For years one of pool’s top all-around players, Danny is one of the few original Johnston City champions still active in the game – although his main gig lately has been his commentary work for Accu-stats. Danny is just putting the wrap on a major book project in collaboration with Jerry Forsyth, which should be available soon. OnePocket.org caught up with him on a teaching and exhibition swing through Boston.
OnePocket.org: I understand you were real good at bowling and boxing as well as pool – speaking for pool fans everywhere, I want to thank you for choosing pool. What made you decide to focus on pool instead of bowling or boxing?
Danny DiLiberto: It wasn’t so much a choice; it was more that I was pushed. I loved boxing, but I broke my hand four times and I was about to get crippled in my right hand, so that’s why I quit – not because I decided to do anything else.
OnePocket.org: When you first started playing pool, was that at home or in a poolroom?
Danny DiLiberto: In a poolroom – home, we were lucky to have a bed!
OnePocket.org: Were there pretty good shooters in that poolroom?
Danny DiLiberto: Not really, but here was the aggravating part: My brother played pool, and he was a real tough guy – he fought professionally himself – and when I was like 16 he told the owners of the poolroom, ‘If I catch my brother in here after ten at night or gambling, I’m going to wreck the joint.’ And they believed him. So I used to sit there and drool, because they’d all be there gambling and I knew I could beat everybody – all my young peers, and I couldn’t play them. Finally, we moved to another section of town and my brother got married, and I started going into the poolroom there and played all these guys and I just robbed them. That was 1952 – we’d start ring 9-Ball games on a Friday and end Monday morning. In ’52 I was making like 400-500 a week.
“I want to tell you something about that ‘robbing’ term. I was traveling with Junior Goff once; we were going to Texas — we were aiming at somebody — and we’re in a restaurant, and Junior Goff says, ‘You know, if you start beating on him, you could give him the eight – you’re gonna rob him. You’re gonna rob him.’ Well, two plainclothesmen in the restaurant heard us talking about robbing, they took us in and gave us an FBI check for like four hours. So that’s not good terminology.”
OnePocket.org: I understand you went to college; did you graduate from college?
Danny DiLiberto: A two year course at the University of Buffalo. I played a lot of pool there in the student union, but I still never had ideas of playing professionally or being a pool player – I always wanted to box. I always wanted to fight. My brother fought, and every time he fought my parents almost had a seizure. I saw what it did to them, so when I finally decided that I was going to box I went to Florida. I told my family I was going to Florida and get a job for the winter, but then I went and looked up Angelo Dundee, because I wanted to box for Angelo Dundee. I changed my name to Danny Toriani so my family wouldn’t know. But what happened was, the first fight I had was in Tampa and they announced me as Danny Toriani, but two guys – friends of my father – were at ringside and they were up there staring at me saying ‘You’re not Danny Toriani, you’re Danny Diliberto, we’ve known you since you were a kid.’ So the cat was out of the bag immediately. So my father said, ‘If that’s how it is, you really wanna do it, go ahead.’ I said, don’t worry about me – worry about the people I fight. I really was cocky, but I had never lost a fight in my life. I was little, and bullies bothered me all the time, and I mashed them, so I really was confidant. Now I’m fighting people my weight, or close to it, and I thought I was stealing – which I was. Except I kept breaking my hand, bad. Look at this (Danny shows me his disfigured right hand!); it’s a mess.
OnePocket.org: I’m amazed that you could be great at such contrasting talents as pool and boxing – when I think about pool I think about delicate moves, compared to the pounding in boxing – that’s quite a contrast…
Danny DiLiberto : Well, I have a theory about that, I believe you play all games with your head.
OnePocket.org: Were there any particular mentors you had when you got started playing pool seriously?
Danny DiLiberto: Not head to head telling me things, but from observing. Joe Moran, who was city straight Pool champion in Buffalo for 20 years — he had a great style. Never a world champion, but a real good player who got around the balls real well, not 9-Ball Straight Pool where they just whack the balls every chance they get. Joe Moran fell on the balls where they went with great cue ball control, and it was contagious. In fact, talk about contagious, I watched Mosconi when he came to Buffalo and played a day and night exhibition and he ran over 100 both matinee and evening. From the next day on I ran balls.
OnePocket.org: How old were you when you saw Mosconi?
Danny DiLiberto: I was probably about 19 and from there on I ran balls. From Joe Moran, I picked up a lot about touch and falling on balls. I like to teach that you look where balls go, then you fall on where they go, that way you get great cue ball. If you’ve got clusters, and you shoot one and then the other ones go in another pocket, fall around to where they go and you’re going to have great cue ball.
They had a City tournament in Buffalo — Straight Pool, which they knew I played in my neighborhood — so they invited my to play in the City tournament. This was 1960 or ’61, and I won the City tournament, first shot.
You’ve heard of ‘downtown players’ — guys that have been city champions for years — they were like God. In Buffalo that was Joe Moran and John Beattie; one of them or the other won it for the last 30 years. Because I played in the West Side neighborhood I grew up in, now I had to go down and play those people. I have a funny story about Mike Sigel in a similar situation. So here I was playing these players that I had heard of all my life, and I won the tournament. Then I went to the state tournament in Syracuse and I won that.
“The reason I said Sigel is because he had a funny story of the first time he went to Irving Crane’s room when he was a kid. Crane was the hero in another poolroom when Sigel was playing in his own neighborhood. Crane had a table that he practiced on, where he got paid a weekly salary to come in and practice. So Sigel went up to Crane and said, ‘Mr. Crane, could I hit ‘em with you?’ Crane said, ‘Sure, son’, and he racked ‘em up. Sigel broke, Crane ran 200 and played safe.”
Later I got invited to a ten player Straight Pool tournament with the top players in the world. It was round-robin in those days. If it was double elimination, a guy like Willie Mosconi never could have handled it, never. With round-robin, the best player wins. So there was Crane, Caras and Cranfield, Jimmy Moore, Frank McGown – a lot of good players. The way they did it was just like other sports — top seed plays bottom seed. I was a newcomer, and Irving Crane and Frank McGown were the top seeds. I played Frank McGown first, and I love this, because forever I can say I won my first pro match – I beat Frank McGown; I was happy. Later on, McGown and Jimmy Moore were sitting at the bar and I’m coming behind them to sit with them, and I hear Frank McGown say, ‘Look what beat me.’ Not look who beat me, but ‘Look what beat me.’ The rest of my career, which McGown didn’t stay in that long, every time I played him in tournaments I bore down and made sure I beat him.
OnePocket.org: How old were you at that time?
Danny DiLiberto: The first city tournament I was 25, but I was 27 or 28 for the invitational. So that’s how I got started playing pool. Now, I didn’t like the rest of the tournament because they beat me. I had some close matches, and it wasn’t like they thought they had a gimmie, but I lost. Then, that big article in Sports Illustrated came out about Johnston City…
OnePocket.org: You mean the Tom Fox article about the ’61 event?
Danny DiLiberto: Yeah, I read that article and it influenced me and really made me want to go. It had all the characters — it looked like they had every animal there was: ‘Squirrels’, ‘Bears’, ‘Rabbits’ – it had them all, so I had to go. And I had pretty good success from the beginning on because I never felt intimidated by a player – never felt intimidated. In fact, I had the best of some of the great players. Like Lassiter, he won all those tournaments, but he couldn’t beat me. I beat him like seven or eight in a row; same thing with Balsis.
OnePocket.org: What game were you playing Lassiter?
Danny DiLiberto: Straight Pool and 9-Ball. I beat him the first set he lost in four years. He not only won every 9-Ball tournament, he never lost a set. I beat him the first one in like four years at the Stardust. And I had great success with Balsis, too. So people asked me, ‘How come you didn’t win more tournaments?’ I said, ‘cuz I lost to Toby Dick. It’s a funny story, I was with Mike Sigel traveling to a tournament in Madison, and I couldn’t get to the draw, Sigel did. He came to the room and said ‘I know pool players don’t want to hear this, but you got the nuts.’ No one wants to hear that, but even with all that, ‘your’re stealing, you got the nuts.’ Now I play the guy. First game he breaks and makes the nine. Next game he breaks, makes a couple balls, then the three-nine combination. Before I could breathe, I’m losing 8-1, and I’m looking in the audience for Sigel – I really wanted to kill him. So I lost to Toby Dick.
“But I always have to add this to the story; Buddy Hall was playing in a tournament once and he won about seven in a row and then played a guy and lost. So he goes on the loser’s side – well, that’s okay, he’s still the best player – he figures he’ll play single elimination now. So he won a few more matches, then he lost again to the same guy. The guy lost and came on the loser’s side and beat him again. The guy’s name was Delmer Schmeltzer – that’s better than Toby Dick.”
OnePocket.org: So what was Johnston City like?
Danny DiLiberto: It was like going to college; every top all-around player in the world was there, and the hustlers, too. The first guy that came up to me was Earl Shriver – he came up to me and said, ‘Son, if you keep your mouth shut and your eyes open around here, you’re going to learn a lot.’ And that’s what I did, and I was lucky enough to be alive and around during the Johnston City years. If you didn’t learn something there you were an idiot.
OnePocket.org: That group there – in the beginning anyway — wasn’t so much the tournament players as it was the hustlers. Crane didn’t go there in the beginning, did he?
Danny DiLiberto: He only went a couple times anyway, and Balsis also. Lassiter was there every year.
OnePocket.org: Lassiter was one of those players that played both in the big tournaments and on the road…
Danny DiLiberto: Well don’t say Johnston City wasn’t a big tournament.
OnePocket.org: I just meant it wasn’t one of those typical industry sponsored tournaments; it was more of a hustler’s tournament – especially in the beginning.
Danny DiLiberto: In fact it was called the World Hustler’s Tournament. The people in Johnston City would bet on themselves, that was the big thing. There was so much knowledge — the gambling, the making of games, the whole schmear. We would all trade spots – Johnston City was located almost centrally, so people came from out west routes, from south routes, northeast routes, and on the way everybody would try to make the nut, to at least travel free. And they all had their spots – you go to West Monroe, Louisiana there was I guy named ‘BB’, and if you go there on a Thursday, he got paid and if you asked him to play 9-Ball he’s going to ask you to play One Pocket; he’s going to lose this and that and then he’s going to raise it – all perfectly, the FBI couldn’t give you a better description. When they told you what a guy looked like, again, better than the FBI. They had a guy in Anaheim that would play in this bar and a guy that owned a factory next door staked him, so if you went there on a certain night, ‘Square-Headed Frank’ would be there. Now if you walked in a room with a hundred people you’d find ‘Square-Headed Frank’. Then we had ‘Crooked Arm Jimmy’ in a place in Florida, and ‘Tangle-Eye’ in Oklahoma. We had a ‘Pizza Face’. I mean you walk in, just a perfect description, and we traded notes.
OnePocket.org: It does sound like college – or maybe graduate school…
Danny DiLiberto: It was. And they were good people, all friendly people. People like Eddie Taylor and Lassiter, filled with love and ready to help you. Good people. There was a lot of partying, good times, and a lot of women, too. I was shy before all that, but Johnston City really got me out of the shyness. I’ll tell you a funny story, after my days in Buffalo and moving to Florida I didn’t go back to Buffalo for like eight years one stretch. When I finally went back and played exhibitions, people couldn’t believe it was me. I went from shy and quiet to outgoing. Back at the University of Buffalo I had a course I had to drop out of because once a month you had to give a speech I front of the class, and I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. But after, I could do anything in front of people.
OnePocket.org: Oh really, so there was something about it that changed you that much?
Danny DiLiberto: Like I say, when I went back to Buffalo, they couldn’t believe it was me. And it was so much fun – what a better feeling it was. As life went on, more and more things I could do in front of people – forget about giving a speech in college, now I could sing in front of people! I went from being too shy to dance with girls, to… I grew up in a lot of different ways in Johnston City.
OnePocket.org: I’ve never heard that before about Johnston City. So how would you say the Derby City Classic would compare to Johnston City?
Danny DiLiberto: They’re trying to make Derby City like Johnston City, with the all-around thing, but it’s in a big city, and you have the riverboat gambling casinos, you have off track betting. You couldn’t go anywhere with the money at Johnston City. In other words [at the=”” dcc=””][/at] you could lose money tonight to a guy and tomorrow, you can’t win back what you lost, because he went somewhere and gambled it away. Johnston City, the money was still there, that’s why it will never be the same. And we don’t have the closeness. In those days it was like one big happy family – we would all chip in to get someone out of town if he went broke, even though we gambled with them, we would chip in to stake him in another spot. It’s not that way nowadays. Players are a little colder to each other; it’s just not as good camaraderie.
OnePocket.org: The camaraderie was really special, then…
Danny DiLiberto: It was; it was.
OnePocket.org: I can see where the Derby City might be too big for that…
Danny DiLiberto: Yeah. It’s a great tournament, I have fun at it and I do commentary and all that, and it’s a great hotel we play in, you never have to leave the place.
OnePocket.org: Yeah, I haven’t left yet since I’ve been there.
Danny DiLiberto: I know, I go there nine days and I never leave the place.
OnePocket.org: Danny, have you pretty much made your whole career playing pool? You didn’t ever go out and sell cars or whatever?
Danny DiLiberto: No, I avoided that all I could. I couldn’t do 9 to 5. That’s another big thing about traveling around hustling pool – it’s a tough racket. There’s bullies; there’s heist men, and it’s a lot of work. You had to really hate 9 to 5 to do it, and I hated 9 to 5 .
OnePocket.org: It seems like a lot of work.
Danny DiLiberto: In ’63 a guy showed up in the tournament in Rochester, that ten player invitational, and we had a big meeting and he was talking about how pool was going to be a major sport and we could make big money and all. But it never turned out that way, so we still had to run around sneaking up on people and gambling to feed a family.
OnePocket.org: You mentioned how you first ran into One Pocket at Johnston City, I’d like to hear how that happened…
Danny DiLiberto: Hubert Cokes, who was known as ‘Daddy Warbucks’, was hitting balls in the practice room, and I asked if I could hit ‘em with him. So he said, ‘Where you from?’ And I said Buffalo, and he asked me, ‘Are you in all three events?’ I said, no, 9-ball and Straight Pool only. I said I never played a game of One Pocket – I never saw a game of One Pocket back in Buffalo. They simply did not play it. So he says, ‘Well, while you’re here, you ought to play in all three events.’ He actually staked me in the tournament. Then I happened to draw him in my first match – right after he was showing me how to break the balls and everything — I drew him the first match. I broke, happened to make a ball on the break, and ran eight and out. Then he broke, left me a short bank, which I made and ran eight. The third game I made a ball on the break again and ran eight. I beat him 3-0, 24 balls to nothing. Then after that of course, I had to play people like Eddie Taylor, Ronnie Allen, and ‘Boston Shorty’, and there were a lot of other players you never heard of, like Al Miller. There were a lot of players that never became champions, but knew how to play One Pocket, and I couldn’t get by any of them. Everybody hustled me to play One Pocket. Finally I got sick of it and said I’ve got to learn this game, which I think I did a good job of learning.
OnePocket.org: So in the beginning they were all trying to trap you at One Pocket?
Danny DiLiberto: Yeah, I could really play 9-ball and Straight Pool, so they all hustled me to play One Pocket. I was helpless, everything looked like the wrong shot; I thought everything had to be intricate; I didn’t know there were simple safes. Everything looked like a jigsaw puzzle, and I had to change that. I didn’t like weak players hustling me, trying to give me weight in One Pocket – guys that I could give the seven to in 9-Ball, trying to give me 10-7 in One Pocket. I couldn’t stand it; my ego couldn’t take it, I had to learn it.
OnePocket.org: Did you get connected with a particular player at that point to learn the game?
Danny DiLiberto: I watched. The closest I had to learning from someone was with Marcel Camp in Florida. He was a great player of the old days, and he played every game well. I learned a lot from him, but it was mostly from watching and noting what he did, and then I added stuff. I put Straight Pool in – the pile and so on – that I added to the game. Of course people like Ronnie Allen, had great kicking, and it’s such a big part of the game, kicking. I got to watch, record it, remember it and use it. Like I said, only a moron wouldn’t have learned in Johnston City.
OnePocket.org: How would you describe the Danny Diliberto style of One Pocket?
Danny DiLiberto: Well, I didn’t use the word creative first to describe me – Billiard Digest did – but I had the mixture of knowing the pile, cue ball control, and once I got a shot the Straight Pool came into play, and running out. A lot of times it looked like I was going to get one or two, but I got eight – you saw a few of that today. (Danny grins)
OnePocket.org: Yes I did.
Danny DiLiberto: That’s the only way you can give weight. I could give weight real good because I could run a lot of balls. Say a guy needs one and you need nine, if you can run balls, you’re only one shot away from getting out.
OnePocket.org: You also execute real well from a distance, that’s a strength of yours…
Danny DiLiberto: A lot better when I was younger, and not blind.
OnePocket.org: When you are running balls in One Pocket , do you have certain things you like to look for, like favorite patterns or key balls?
Danny DiLiberto: You always look for an insurance ball whenever you’re going into clusters. You don’t go into clusters on the blind. A lot of players shoot their insurance ball, and then try to hit the balls and open them up. You’ve got better cue ball control if you use the insurance ball – you don’t have to hit hard, you don’t have to lose the cue ball, because you’re hitting the little cluster and you’ve got an insurance ball you’re going to shoot, and from there you’re going to go on to the next ball and so on and so on. Going into clusters on the blind is going to get you; you’re not going to run as many balls if you do that.
OnePocket.org: I notice some players like to use certain balls as key balls to move from one area of the table to another – balls that give them options of where they’re going to go next…
Danny DiLiberto: That’s a form of insurance too, falling on a ball right so you can do that. It’s not just hitting clusters. There’s also insurance balls for position where if you don’t fall on your main ball, you’ve got an alternative. You’ve got that other ball to play for, in case you don’t fall on your first choice. One is a little better of course, ‘cuz you’re going to get more balls, but the other keeps you at the table.
OnePocket.org: I really enjoy your Accu-stats commentary; you seem to be very good at anticipating what a player is going to shoot…
Danny DiLiberto: I try to make it a lesson.
OnePocket.org: Sometimes there might be two or three shot possibilities…
Danny DiLiberto: Or four or five different choices.
OnePocket.org: How do you go about figuring which one to shoot?
Danny DiLiberto: Okay, which one is more dangerous? Which one plays the score better? You have to play the score. You’ll shoot a shot needing six and the other guy needs two, that you wouldn’t shoot if you need one. You’ve gotta have the judgment of when to shoot; when to duck; when it’s a good run-out situation. But if you’re gambling, there’s the other element too. Let’s say you’re playing somebody and you’ve got an edge on them and you don’t want them to quit, then you don’t pick your most powerful choice. You go down the ladder and pick maybe the third or forth best choice, to keep them in the game. It’s that kind of game. 9-Ball, you’ve got to run out; Straight Pool you’ve got to run out to win; but One Pocket, there’s a little stall element you can use. It’s unfortunate, but that’s in the game – it’s the best game to do it. You’re a pretty good player, but I could probably play you ‘One-and-Stop’ and beat you. I don’t have to run eight, I just make one ball and play safe. You’ll never shoot at your pocket and I’ll get out one at a time. No insult intended, I’m just talking about a different angle so people will know more about One Pocket.
OnePocket.org: Do you have any particular players you like to do the commentary for?
Danny DiLiberto: I like Keith McCready, he’s entertaining all the time; he’s colorful to watch, because he’s going to shoot at a white flag. He doesn’t play the score; he could be winning 7 to 1 and he’s still going to shoot at a crazy shot that he could lose with. But he’s a colorful person, so I like doing commentary on him. There’s a few others, Efren of course. I have fun with it anyway, but when a game gets real slow and it’s all ducking and up table, then what I like to do is tell stories. I like to throw something in there when it gets slow, but I would rather do matches that are more aggressive and get over with. If not, I try to find something to make it interesting.
OnePocket.org: When you went on the road, did you tend to go alone or with other players?
Danny DiLiberto: I would say that over the years I’ve probably teamed up and traveled with at least thirty different players at different times – at least.
OnePocket.org: Wow. You mentioned Junior Goff, who else did you travel with for One Pocket players?
Danny DiLiberto: Well I traveled with Ronnie Allen and Ed Kelley – Kelley was a great all-around player and finally got in the Hall of Fame, which he deserved. I traveled a little with Cole Dickson, Billy Incardona, Larry Lisciotti, Jimmy Rempe – it could go on and on and on. I traveled with Shannon Daulton. Then I traveled with players that weren’t champions, but that played pretty well and held up real well for the money.
OnePocket.org: So you traveled with Keith when he was young, and then with Shannon when he was young?
Danny DiLiberto: Shannon was recently. He wanted to go fishing and I had a good in with professional fishermen who had great charter boats in the Keys. I took him down there and we fished, and of course I had to hear him sing; he sings country, and I had to hear that all the way both ways.
OnePocket.org: How would you say the game of One Pocket has changed since Johnston City?
Danny DiLiberto: It’s definitely more aggressive now. With the old-timers it was a ducking game, you know, all safe and cautious, and the games lasted a lot longer. Now the players are more aggressive. People like Ronnie Allen were very aggressive, and of course nowadays Efren Reyes will invent things to get out. In the old days it was more about caution. One game of One Pocket took three and a half hours one time.
OnePocket.org: Before Johnston City and the TV exposure, One Pocket was more of a back room type of game – not the kind of game that would be in the spotlight. Then they got all that exposure and television and everything – do you think that helped loosen up the game?
Danny DiLiberto: Well of course when they did come to Johnston City with television they had to do a lot of editing. Even 9-Ball could take a long time in those days – you could push out every shot, not just after the break. You got safe, you pushed out. Now it’s one foul ball-in-hand, and that’s why they went to one foul ball-in-hand — it was the Jansco’s that changed it for television.
OnePocket.org: So it was the Jansco’s that changed the 9-Ball rules, but they didn’t change the rules for One Pocket, yet the game changed…
Danny DiLiberto: Grady has ideas to make the game go faster when all the balls get upstream. When a certain amount of balls get past the head string, they all go on the spot in a line. He used that in Columbia, South Carolina.
OnePocket.org: Did it actually come up where they had to use it?
Danny DiLiberto: Sure it did; it was a move! The guy’s got you like 7 to 1, and the balls are going up to the head string and you’ve got one more to knock up there, you knock it up and they all went down to the spot. It became another strategy actually. A lot of the movers – I won’t mention their names – didn’t like it, but it was another move. You want all those balls in play if you need a bunch, so you knock that one more ball upstream, and they all went behind each other on the spot. Then you get a shot you can get them all. So it became just another move.
OnePocket.org: I wanted to ask you about your book that you’ve been working on the last year…
Danny DiLiberto: Over a year, with Jerry Forsythe. It’s just about done and ready to go to the publisher. Hopefully it will become something. I sent a copy to Hollywood for them to look at it, but there’s one thing that’s against it in Hollywood right now, and that’s that bomb movie they made about pool – Pool Hall Junkies. Good friends of mine in Hollywood that are in the business said that’s the one little minus that might hurt you, is that people are afraid to put any money into a pool movie. But I like to think mine’s not just a pool movie. My book has more than just pool in it. When you read the book, you’re going to be a lot smarter about other things – other little scams and hustles that you wouldn’t know existed. Then there’s boxing, and sports, and throwing the golf ball – it’s not just pool. So I hope it goes well for me, I think it’s great script material, and so do people in Hollywood. We just have to see and hope, and hopefully the people that have the money to produce things aren’t totally turned off by that Pool Hall Junkies movie.
OnePocket.org: Who are some of the better-known One Pocket players that figure into your book?
Danny DiLiberto: I talk a little about Efren and Ronnie Allen – not just good players, but colorful people. I tell a great story about Keith McCready in the book, you might want to do this for like a forerunner for it; it’s a great story. In Bellflower in ’68, here’s this skinny pimple-faced kid thirteen years old, that two weeks in a row busted the ring pay-ball game on the Snooker table with the best players in California – and road players – it was Keith McCready. He would sleep under the tables, on the bench – he was thirteen. So I said, don’t think I’m butting in your business, but don’t you go to school? He said, ‘Nah, I got thrown out of school. They threw me out.’ So I said, for what? He said, ‘For having too much money.’ So I said, you want to elaborate on that? He said, ‘Elaborate, what’s that mean?’ I said, tell more about it. So now he says he went to Phys-Ed and goes up to the Phys-Ed teacher and says, ‘Would you hold my money? I don’t wanna put it in my locker; someone might steal it. Would you hold my money?’ The teacher said, ‘Yeah, I’ll hold it. How much?’ Keith says, ‘Twelve thousand. So they threw me out for having too much money.’
OnePocket.org: That’s pretty funny! Well, I’m really looking forward to the book. Danny, thanks very much for all your time!