There was a day when Danny "Kid Delicious" Basavich could walk into a pool hall anywhere in America, play pool for five or 10 hours, and walk out with five or 10 grand.
But those days are gone, because Basavich did the one thing no pool hustler ever wants to do — he got famous. And now, only a fool would play a money game with Kid Delicious.
"Nobody will gamble with me anymore," Basavich said. "Nobody will come in, even great players. Nobody will play, even with a handicap, even if I give you 100 balls to 110, it just seems like no one's going to play me, because I might run 110 every other time."
These days, they only play him for the lesson, making Basavich a living legend at age 29. But in this game, it's not the years, it's the miles.
Before Kid Delicious became the top ranked player in the world, before he beat his heroes in epic matches, Basavich spent his youth taking money off of hustlers, in every one of the lower 48 states.
Basavich got his nickname when he was just 16 years old, beating a well-known pool player named "Kid Vicious."
"There was this kid, this little skinny guy, that was the top player at the time at the pool room, and everyone in the room was betting on him," Basavich remembered. "And I ended up beating him in a match, and while I was playing him, really, they were making fun of me. And they said 'Kid Vicious is getting beat by Kid Delicious.'"
'I Loved the Game'
While Basavich says he wasn't offended, it was clear the patrons were making fun of him for his size. It wasn't the first time he'd been taunted, and as a sensitive kid growing up in New Jersey, the teasing drove him out of high school and into a deep clinical depression.
"I was really having emotional times. Like, I was almost suicidal," Basavich said. "I really was almost telling my parents that I wasn't going to live anymore. And I walked into the pool room, and I picked up a pool cue and started playing a few games, and right away, I had the biggest smile on my face, and just — I knew right away that, that I loved the game."
Basavich rode his bike to the pool hall every day, and soon, he was beating the regulars. Revenge fueled his first real hustles. He sought out the kind of guys who once picked on him — the jocks who shot pool at the Rutgers University student union. Basavich used an unusual ploy to get their attention.
"I walk in there with three pieces of cake, sitting at the table ... I'm taking a bite and dropping it on the floor. And it's all over my face, and I'm sweating," he said. "And then, I go buy a glass of milk at the counter, and I take out my money, and it's, like, all hundred dollar bills. And I drop it on the floor by accident. You know what I mean? And now their eyes are open."
The ploy worked, and the jocks came flocking to Basavich, "like a bee on honey," wanting to play him in pool. At first, he wouldn't wager much money, and he would keep the games close, to string his competitors along.
"If I had a big advantage over a guy, I was very good at keeping the match close," Basavich said.
But finally, he would go in for the kill when the wages got high, and make big money, angering his competitors to no end.
"They would get crazy sometimes," Basavich said of his challengers. "Guys would break sticks once in a while. Their friends would start making fun of them, 'Oh, look, look who you're losing to, this kid's got cake on his face, and you're losing money to this freaking kid.'"
Rolling in Dough
With dreams of playing on the pro tour, Kid Delicious hit the road to hone his skills, and quickly learned that hustling is a feast or famine proposition. He caught the luckiest break of all when he got a call from a mysterious stranger. The man, nicknamed "007," offered to spot Basavich valuable information in exchange for a cut of the winnings.
"He had this book that was [as thick as] three or four phone books, full of pool halls and names of players, and how good they played," said Basavich.
He admits that he was "cocky," and thought he could "beat anyone in the world," but realized that book could provide him with valuable information about potential competitors, and the pool tables they played on.
"Every table's different, entirely different! It's like night and day," Basavich said. "And if you walk in there, you've got to play a guy who's playing every day on his table, right, with his balls, and he's playing his best, and now you've got to walk in there, and you can't practice, 'cause if you start practicing, and they see you're a good player before you bet the money, they're not going to want to play with you."
Basavich also had to be careful not to use his own pool stick — a dead giveaway of a hustler. He would either use the house cue, or, what he calls, a "Sneaky Pete."
"It looks just like a house cue, but it screws together," Basavich explained. "I'd even put it together, walk in the pool room, and put it right on the wall, right with the other cues."
In the joints where he couldn't find a decent game, he would lure sucker bets on seemingly impossible shots. Even if they realized they had been hustled, they still had to pay him.
"Believe it or not, there's ... a code when it comes to pool, that you're supposed to pay when you lose," Basavich explained. "I won about half a million dollars playing pool for money. And it was a lot of the money, I ain't gonna lie, I blew a lot of it doing crazy things. But I had a hell of a time, just what any young American boy would do."
Basavich's name began to spread, around the time the poker boom began luring gamblers out of the pool halls and into the card rooms. With that money gone, the pro tour was the next logical move.
But Basavich failed miserably in his first tournaments, and sank back into the familiar blackness.
"I went home, and I couldn't get out of bed for, like, six weeks," he said. "The gambling was done, dried up. And now, I can't even beat anybody. Like, I didn't know what was wrong."
But Basavich's family pushed him to keep going to the pool hall, and get back on tour, and sure enough, he started winning, shooting up to number one in the world's rankings.
But just as he hit his pro groove, the International Pool Tour went bankrupt, and with diminished prospects and mounting stress, Kid Delicious suffered a heart attack.
He survived, and as he sees it, the setbacks are just more material for "Kid Delicious, The Movie."
It has been 46 years since this game, this life, was played on the big screen in "The Hustler," a movie featuring Paul Newman as "Fast Eddy," a cocky poolroom hustler. And it has been 21 years since its sequel, "The Color of Money," hit theaters.
We may be due for another great pool film, and after selling his story to Hollywood, Basavich said he has heard that Jack Black is in talks to play him on screen.
But even if it doesn't happen, even if he doesn't get back to number one, Kid Delicious will still chalk that cue, wipe that brow, and chase his bliss across the green felt.
"I have a very hard time. I'm always thinking about the past or the future," Basavich said. "And once I start playing pool, all I do is think about the balls and the angles and — and stuff like that. And my mind gets lost, and I end up on a cloud, and it is a happy place."