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The Poet of Pool

Mike Sigel is a pool player who enjoys his cigars.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

(continued from page 2)

But when the world outside disappoints a player, he loses himself in the world he knows best--the orderly universe of flat surface and perfect spheres.

Sigel returned to that world with a vengeance. You have to go back to Willie Mosconi's' 50s to find a decade as thoroughly dominated by a player as Sigel dominated the '80s. At one point he was known as "Mr. Final" due to his exploits in final matches--winning approximately 85 of 95 tournaments in which he reached the final match.

Sigel, now 39, has collected four World Straight Pool titles--more than any active player--and at 36 was the youngest ever elected to the Hall of Fame. It was an awful lot, awful soon.

Sitting at Tio Pepe's in Baltimore--his favorite restaurant in "the whole world"--he relaxes, drawing on a cigar (he usually smokes Garcia Y Vega Grenadas or Macanudo Prince Philips) after dinner, blowing the smoke toward the ceiling. He waxes philosophical about his career. "After the Hall of Fame induction, I remember thinking, 'What will I do now?' It was hard." Interestingly, Sigel's game has weakened since the time of the election. "I lost a little interest, had some problems. It wasn't mechanical; it was mental. I just kind of got bored with it and didn't do well in tournaments." Several months ago, he separated from his wife, Chris.

Though Sigel has had several off years, he still managed to win a one-pocket tournament--in which a player must sink all his balls in one pocket--as well as nine-ball and straight pool tournaments last year. He has won more than 100 tournaments in 20 years of pro play.

But among a cityscape of trophies in his Baltimore home, his proudest is a mounted eight-pound bass he hooked in Mexico. He would as soon go fishing as play pool. While casting into a pool re-energizes the body, shooting tournament pool drains the spirit. "There's more pressure in pool than any other sport," Sigel sighs. "In golf, if you're three strokes ahead on the eighteenth hole, you can't lose."

In pool no lead is safe. "Once I had a 194-to-15 lead [in the Rochester Classic against Jim Rempe]," Sigel recalls. "My cue ball got tied up and Rempe ran 75." Rempe remembers that the audience members had already left, their steps dinning in his ears as they exited across the wood floor. Then Rempe launched a comeback. "It was like the movie The Birds; the crowd came back one by one until the room was full again." Sigel recalls, "I missed, and he ran another 110." He relives the annoyance all over again. "Game." In a world where $50,000 can ride on a single stroke of the cue, casting for bass has its place.

In the U.S. Open Final there was more pressure to contend with. First Sigel had to cool his heels for two hours, hitting balls on an anteroom practice table while he waited for the women's final to end. "You're all showered and ready to go and then you have to wait. I just wanted to get underway," Sigel recalls. After the women's final ended, Jimmy Caras and Mosconi, both Hall of Famers, were introduced to the standing-room-only crowd. If that wasn't enough, Mosconi sat tableside, not five feet from Sigel's chair. On more than one occasion, Mosconi's mere presence has made players miss.

But Sigel handles pressure better than any player. He jokes, often at his own expense. "Oh, there's a great shot," he said sarcastically after he rolled the cue ball down the table and out of position in an early-round match. He vents; he gets through. The tournament pressure that makes others wilt makes Sigel thrive. After running three consecutive racks he returned to his chair. "Just like Willie showed me," he cracked. It was a singular action for a player, because under pressure most would be too self-involved to notice Christ three feet from their nose. Mosconi, of course, did not teach Sigel; their careers did not intersect. But Mosconi appreciated the kind words just the same. He smiled, seeming to recall his own career in the figure of Sigel before him.

And in the Open final match, Sigel prevented any Rochester-like returns from the dead. Following Dallas West's opening break, Sigel spotted a combination, smoked it and ran 29 balls before overshooting a tough bank. He then fidgeted and kvetched in his chair as West returned fire, running 40. Straight pool matches contain at least one pivotal moment. This one had two.

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