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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 1)

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."

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