Take hope, hackers: His first score was 58

Like any sensible Jewish mother in Brooklyn, Hilda Roth wanted her teenage son to grow up to be a lawyer or doctor. The last place she wanted him to hang out was the Rainbow Lanes. "My mother would come to the bowling alley and drag me home," recalls Mark Roth, now 27. "She was sure I was going to be a bowling bum."

Mom was right about bowling—but some bum! Earning well past $100,000 a year now as a pro, Roth reports, "Once I got on TV, Mother approved." The Professional Bowling Association's Bowler of the Year in 1977, he has a career total of 15 tournament victories—seven of them in 1978. That ties the season record set by Billy Hardwick and Earl Anthony, who at 40 is (or was) the reigning kingpin of the sport, and Roth's winnings so far of $113,000 set the all-time standard.

Roth has risen into contention despite an unorthodox style—a quick delivery, with none of the hyperconcentration common on the circuit, and a hook ball with a lot of spin. "They all told me to change," Roth recalls. "They said I'd never last. But you have to do it the way you know best. It doesn't matter how it rolls. It just has to knock down the pins."

Mark was 9 when his father, a postal worker, died of a heart attack. The boy began playing baseball, street hockey and basketball, sometimes until 4 in the morning. Then, when he was 10, Rainbow Lanes opened three blocks from his house. No prodigy, he shot 58 his first game ("I'll never forget it," he says with a grimace) but at 15 landed himself a part-time job fixing bowling machines for $2.50 an hour. That kept his nights open for practice and scouting for "action"—better known as hustling among the bowlers he beat in $20-to $120-a-game bets.

By the age of 16 he was averaging 193, and after graduation from high school he went to work full-time at the alley, entering nearby tournaments on the side. Finally, in 1974, when he earned a "viable $36,000," he hit the tour. One problem, Roth admits, was that "bowling was my whole life." (He didn't date until he was 18.) That changed when he met Jackie Dente, 26, at a Paramus, N.J. bowling alley two years ago. Next May they will be married, and Mark wants to buy a condominium in New Jersey.

Despite his six-figure income, Roth retains Brooklyn tastes: deli sandwiches, Italian dinners, beer, the movie Saturday Night Fever and "ball games—I'm a big kid." Although he set his mother and younger sister up in a new house on Staten Island, Roth crashes in a $240-a-month apartment in Jersey. His only splurges: a $6,500 Dodge van for touring next summer and a $150 gold Star of David.

When tension hits during tournaments, Mark chain-smokes and shouts "Firp!"—his nonsense substitute for the earthier expletives that usually aren't deleted around bowling alleys. Not that he's often frustrated. Roth's top series was an 866 in a tune-up (900 is perfect) with 37 consecutive strikes. This season he's averaging 220 pins per game.

He bowls seven hours a week on tour, five when home. "You can burn out bowling 40 hours a week," Roth reasons. To coddle his soup bone further, he never sleeps on his right arm or side. He speaks of older bombers and bigger media heroes in the game like Anthony in almost reverent tones. But while other pro athletes aspire to upwardly mobile second careers of the kind his mother once dreamed of, Roth has only one real long-term ambition: to retire at 40 and open a chain of bowling alleys bearing his name.