We love books. Books are fun. They're so full of booky goodness. And because we don't have time to read and write about every sports book, we've corralled three regular Deadspinners to inaugurate the Deadspin Book Club, discussions of current sports books. Your panelists are Unsilent Majority, Signal to Noise and The Starter Wife. This month's book is Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler, by L. Jon Wertheim. Do enjoy.
TSW: What did everyone think of the overall push at the start of the book that pool is a sport? Wertheim is quick to get that out of the way right at the start, and it is never questioned again, despite the fact that at the end of his career, Kid Delicious's size does become a problem.
UM: I'm so sick of the argument that so-and-so either is or isn't a sport. Everybody seems to have different classifications and definitions. I don't see what the problem is in labeling pool a sport. It doesn't require you to be at peak physical condition, but who's to say that's a requirement for sports?
TSW: I don't disagree that pool is a sport. It was a good choice to address that issue within the first few pages of the prologue before even jumping into Kid's story.
S2N: Oh, it's obviously a sport — and I suppose Delicious' girth (and defiance of the wisdom stated that a heftier player gets tired more easily) is kind of a way to describe the "natural athlete," such as it exists in the pool hall. Wertheim has to get this out of the way first, though, in order to sort of justify his even writing the book in the first place.
TSW: And with that natural athleticism came crippling depression.
S2N: Trade-offs. You get a gift, you get a nasty side effect (curse, blah) to go with it. Wertheim described those voids and panic attacks very well throughout the book with the scenes of not leaving his parents' home and sometimes not even his room unless it was to eat. Food is Delicious' other source of self-medication, aside from the table — which is actually a fairly common thing.
TSW: I think Wertheim did a great job telling the story of Delicious' parents for the ride. If he would have had stricter parents, or less forgiving parents, or parents that medicated him early on, he would have never been allowed to develop his talent much less on the road hustling.
UM: One question I had throughout...to what degree can we trust the story itself? The story of Danny's [Basavich, aka Kid Delicious] journey from teenager to professional is never short on specific conversations and detailed descriptions of his individual scores almost as if the writer is riding shotgun with the protagonist. But of course the pool hustlers weren't traveling with a reporter chronicling their every move, all of it was told from memory whatever sources could be tracked down (I'd imagine).
TSW: But don't we accept that in most sports there are memories that are etched so deeply by the moment you cannot help by remember - in fact relive over and over again which would be common for someone suffering from a bipolar disorder - every last detail? I kept waiting for Delicious' story to take a fantastical turn. That guns had been drawn on the road, that Greg "007" Smith in Chicago was setting him and his partner Bristol up for a trap, that he played some million dollar game that would set him for life. But the reality seemed that it road was a long, hard grind. Great pool, interesting characters and some excitement when things went well. And maybe that is where the truth comes out in the book. Lots of long car trips and eking out an existence while being one of the very best at the game in relative obscurity.
UM: Yeah, if anything I felt that the book managed to gloss over the real grind of being a road player. One minute Delicious was struggling, then he splashes water on his face goes on a great run, and that's that. It seems as if he's either he's flying high or he's struggling through a period of depression at all times. He spends six months in Alabama, and we hear about two games he plays that netted him a few grand. It's a short book, so there's no reason they couldn't go into some more detail about the life he lived on the road outside of the competition.
S2N: I still feel like I don't understand just how up against it a player can be at times when the bankroll is thin; that kind of detail. What Wertheim was better with was the lows as they applied outside of the tables themselves — we've noted Delicious' depression, but there's also [Delicious' playing partner] Bristol Bob's meth addiction, borne out of the frustration of not being a player of Delicious' skill and fruitless attempts to change his playing style. As far as veracity goes with regard to the hustling and the road trips: That's something we just have to trust. One of the biggest things I thought that the book had going for it was that it read like fiction; those accounts of hustling being dependent upon the memories of the participants only added to that particular aspect.
TSW: It reminded me a lot of the card players you see day in and day out in the card rooms in Los Angeles. There is an ebb and flow, and you can expect to see so many of the same players moving around from the Bike, to the Commerce, to Hollywood Park, to Hawaiian Gardens, to Normandie's, .. etc, etc, etc. That look of a grinder, who plays on cruise control a majority of the time. (The footnote to that thought being that Wertheim makes a point of mentioning that the poker boom had drained away much of the action from pool several times.) While you were looking for more, I thought he had done a fairly decent job stretching out the material that had started out as magazine article.
S2N: I wound up being kind of floored by the whole trip to Fargo, which revolved around Delicious' falling in love with Tanya Harig, the woman who ran the pool hall — because it gave us that truth about how intimate relationships are tough to come by for this nomadic and financially unstable world. I almost feel a bit cheated by it, though, because Wertheim likely spoke to Harig and the whole sequence lacked what that relationship meant on her end. Yeah, it's a book about the hustler — but I thought a bit more appreciation for the other side in that relationship would have helped me understand just how doomed it was from the start.
TSW: I didn't mind Tanya's view being left out. While she meant a great deal to Delicious at the time, it was what it was. I saw it more as a fling just to fill the void of his road partner Bristol not being with him on that trip.
S2N: Am I the only one particularly annoyed by the caps-lock accenting of Greg Smith's [the "pool detective" who sends Delicious and Bristol Bob to pool halls to hustle] dialogue? I admit it made me imagine his accent as something Ditka-esque, but eventually it wore on me as an unnecessary tic that got overused.
UM: You aren't alone there, it drove me a bit nuts. For some reason the voice I hear in my head when he's speaking is Bill Hader doing a Peter Falk impression.
TSW: The ALL CAPS letters for Smith did not bother as much as it should have. I'm either allowing for the fact that language is becoming looser or I've allowed reading TOO MANY conversational pieces and BLOGS. I heard Joe Pesci in Casino, which I know is totally the wrong part if the American dialect spectrum.
UM: I think I would have preferred it if the author had spent some time talking about the travels he himself underwent in order to track down some of the characters Delicious met along the way. It reads as if the author sat at a table for hours on end listening to him telling stories of the road from his own perspective. I'm sure there were contrarian views to be found, although I doubt he'd be tracking down any of those dealers in Philly.
TSW: The "journalist-being-part-of-the-story" often slows down the story and more often than not, allows the wrong ego to come into focus. Playing it straight, especially with such a likable character as Kid Delicious, was the way to go. If anything, I think Wertheim identified with the depression a little too often, without coming out and talking about any struggles he might have been having.
S2N: What do we think of the actual scenes of pool playing itself?
UM: It was all very quick. It's not like the writer stopped to break down the poetic nature of a given shot like John Feinstein would want, but I'm not sure that would have added anything to the overall effect of the book.
S2N: If Wertheim had stopped and broken down every aspect of play, it probably would have taken away some of the interest — because it's less about playing the game itself than the life surrounding it. As it was, I thought he got to the emotions and anticipation in the matches fairly well — especially in Philly, where Delicious is taking a mobster for $20,000, and at the end, with his match against Earl Strickland, which is set to be the climax of the story; the last triUMph where he is an unknown.
TSW: The only room I really got a feel for was the "training ground" up in Connecticut.
S2N: The Chicago Billiards chapter was probably one of my favorite parts — where do you go to learn the skills to take people for thousands of dollars by honing your game? You need an eccentric rich dude [Ralph Procopio] who runs a really seedy place in New Haven. It seems so fantastical, as if that place could never really have existed at all (or maybe I just don't venture into enough pool halls to judge.)
UM: It was almost like the difference between reading Positively Fifth Street and reading a book written by a poker pro (in terms of the more hardcore analysis).
TSW: [Poker] is a different type of math. In poker a person not there to see the hand can calculate odds based on seat position, chip stacks, and what was in hand. (Or at least attempt to.) In pool, you'd have to be there to see exactly how many inches the cue ball was from the eight ball and at what angles and distances the surrounding balls were located. It is hard to see geometrical abstracts.
UM: And thank god he didn't include any diagrams. That would have been painful. I liked how he described Bristol's car keys in the corner pocket trick. I'll have to try that out.
TSW: So at the end, did you guys think you were supposed to think of Kid Delicious as a tragic figure? I really could not get a feel for what the parting emotion was supposed to be. Here he was, a great that could go no further because of notoriety and because of a lack of pro-circuits, and yet he seemed willing to stay in the world of pool.
UM: I had that feeling the entire way. I got the impression that the author could have driven the story to either end of the spectrum, but ultimately the good and bad of the lifestyle seem to offset one another. It kind of fits in with the bi-polar diagnosis.
S2N: We can consider it tragic because of his depression — he had no other options or allowed himself no other options with his particular character tics. However, I just can't go there with him as a tragic figure, and I think it goes back to what we were talking about regarding the lack of understanding of some of the real lows of the pool world. At times, Delicious seemed nearly too carefree and cavalier about the losses, just going back home to start over and wondering when the opportunities would dry up. Maybe that's just part of being a hustler; if you gamble for a living, you certainly have less concern and regard for money than the rest of us. I suspect the intent was that we were supposed to feel happy for him — he had reached a personal pinnacle of notoriety, but sad that it couldn't earn him a living. I suppose we were all left as emotionally confused and distant from the outcome as any outsider who got attached and felt involved in the life of this guy. We're all Tanya.
UM: I enjoyed the book quite a bit, but it's not something I'd classify as a must-read.
S2N: I thought it was an interesting look inside a subculture and sport that I'm not familiar with, and probably never will be. The subject matter grabbed me from the start, but for most people, I'd say that it's worth checking out from the library first.
TSW: It was a pleasant and quick enough read. I certainly know more about the fraternity of pool hustlers now than I did before. The story lost steam for me at the end and I don't think there was the payoff I was looking by the time I finished.