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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.

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