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A shark, and his appetites

Heather Byer is the author of the memoir "Sweet: An Eight-Ball Odyssey."

It’s impossible to write about pool hustlers, or to review books about them, without mentioning the story that set the standard: “The Hustler,” the 1961 movie based on Walter Tevis’ novel, starring Paul Newman as tortured pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson -- whip-smart and cocky, exuding elegance and working-class magnetism.

So what would you do if you met a pool player who was just as charismatic and wily as Eddie Felson -- except that he weighed 300 pounds, spoke in a high, screechy voice and battled depression so severe that for months he hardly ever got out of bed? If you were a writer, you’d immediately profile him for a well-known magazine and then write a book about him, which is what L. Jon Wertheim did after meeting Danny Basavich, known to everyone in the world of pool as Kid Delicious.

In “Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler,” Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and author of three previous sports-themed books, provides a rollicking account of how Basavich discovered pool, discovered hustling and turned both occupations into art forms.

When we first meet Basavich in the early 1990s, he’s an overweight, unhappy New Jersey teenager, mocked and picked on at school, until the day he gets up and leaves in the middle of class, vowing never to return. Now that he doesn’t have much to fill his days, he goes to a pool hall, and he’s promptly hooked. It’s not long before the big kid attracts mentors. He is taught the fine points of the game by some of New Jersey’s best hustlers, and he soaks it up like a sponge. He ventures to New York City, where he beats a talented young player nicknamed Kid Vicious. One of the spectators remarks, “Kid Vicious just got hustled by Kid Delicious,” and Basavich’s pool moniker is born.

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Kid Delicious is told that if he wants to get serious about pool, he must play regularly at Chicago Billiards in West Haven, Conn. The best players in the tri-state area hone their craft there -- as well as win and lose large sums of money. So Delicious heads to Connecticut, a decision that turns out to be life-changing, because it is at Chicago Billiards that he meets a young man who will become the most important person in his life. Delicious, in turn, will serve the same role for him.

Bob Begey from Bristol, Conn. -- or Bristol Bob, as he’s called -- is as disciplined as Delicious is a slave to his appetites. “With the exception of an abiding passion for pool. . . they could not have had less in common,” Wertheim writes. “One fought a constant pitched battle with weight; the other scarcely had any body fat. One was warm and genial; the other, cold and abrasive. One was passive to a fault; the other had the sort of temper that begged for anger management.”

Yet the two bond immediately. Risk excites them, and it’s not long before the young guns decide to hit the road and see if they can make a living playing pool. It’s obvious how Wertheim could be seduced by this unlikely buddy story. He keeps the ball-by-ball account of games to a minimum, instead lavishing his descriptive powers on the pair and the series of miscreants they meet. Bristol has a strong effect on Delicious: He gets him to buy new clothes, pay more attention to his eating habits and exercise. By the end of their journey, Delicious has lost close to 75 pounds.

And it’s a two-way street. "[W]atching Delicious work a room was finally having a transformative effect on Bristol,” Wertheim writes. “Suppressing his natural intensity, he was growing more sociable and laid-back; he was quicker to make small talk and slower to pass judgment. . . . [H]is emotional temperature, once so volatile, was much steadier.”

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The duo’s play eventually attracts the notice of Greg Smith, a self-described “pool detective.” He tells Delicious and Bristol where they can find almost certain scores. In return, he gets 20% of their winnings. As the pair tours the back roads of the U.S., their adventures begin to take on a predictable feel: Bristol and Delicious go to a pool hall, call out the town’s resident bad-ass player, lose a few, win big, and then split before they find themselves in danger. They meet mobsters and drug dealers and good ol’ country boys. They play guys with names like Spanish Mike, Harry the Hat, Big City Smitty, Monster John and Sow’s Meat. And yet we never tire of these stories. They are like the colorful tales repeated by a rascally great-uncle -- you love to hear them again and again.

“Running the Table” is not without its dark side, which can be found in Delicious’ bouts of depression and in Bristol’s unexpected free fall. When Delicious doesn’t play pool, or when he can’t find his mojo, the clouds close in. Bristol learns to tell when these episodes are coming on, and he helps Delicious get through them. It’s a pleasant surprise to learn that someone who crackles with so much anger and intensity also has enormous reserves of compassion.

When Delicious is mentally strong enough to strike out on his own, Wertheim chronicles his new adventures on the road -- as well as Bristol’s back home. Sadly, Delicious’ former partner enters a downward spiral after trying crystal meth, but Wertheim keeps him hovering on the outskirts of the story. The reader waits for his return, craving a reunion between the two men far more than the next pool showdown.

Wertheim is great at getting the perfect quote and has a keen eye for detail, but the reader can sometimes feel him interviewing people, and this occasionally makes it feel as if we’re reading a long magazine article. What we want is a scene that’s allowed to breathe. Wertheim does this more often in the second half of the book as Delicious works his way toward his professional debut (after he’s too well known to hustle anymore) and in an exhilarating match with the legendary pool pro Earl Strickland. Wertheim’s vivid description of that match shows off his skills as a sportswriter.

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He also successfully captures the strange paradox of Delicious’ joie de vivre and bouts of despair, which is why banalities such as “Pool was at once a blessing and a curse” seem particularly unnecessary. And for someone so good at chronicling the emotions that run through a match, lines such as “Happier than he had ever been, he leaked tears of joy” fall with an especially loud thud.

But these are minor complaints in a tremendously satisfying road story. What makes “Running the Table” so special is not the pool prowess of its protagonist but the unlikely bond between two wildly different young men who find each other through an exhilarating, often infuriating game. They may have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, but their friendship was never a hustle.


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