full-speed, Bob unleashed his violent break to start the second game. Before the balls stopped ricocheting, Bucky and his backer exchanged concerned looks. We're not being hustled here, are we? Bob ran out the rack without giving Bucky a chance to get off his stool, his cocky disposition having melted into concern. The games were close but Bob summoned his best when it mattered most.
As 007 had predicted with almost frightening exactitude, Bucky wasn't about to go quietly. Before Bob could screw his cue, Bucky hissed from across the room. "I want to try and get that money back playing your buddy, the big guy."
"Aw, Danny?" Bob said dismissively. "He don't hardly play. He's just my backer."
"I play about as good as Earl," Delicious volunteered. "You'd destroy me."
"Come on!" Bucky demanded. "Let's play some. You beat a guy and don't give him a chance to earn back his money? That's bulls---. Come on. Me and big guy. A thousand a set."
Bob laughed dismissively. Then he feigned interest. "If you play him, you're going to have to give him a ton of weight."
"Weight is the last thing your boy needs," Bucky said laughing, and then looking at his supporters. "But I'll give him some weight."
After some tense negotiation, the parties finally agreed that Bucky would give Delicious the last three balls. And they could play not on the bar table but on the nine-footer. It wasn't a huge handicap -- Delicious essentially needed only to hit the seven ball to win, but he still had to run it out, i.e. he couldn't win on a combo. Bristol also knew that Bucky had an advantage on the bar table, where breaks are meaningless and you're seldom faced with a long shot. He demanded they play on the nine-footer. Reluctantly, Bucky agreed. Together, the weight and the table imbued Delicious with a huge advantage. And Bucky, the veteran roadman, had broken one of the cardinal rules of hustling: don't give a handicap to a player unless you know you've seen him play at true speed.
Relishing the method acting, Delicious turned to Bristol. "I'll play Bucky but you can't get pissed off at me if I lose."
Figuring Delicious was already intimidated, Bucky tried to fan the flames. "There's some fury up here boy," he said. "I'm going drill your ass, son. There's fury up in here."
All of Bucky's sound and fury signified nothing. Even in his mid-50s, with fading eyesight and plenty of miles on his pool odometer, Bucky Bell was a hell of a player, capable of beating ninety-nine percent of the opponents he could expect to face. The problem was, the Kid Delicious was in that other one percent, a world-class pool player. Pitting Delicious against Bucky was a mismatch. Pitting Delicious against Bucky and giving him the last three balls on a big table was a joke. It took a few balls for Bucky, Earl, the Pan-Asian backer, and the other railbirds to realized that they'd been snookered. Delicious bellied up to the barbox and simply put on a clinic, making both the cue ball and object balls behave with a certain logic that was at once ruthless and elusive.
But Bucky didn't go down without some resistance, summoning every trick he could to take up residence in Delicious' head. After the third game, Delicious racked the balls. The rack was perfect, but Bucky slammed his cue angrily and demanded a rerack. Had Bristol been the opponent, fisticuffs would likely have followed. Delicious smiled. "Whatever you say, Bucky."
It's especially exciting when you're holding the cash!
Bucky, of course, had no way of knowing that Delicious had been preparing for this eventuality for years. When you've had to nail pressure-packed shots during those "sharking allowed" games on the tables of Chicago Billiard -- with Gypsy belching in your face or with another player sticking his testicles on the rail -- Bucky was hardly going to rattle Delicious. Beyond that, Delicious had always been impervious to choking, immune to collapsing mentally under the weight of the occasion. It wasn't necessarily that he elevated his game when the stakes were highest. It was simply that he didn't let himself acknowledge the significance. To him, it was all just pool. Playing for thousands of dollars in an unstylish hall in rural Indiana was no different than playing against himself on the table in the family basement or practicing alone before the sun came up.
"Bucky, you can do whatever you want," Delicious said without looking up. "I'm not missing this shot."
Bucky did and Delicious didn't. Earl's was silent. The great Bucky Bell had now lost twice in the span of a few hours.
Trying their best to suppress their grins, Bristol and Delicious took their forty $100 bills. "We'll be back tomorrow and maybe we'll play on the bar table," Bob said, neither meaning it nor, for that matter, expecting anyone to believe he had.The pair quickly folded themselves into the Tiburon and peeled out of the parking lot kicking up a plume of dust, barely suppressing their giddiness. Never mind that the $4,000 was far and away the biggest haul they'd made thus far. They had pulled off a real sting, combining their table skills with skills for deception. They were now experiencing the "hustle high." As they sped down Warsaw's main drag (such as it was) they slapped five, pounded the dashboard and let out euphoric shrieks. "That was some Old School s---," Bristol bellowed. Delicious whipped out his cell to call Greg Smith, their new shaman, with the news. Delicious recalls the conversation bearing a similarity to Charlie's Angels talking to their inscrutable boss.
"You're awesome 007! We just -- "
"I heard. Four grand."
"How the hell did you -- "
"Don't worry about it. Good work. Told you we would DO RIGHT by each other."
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