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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

Proudly toting rifle-sized leather satchels over their shoulders, they give pause to shoppers along tony Madison Avenue. A hint of cocky mischief juices their steps as they hop into a cab and hunt for an action room on New York's West Side. In some dim hotel ballroom, pool shooters might be gods manipulating spheres, but on the pavement outside they are anonymous.

Mike Sigel may be the most gifted of the anonymous. As New Yorkers seek refuge from the close August heat, Sigel is indoors at New York's Roosevelt Hotel, coolly performing on a slate stage stretched with green wool. The U.S. Open Pocket Billiard Tournament unfolds in the Grand Ballroom. With a room full of players in coat and tie; this gaslight-era expanse--with wraparound balcony etched in hand-sculpted frieze and crystal chandeliers--is no River City dive perverting family values. Not by a long shot. No, this is a kinder, gentler parlor for the game of kings.

The game being played--straight pool--is recognized as the contest of the most skillful. For pool purists, it is a welcome relief from the bang-'em-and-hope nine-ball matches that draw all the attention these days. The majority of the 40 million people who play pool each year play eight ball and nine ball. Nine ball is a volatile Nintendo-generation sprint; straight pool, a circuitous, thinking man's marathon. With little luck or unpredictable nonsense, straight requires that you call every shot, with the first player to pocket 150 balls winning.

But straight pool is also a dinosaur: promoters say it is too slow and monotonous to work on television. If the truth be known, straight also requires an array of skills that many nine-ball players don't possess or are unwilling to cultivate.

So this U.S. Open tournament--held in a room where more than a dozen world championships have been played--is a bridge to a rapidly receding past. This may be the last straight tournament that men play in for a long time. For Sigel that's a bad break: for 20 years he has enjoyed his pool straight.

Invented in 1910, "straight" did not become the official world-championship game until 1912. Straight pool grew out of two games that are as long gone as ivory cue balls, "61-pool" and "continuous." Continuous often dragged at a snail's pace, bogging down in a series of defensive "safeties" each time a new rack began. Some of these comatose contests lasted seven hours. To mercifully eliminate the problem, Jerome Keogh--Irving Crane's mentor who, together with Sigel and Crane, is one of three world champions to come from Rochester, New York--suggested that the last ball of each rack be left free to be used as a "break ball" for the next rack. This made for a more offensive, crowd-pleasing game with higher runs. He named his new game "14 racked, 1 ball free," which became 14.1 continuous or straight pool. It is a game that combines shooting skill as well as cue ball control and defense.

Straight pool is also the game Sigel grew up with.

At the Roosevelt, Sigel hunches over a table, plying his trade. Slightly built, like a matador, and looking too small for his black cummerbund, Sigel seems dwarfed by the vast and elegant surroundings of the room. But at the moment he is oblivious to the Baroque architectural refinements. He is stalking prey; picking off "balls in space," as he describes a spread of colored constellations and combinations that form. He steers clear of loose clusters, those black holes that can absorb a cue ball and stop a run. Sigel's cue ball, moving as if on a marionette's strings, seems to always find its destination. Surging toward 150 points, he floats the cue ball out of troubled areas into wide open green. Like a hunter leaving a forest in order to fire back into it, Sigel likes to roll away from traffic--center table--and snipe at the pack. Though Mike Zuglan is a dangerous opponent (he would run 148 balls later this same evening), Sigel has already sprayed 70 consecutively with the ease of a marksman powdering clay birds. The rhythm is textbook: he strokes once, twice, hesitates and fires. Each staccato "click" of the balls, preceding a thump of the pocket, echoes up to the balcony.

Fifteen balls can lay on a 40.5 square-foot surface in an infinite variety of ways. No problem. Sigel's metagame simplifies position play by reducing it to several principles. Like mentally dividing the cue ball into "vertical and horizontal planes" to apply english. But like any truly great player his real gift is seeing.

He often perceives his next 14 shots in order. Sometimes he sees even more. Sigel can look at a chaotic spread of balls and trace sequences. Were Sigel a chess master with this same sequential acumen, he might be accorded the status of genius. But despite employing chesslike planning, plus an added element of eye-hand coordination, pool players have never received comparable respect. Perhaps this is because pool players are often perceived as ne'er-do-wells; men who squander their talents, stay up all hours and embrace values counter to social conventions.

So advanced is Sigel's understanding of position that video narrators Bill Staton and Grady Matthews--with a century of pool experience between them--frequently miscalculate Sigel's next few shots in their narration, much less how he'll run the rest of the rack. In Sigel's life, position is everything.

And sitting is his opponent's position. As Sigel runs his total to 112, Zuglan sinks farther and farther into what insiders call the "electric chair." Pool offers no defense against an opponent running the table: you can't intercept a pass or block a shot or make a great running catch. You can only sit and hope. Zuglan's lone miscue was leaving a ball free on the opening break more than an hour ago. Sigel drilled the table-length shot, kicked a few balls loose and condemned Zuglan to pool purgatory.

A thunderous standing ovation follows Sigel's 150th point. In a postgame interview, Sigel acknowledges that this first perfect game in U.S. Open history was "amazing."

Why talk? By 15, he had already discovered that filling pockets kept his pockets full. At times he hit the road. "My traveling partner used to find a pool hall and plant a custom one-piece cue in the afternoon, so I didn't have to walk through the doors at night with a two-piece." He smirks. His choice turf was the Ridge Billiard Lounge in Rochester. At 19, he ran 339 balls there. His mother, Ruth, knew of his talent before then. But she wasn't thrilled.

Mike's father, Sidney, worked for an auto-parts company that received its shipments by railroad. One day he discovered two damaged pool tables on the freight train, brought them home and fixed them up. The eight-foot table that he put in the garage became Michael's table. "At six o'clock he'd finish dinner and sometimes play till six in the morning when my husband was leaving for work,' Ruth recalls," shaking her head.

"I didn't care for it too much; I would worry about drugs in the pool room," Ruth recalls. "But Mike brushed tables to earn playing time, and the owner watched him and drove him home at night."

Ruth eventually came around to it, although she still protested occasionally. "A few times I got aggravated; he wouldn't go to Hebrew school because he was too tired from playing pool nights, she says. "I said, 'You must leave the house at 6:15 in the morning and you can't come back until three.' Where else could he go but school? The pool room didn't open until 11 A.M. I knew he loved it: He signed up for college twice--Rochester and Brockport--but stopped each time. But I never nagged him. Now I see his name and his picture and commercials and The Color of Money [the pool film for which Sigel was technical adviser]. When we see it, we get so hyped up. I'm more excited than he is."

His father, Sidney, played with him for a while but grew tired of racking up balls when Mike ran hundreds at a time.

Mike's resolve to turn pro began in the early '70s at the Johnson City, Illinois, All-Around Tournament. There he studied the sultans of straight--Joe Balsis, Steve Mizerak, Ray Martin, and Irving Crane. "Before I went there, I thought these guys never missed. Before I left, I said, 'I could beat him and him and him...'."

In 1979 he did. At 27, Sigel came to New York, still without a world championship. But he won that year's World Straight Pool Tournament at the Holiday Inn and headed home to Baltimore. "I put the trophy in the passenger seat and I couldn't get the grin off my face for three straight weeks." Then reality set in: local media treated him more like a leper than a world champion. Television stations in Baltimore said his achievement "wasn't newsworthy." "Newsworthy?" Sigel mocks. "If I was the World Champion at tiddlywinks, I would have gotten some coverage."

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.

First, following a scratch, Sigel ran 84, shooting ahead 112 to 40. Two racks later West--a two-time Open winner--eyed a seductive do-or-die kiss shot. But Sigel left the cue ball beneath the triangle so West had to carom off the side cushion to reach it. It misfired by an inch. Sigel sprang from the chair and downed the last 38 balls, winning 150 to 56. He not only won his six games but seared opponents by a comically lopsided combined score of 900 to 328. After overcoming some inconsistent play against low seeds, Sigel utterly dominated the field. He even "beheaded" "Lite Beer" Mizerak, 150 to 28.

While his peers accord him the highest respect, few of them find his table manners amusing. In a game with an unspoken but detailed code of etiquette, Sigel chirps at balls, the moisture in the cloth, unresponsive pool gods--anything. His chatter with the audiences who crowd his table spices a dull match. For audiences, Sigel's games become participatory theater. He once blamed an unfortunate roll on a current of air caused by a couple stirring in the balcony.

"He's not happy unless he's complaining," says Bobby Hunter, the 1990 World Champion, smiling. "He's definitely a whiner," says Rempe, Sigel's cue rival of some 20 years. "He complains about not getting the rolls, but he's already gotten better rolls than any player in history." Before departing, Rempe's face grows thoughtful and he measures his words. "If I'm putting a lot of money on one shot, I want Mike Sigel shooting it." "He's the Arnold Palmer of pool," says former world champion Allen Hopkins. And Mizerak puts a cap on it: "Mike Sigel is the best player breathing on earth."

As long as Mosconi draws breath, that estimate is probably excessive. Mosconi utterly dominated pool for 17 years, winning 19 of 26 challenges and championships played between 1941 and 1956. But Sigel would have won more than his four World Tournaments if they were staged annually.

But they probably won't be. Straight pool is further threatened by the separation of the men's tour from the Billiard Congress of America. "The B.C.A. thinks they're the governing body of pool," says Sigel, irritated. "They're not; the players are." One reason that the top men are planning to avoid future U.S. Opens has to do with prize money. At the Open, Sigel was handed a check for $9,700 after shooting the lights out for an entire week. "The same money that Joe Balsis got 20 years ago," Sigel later complained. Indeed, in last year's AC-Delco Bowling Classic, the third-place finisher received more; the first-place finisher received $37,000. "We would play this year if $50,000 was added to the prize money," Sigel says. But that won't happen.

So the Professional Billiard Tour Association now does its own bidding. With newfound independence, the players stage their own trade shows and tournaments, even produce and televise their own events. In World Team Billiards matches they play televised nine-ball, games infused with flag-waving nationalistic fervor against teams from Germany, the Philippines, Puerto Rico.

They have even elected a commissioner of pool--Don Mackey, a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly. A handful of the best players make between $100,000 and $200,000 with industry endorsements and purses in a good year. They are eager to pocket the steady money they deserve. It is reflected in their conversation: talk that is sprinkled with references to commercial spots, corporate sponsorship and exclusive television rights. World Wide Collectibles, a California company, has even begun a series of pool trading cards. Gone are the prom-night tuxedos with white ruffled shirts that players were told to wear to upgrade the image of pool.

Image is still important, however. Many of the players are trying to cultivate the appearance of respectability and enhance their marketing potential. Pro players no longer drink at the hotels where they play and stay. Drinks are not forbidden, mind you; players are simply told to indulge away from the public eye.

So men's pool looks toward a brighter horizon. "We've accomplished more in the last year and a half than in the previous 20 years," says Sigel.

And Sigel will admit to getting a few rolls. At a New York party in 1985, he buttonholed Martin Scorcese with an offer to advise Paul Newman and Tom Cruise for The Color of Money. Under Sigel's tutelage, Cruise looked like a respectable player in the film. "Cruise was polite," Sigel recalls. "He always called me 'Mr. Sigel'."

If pool pros only drew that kind of respect from the rest of the world, they'd be shooting stars.

Kenneth Shouler is a sportswriter and author from White Plains, New York.

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