Interview: L. Jon Wertheim
Posted by: Keir Graff
In his books, L. Jon Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, offers inside-out looks at sports. In Venus Envy (2001), he explored the insular world of women’s tennis. In Transition Game (2005), he used a high-school team to show the way basketball is changing. (Even Foul Lines , a novel he co-wrote, is a tale of NBA innocence lost.) And in his new book, Running the Table (2007), he uses the story of the wonderfully monikered Kid Delicious to chronicle a disappearing American archetype: the pool hustler.
As a former senior writer for Billiards Digest, it’s my pleasure to be Booklist‘s designated pool-book reviewer. I thought Wertheim’s was awfully good, so I asked him some questions about it via e-mail.
In your acknowledgments, you write that the book grew out of a Sports Illustrated story. How did the article originate, and how did you decide it was worth a whole book?
I came across a story in the Wall Street Journal that alluded to Kid Delicious, an avowed pool hustler who alleged to have made $200,000 the previous year on the road. My “story radar” was beeping like crazy.
Describe your first encounter with Kid Delicious.
Even in the course of our initial phone conversation – you have to hear the guy’s outgoing voicemail message – I had a sense this was going to be fun. I met Da Kid at a Petey Fusco’s room outside Philly and we really hit it off. Then again, everyone does with him. Kid Delicious is the most disarming subject you’d ever want to meet. The guy was showing me his hustling tricks and regaling me with stories from the road. He had this big belly and great voice and I felt like I’d known him for years. I remember driving back to New York and talking with my editor. He said, “So you think there’s a story?” I was like, “Um, yeah. That would be a safe assumption.”
Was it helpful to have an outsider’s view, or did being an outsider make it harder to get the story?
Obviously there are drawbacks to lacking initial familiarity with the subject. But it was fun to immerse myself in a “foreign country” and – maybe I’m just clueless – but I think people appreciated my willingness to try and learn. The book is really about the culture and the characters, Da Kid in particular, and I think/hope that my ability to tell a story, describe a scene, analogize to other sports, etc., ultimately offset any pool shortcomings.
How did you research the book?
Kid Delicious and Bristol Bob [the Kid's road partner] were the primary sources, obviously. But my attitude was “I’ll talk to anyone.” Again, I tried to interview as many people as I could. And with a few exceptions, if someone’s name appeared in the book, odds are good I spoke with them at one point or another. In the mean time, I hung out at pool rooms, read anything, asked a lot of questions and tried to treat this much the same way I would an SI assignment about an unfamiliar subject.
Pool players have a notoriously generous interpretation of the truth. Doing interviews, did you ever worry that you were getting hustled?
Absolutely. For my “day job” at Sports Illustrated there are usually multiple ways to verify details. Plus there is a rigorous fact-checking process. In the case of this book, there’s no newspaper account of Little John winning big that night in Cahokia, Illinois. Elias Sports Bureau can’t confirm the results of that ring game in Olathe, Kansas. Complicating matter further, men who make a living based on their skills for deception are not generally the ideal primary sources.
I knew, though, that this couldn’t simply be an exercise in dictation (i.e., Kid Delicious regaling me with stories and me retelling them). Whenever possible I tried to verify everything. There were some minor discrepancies, but I was impressed (and relieved) at how often Kid’s accounts were corroborated by others. I’m sure some players might come out of the woodwork with quibbles – “That set was one-pocket, not eight ball!” – but not once did I ask someone to corroborate a story and they replied, “I have no earthly idea what you’re talking about.”
I’m assuming you must have read some other pool books as part of your research (The Bank Shot and Other Great Robberies, McGoorty, Playing Off the Rail, etc.). If so, which one was your favorite – or was there one that inspired you?
I devoured Playing Off the Rail. I thought it was exceptionally well done and I really envied the guy (David McCumber) for actually accompanying a hustler on the road. I think I wrote this in the book’s introduction, but I would give anything to have been able to accompany Kid Delicious on his adventures. I also read McGoorty, DiLiberto’s book [Road Player, by Jerry Forsyth], the screenplay for The Color of Money, and every article I could get my hands on. (But David McCumber, if you’re out there, please know you were a big inspiration.)
You write evocatively of seedy poolrooms. Any memorable first-hand encounters you can share?
Where to begin? Whenever possible, I tried to visit the poolrooms I wrote about. When I was on assignment for Sports Illustrated, I would try to duck away to, say, Snake’s Palace in Hattiesburg, Mississippi or Leisure Time in Davenport, Iowa or Airport Billiards in Indianapolis. I was driving back from Washington, D.C., and stopped at Jack and Jill’s in Glen Burnie, Maryland, which is – shall we say – authentic. I left my family in the car and came back twenty minutes later smelling like an ashtray. They were, um, not thrilled by this detour.
For all the shady poolrooms, my best stories came from the Derby City Classic. I remember standing next to Tony Stewart, the NASCAR driver, at about four in the morning while we waited for two guys to have a $500 foot race through the lobby. I stood there thinking, “Okay, I’m getting immersed now.”
You also write that Internet discussion boards and online poker are killing hustling. Are we truly witnessing the end of the hustling era?
That’s my sense. I think it’s a combination of factors. A) Internet technology. B) The poker boom, which seems to have siphoned a lot of players and gamblers. Especially with online poker, you don’t need to leave your bedroom to get guaranteed action. Time and time again I heard, “He used to hustle but now he just plays poker.” C) Also, I think a lot hustlers “came clean” to get on the IPT [International Pool Tour, a pro tour that promised huge payouts].
Are you worried whether pool players will find your book accurate? Or do you think pool players buy books?
I’m sure there will be some disagreement, but I’ll be disappointed if they don’t find it generally accurate. I tried to speak with as many people as possible and, again, not simply gloss over facts for the sake of the story. Obviously this is being marketed as a “mainstream book” but I expect (hope) that pool players read it.
As for whether I think pool players buy books, my answer is unequivocally “yes.” My sense is that because pool is such a special subculture – and maybe because it is somewhat embattled – the “members of the tribe” gobble up every book, movie, article, assessment they can. I hope I conveyed this in the book, but in my experience, pool players do a terrible job conforming to stereotype. They’re supposed to be shifty, shiftless, sinister characters. To a person, everyone I contacted could not have more accommodating, insightful, accountable and, for lack of a better word, cool. I really had a fun time writing this book. Danny was a big part of that, but so was talking to all the characters who inhabit the pool universe.
You do a great job documenting the chaos of men’s pro pool. Coming from Sports Illustrated, where you’ve written about professional sports that are big businesses and are run accordingly, was pool’s state of affairs surprising to you?
You know what was surprising? Pool players are so savvy and shrewd about making games and getting odds. Then some sweet-talking Music Man sweeps through and the same guys who were so discerning about that $50 game, suddenly become gullible and vulnerable. I think I wrote in the book that pool players ace microeconomics and fail macroeconomics.
Here’s a more positive spin: this sport is gaining in participation all over the world. It’s a global sport. It’s “coed.” The players are terrifically colorful. Television costs are fairly minimal. I think it’s only a matter of time until someone credible fills the void and figures out a way to create a viable pro pool tour.
Eight-ball, nine-ball, or one-pocket?
I should give some political answer. But I gotta go with nine-ball.