The World Pool Title in the Side Pocket, Mike Sigel Calls, and Makes the Shot, of Course
Kid," said the rumpled vet when it was all over, "you shot me full of holes." It wasn't Fats or Willie speaking, but otherwise the scene was classic.
Mike Sigel, 26, had just won the World Open pocket billiards championship by the runaway score of 150-31. Eighty-eight minutes after he and 57-year-old Joe Balsis stepped up to the green felt at a New York Holiday Inn ballroom, Sigel stroked the "2" ball into a side pocket and became $25,000 richer.
The Professional Pool Players Association, which is trying to shed its backroom-beer-belly image, could not have picked a better champion. Sigel is pool cue thin—5'11" and 140 pounds—and casually elegant in the dinner jacket that the PPPA requires for all tournaments. (There is a rival pool group, Billiard Congress of America, but no other genuinely world class event.) Sigel's exterior cool, however, masks inner turmoil. "I felt sick for days afterward," he admits of the three-packs-a-day nervousness that built up during the weeklong tournament.
Sigel has made a living with his cue since 1971, though he says he "went legit" only two years ago. Much of his income has been the kind that doesn't find its way onto W-2 forms and, while hustling pool is not a contact sport, it can be a hazardous one. "I've never gotten into a fight," reports Sigel, "but I can see how it could happen." He recalls with a wince handing over $4,000 he had just won to a thief at gunpoint outside a North Carolina pool room.
In Sigel's hustling days, when he played for as much as $1,500 a game, he traveled with a plain cue. Now he uses a $900 custom-made job that he treats as reverently as a violinist would a Stradivarius. In strange towns, Sigel used to leave his car blocks from the pool hall so the unsuspecting locals wouldn't notice his out-of-state license plate. Now his tan Datsun 280ZX has plates that read "C HOOK," telegraphing his presence.
It's short for Captain Hook, a nickname Sigel earned seven years ago in Texas while playing against a pro named Jersey Red. Time after time, Sigel left Red "hooked"—blocked with no makable shot. Some players have since promoted him to "General Hook."
Born on July 11, 1953 (7/11—"a gambler's birthday," he points out), Sigel spent his youth in Rochester, N.Y. He took up pool at 13, right after his bar mitzvah, when his father brought home a 3½-by-7-foot cardboard pool table. "I fell in love with the game," he remembers. To his parents' dismay, he practiced night after night, and as soon as he could enter a pool hall legally, at the age of 16, he headed for one every afternoon. "I didn't go out with girls much in those days but," he winks, "I made up for it later."
He passed up college in favor of full-time pool. Even now, though he is settled in a bachelor apartment in Tow-son, Md. and works in public relations at nearby Joss Cues, he has few hobbies and watches little TV. He especially avoids late screenings of The Hustler—"every time they show it, it puts pool back 10 years." (He and nine other pros will appear, though, with James Coburn and Omar Sharif in The Baltimore Bullet, a pool movie to come out next spring.)
Next month, Sigel heads for Las Vegas for pool's richest tournament ever (top prize at least $50,000). He exudes confidence. "There are certain guys I have trouble beating," Mike allows, "but I kind of forget who they are."
Winning in Vegas would be sure to add to his reputation—and problems. Occasionally Sigel takes off: "I'll be working in the shop for two months and then I'll get the itch. Boom! I'm gone." Yet his increased fame on the pool circuit has already put him behind the eight ball when he shows up in most towns. "No one," he complains, "will play me anymore."