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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 3)

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'."


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