SI 60 Q&A: How Jon Wertheim learned the art of the hustle from Kid Delicious
When Sports Illustrated's readers got the magazine's Feb. 14, 2005 issue, they received not only coverage of the New England Patriots' third Super Bowl win in the past four seasons, but a variety of stories that recalled SI in its early years: feature stories on the NBA, golf, skiing and college basketball. There was one other feature that didn't even make the contents page, but it was one that would prove the most memorable of that issue and one of the best of that, or any, of SI's first 60 years: a 5,000-word saga of a pool hall hustler with the wonderful name of Kid Delicious.
Senior writer Jon Wertheim, now SI's executive editor, wrote most often about mainstream sports like tennis and the NBA, but he also dove into more obscure corners of the sports universe, which is where he found this story. I spoke to him recently about learning the tricks of the trade and going hustling with the Kid.
SI: What led you to Kid Delicious?
WERTHEIM: There was a Wall Street Journal story in 2004 -- I want to say it was about a pool tournament in Grand Central Station. There was a line buried in the middle of the story saying something like, “In the semifinals so-and-so beat New Jersey’s Danny Basavic, who goes by the name of Kid Delicious and is a hustler...” I didn’t care about the pool tournament but I thought, I want to know about the pool hustler from New Jersey. Luckily he had a name that was easy to track down.
Once I found him, a) he was an hour away, b) he was a lovely guy and c) he had this wealth of stories he was happy to share. Kid Delicious is the lovable overweight guy who slays you with kindness. It all worked out.
SI: Were you worried at all that some of those stories were fake, or at least unverifiable?
WERTHEIM: There’s no analytics, there was no Elias Sports Bureau for hustling, no authoritative website to know if Cheyenne Pete really did lose $1,000 at a bar one night. You’d call around and wanted to make sure you weren’t just taking dictation, but I found that people would have the exact same recollections. It was pretty remarkable, really. Sometimes the dollar figures varied, but you’d call Little John in Hattiesburg, Miss., and the accounts would be remarkably parallel.
SI: Were you worried about being hustled by the hustler?
WERTHEIM: No, it’s funny because these guys are great at laying the trap with pool, but they’re sort of remarkably candid and transparent otherwise. They have this one-in-a-million athletic talent, so there’s a real push and pull between who they are. Half the game is traveling on the fly but you also have this natural recognition for publicity.
SI: You traveled around the country with him for a period, right?
WERTHEIM: I ate a lot of bad food, stayed in a lot of bad motels. It’s a lot different in some ways from the tennis subculture and in some ways it’s not. To cover tennis you go to Paris, London, Melbourne, Rome. This was Mikey’s 24/7 in Oklahoma City and the bar table joint in Olathe, Kansas and Airport Billiards in Indianapolis. But a sports subculture is a sports subculture.
SI: You must have seen him work his magic in some of these small bars.
WERTHEIM: I went to a lot of those, but I saw a lot more gambling than classic hustles. The Internet has sort of killed pool hustling. In the old days, you’d walk in, you’d bust the locals and you’d move on to the next town. But now these message boards would have people saying, “Watch out for Kid Delicious. He was in Olathe, Kans., and he’s moving on to Oklahoma City.”
SI: Were these big-money games being played at those places?
WERTHEIM: The most I saw was just some heroic gambling. I went to some places you’d probably describe as seedy but I never really felt in peril. What I did see were some unbelievable feats of gambling. These guys will play pool for 24 hours, make a small fortune and then have a $5,000 side bet on what gum ball would come out of the machine next or which way the car would turn at the stoplight.
SI: What did you learn about pool?
WERTHEIM: In some ways it’s a lot like every other sport: There’s a hierarchy and it requires dedication, but it’s all informal. A lot of it is based on how well you play but a lot of the skill is in the handicapping. You know how to assess their speed, as it’s called, how good other players are, and then you make the game, and do the usual kind of sandbagging that there is in golf -- giving them certain advantages, things like that. I learned some really good hustles.
SI: Like what?
WERTHEIM: There’s a way to take the chalk off the tip of someone's stick without their knowing. There’s also this game called Hangers, you put a ball on the lip of all six pockets and say, “I bet you can’t knock every ball in in six shots.” For whatever reason it’s remarkably hard to do.
SI: In the story he was moving into another phase of life, becoming more public and more popular by playing professionally. Is he still doing that?
WERTHEIM: There was this pro tour that the king of infomercials, Kevin Trudeau, started. All the hustlers came out of the woodwork and the tour never really made it, so what you’re left with are a lot of hustlers whose IDs have been revealed. These are tough times to be a pool hustler.
SI: Even given how great this story was, did you find it hard to get it in the magazine?
WERTHEIM: One of the deep, dark SI secrets is that if you just do the story you have a better chance at getting it published. A lot of times the stories die when they’re just email trails and conference calls. But if there’s a good piece of writing placed in front of an editor that’s a lot better than 10 people weighing in on email trails.
I was really lucky that he was easy to track down, a lovely guy and he lived 45 minutes away. If I were in Vancouver and had to fly across the country this would have been different, but for the price of some of some bridge tolls I thought I’d go check it out. The hardest thing was condensing it down to 5,000 words.
SI: What was the reaction like?
WERTHEIM: The day the story came out we had calls form all sorts of studios, probably half a dozen calls from various heads of acquisition. Danny and I made an agreement that we were going to work in tandem, because they needed the article but they also needed the rights to his life story. We went out to Los Angeles multiple times and ended up signing with Lionsgate. Tom Hanks had the rights to it for a while and there’s still a script in project somewhere. But everyone’s got those stories.
SI: Do you still keep in touch with him?
WERTHEIM: Actually, I owe him a call, now that you say this. We did a book together called Running The Table. When we were doing the book we would talk weekly, and I went to Louisville and met him at a tournament once.
SI: Are you better at pool now after being taught by a master?
WERTHEIM: He showed me a few things, but I’m a barroom player. I played pretty recently. I know some good hustling tricks, but I’m a crappy pool player. I’m a good breaker, then I get a little chokey. It’s hard. You can be a proficient basement player, but these guys are multiple levels above that.
SI: Can he still hustle?
WERTHEIM: I don’t know what he’s going to do. He was getting known so much he’d probably have to dye his hair. His cover’s been blown. But he’s still a legend.