Money out of their own pockets

August 29, 1976

It was certainly a confounding time for the world's best pool shooters. Here are a bunch of men who usually cannot win enough prize money to cover the price of a new cue stick, and suddenly two weeks ago they had a choice of two tournaments worth a total of $75,000. The Billiard Congress of America held one, its annual U.S. Open Pocket Billiards Championships. The other tournament, called the World Open Pocket Billiard Championship, was hosted by a group of maverick players who, dissatisfied with the BCA's piddling $25,000 pot, had founded the Professional Pool Players Association.

Predictably, this led to all sorts of confusion. The BCA said it had been obliged to cut its prize money from the $50,000 awarded in previous years because the players were milking the organization dry. The players said they are poor because the BCA is cheap. The BCA advertised that it had the best shooters for its championships in Chicago. The PPPA said the BCA field was comprised of shortstops (also known as pigeons). Each faction promised to have the Japanese champ at its tournament; the BCA got him. Each side called its winner the world champion; the PPPA had the clear edge there. Considering all this, it was fitting that the better of the two tournaments, the PPPA's, ended when a mysterious young hustler kept the king of straight pool, Steve Mizerak, and a goodly crowd up until five in the morning while he pulled off a stunning upset.

For years pro pool players have griped about the BCA. Its tournaments have been few and its payoffs small, at least when compared with those of pro bowling, to say nothing of golf and tennis. Not one player could say he made his living shooting tournament pool. So when the BCA announced that it was cutting the prize money for the Open, 32 players put up $300 apiece and agreed to stage a championship of their own in Asbury Park, N.J. "We were at the bottom of the pit," says Pete Margo, a Staten Island, N.Y. pro who founded the PPPA with Mizerak, Ray Martin of Fairlawn, N.J., Allen Hopkins of Cranford, N.J. and Ernie Costa of Brooklyn. "The BCA threw us crumbs, and we took them too long."

The PPPA quickly won the support of most of the other top players. The BCA lined up defending champ Dallas West, 1974 titlist Joe Balsis and a host of unknowns for its affair. The PPPA tournament had seven-time world champ Deacon Crane, four-time Open winner Luther Lassiter, Mizerak, Jim Rempe, Rich Florence, Earl Herring and, supposedly, George Plimpton. It also offered a purse of $50,000, in part because the PPPA founders kicked in $14,100 of their own money.

The old Jersey resort Asbury Park was a logical site for the PPPA event. It is seedy enough to fit pool's image and it is located on the East Coast, where most of the best shooters live. To promote the event, Margo hired Bruce Christopher, a 29-year-old ex-minister (or so he says) who heretofore had publicized nothing but himself. He wrote an autobiography called Godplayer, which tells of dubious $2 million hustling successes in faraway lands.

Margo first saw Christopher one afternoon on To Tell the Truth, but thought little of his veracity after Christopher introduced himself as the world's greatest hustler. "Is that so?" Margo said to the television set, and set out to get a closer look at the self-proclaimed champion. When the two met, it quickly became clear that Christopher shoots pool about as well as Garry Moore.

On opening night of the PPPA tournament, Hurricane Belle whipped northward along the Atlantic, 30 miles east of Asbury Park, depositing a foot of water in the entrance of Convention Hall. Only about 150 people trickled through the gate. The Herb Lehman-Pete Fusco match was delayed when the wind shattered a glass door, blew nine balls across the table and pinned them to a cushion. Plimpton phoned and excused himself, saying his wife was suddenly going to have a baby. Crane lost to Mike Sica, an elementary school gym teacher from North Brunswick, N.J. playing in only his second straight-pool tournament. Upstairs, the scoreboard had mysteriously disappeared. Downstairs, a security guard mistook Margo for a spectator and briefly kept him from entering the playing area.

But just when a complete fiasco seemed imminent, Mizerak played safe to begin his opening-round match against Rusty Miller. The cue ball grazed the rack, loosening the two-ball, caromed off two cushions, then rolled the length of the table to within an inch of the rail. Miller overcut the two, missing a corner-pocket shot. Mizerak chalked his cue and cleaned off the table. He pecked away at rack No. 2. Then, three and four. Mizerak ran out in 38 minutes, whipping Miller 150-0, a feat Christopher boldly likened to "swimming the English Channel under water." It was the first perfect game in an Open since 1966.

In straight-pool circles, Mizerak is the man to beat. He is a paunchy 31-year-old junior high school history teacher from Perth Amboy, N.J. whose subdued manner belies his competitiveness. As a kid, he haunted the poolroom his father ran, aping the bridges and strokes of his dad's most skilled customers. Among them was Willie Mosconi, the world champ in 1955 when he first advised young Mizerak to stick with pool. "I dreamed that someday people would talk about me like they talked about Mosconi," Mizerak says. "I'm getting there slowly, but I'm not there yet."

But straight pool changed in the late 1940s when table specifications were shortened from 5' x 10' to 4½' x 9' and the balls were made livelier. Hundred-ball runs suddenly became common, making it all but impossible for one man to dominate the game. Yet beginning in 1970, Mizerak won four consecutive BCA pocket billiard titles; even Mosconi had never done that. It was while winning his second championship that Mizerak began to believe in himself. He trailed Balsis 95-2, then ran 97 balls. Balsis pocketed 23 and missed. Mizerak ran out the game. At dinner that night, Linda Mizerak gushed over her husband's accomplishment. She called him the world's sharpest shooter. Until then, Mizerak had always disregarded her boasts. That night he turned to her and grinned.

Linda still marvels at Steve's ability, since he rarely practices. The Mizeraks do not have a table in their three-bedroom house, and even though Mizerak owns the Four Seasons Billiard Lounge in Metuchen, N.J., he spends little time there. "When we dated I didn't think he was much of a player, because we were always together and he never shot," Linda says. "I honestly thought I was marrying a schoolteacher." Says Steve, "I love to play when I have to and hate to play when I don't."

Unlike most outstanding players, Mizerak is not flamboyant, eccentric or a hustler. In fact, he almost never shoots pool's traditional betting game, nine-ball, and he resists offers to make walking-around money, as many of the top shooters do, by giving trick-shot exhibitions. Mizerak, a purist, hates to do tricks.

But like most good players, Mizerak plays offensive pool: to win, you must be at the table. "I attack inside out," he says. "I concentrate on the balls left in the rack area after the break. Then I go after the ones on the other end of the table. The rest is simply cleaning up and leaving myself a break shot."

Following his shutout of Miller, Mizerak rolled over Mike Sigel of Rochester 150-82 and Jimmy Fusco of Philadelphia 150-39. Meanwhile, the gate picked up, and Rudolph Walter Wanderone of Dowell, Ill., a/k/a Minnesota Fats, rubber-stamped his autograph on fans' dollar bills. A small boy asked him why he wasn't playing. "Fifty grand is match-sticks," said Fats, who despite his reputation is not a championship caliber player. "You're looking at a guy who owns five Cadillacs and buys a new one every time a bird flies by."

On his way to the finals of the double-elimination tournament, Mizerak used runs of 57 and 77 to whip a newcomer named Larry Lisciotti. On his last inning, Lisciotti bagged 66 straight. "What'd I miss? Twice?" he grumbled after the game. "If I can make the game go eight innings, I think I can beat him."

Excluding his triumph in the World Nine-Ball Championships last April and a solid fifth-place finish in last year's BCA Open, Lisciotti had won nothing but a pile of money hustling on the road. The players had no book on him, except that he was a bridesmaid in straight pool. He is 29, slender-waisted and wide across the shoulders. He wears open shirts and a hairstyle that makes him look like a tourist from Paris. At 16 Lisciotti ran out of pigeons in his hometown of Old Saybrook, Conn., so he started to travel around the country, rooting out games and circling tables far into the night. He joined the pro tour in 1974. "My face got burned into people's memories," he says. "I couldn't line up any opponents to hustle anymore."

Mizerak and Rempe, a two-time World Nine-Ball champ, were still undefeated when the finals rolled around; Lisciotti was the survivor from the losers' bracket. By this time it was clear the real Open champion would be the winner at Asbury Park. Tom Jennings of Elizabeth, N.J. already had won the BCA tournament, which made the PPPA players laugh. "A shortstop," Margo said. "There are nine guys in Jersey alone who can eat him up."

Mizerak began the finals by beating Rempe 150-104, but the game lasted 15 long innings. Then he squared off against Lisciotti at 12:50 a.m. At 12:51 Mizerak scratched into a side pocket while making an easy nine-ball in the corner. Needing two wins in a row, Lisciotti pumped in 59 points. His stroke was rapid and smooth, his confidence was growing with each shot. "Here's what we live for," said Margo. "Where Larry is now is the Land of Dead Stroke. He's not going to miss. Mizerak knows it."

As Mizerak studied his next lie, he started to whistle. Friends say that when Mizerak whistles he knows he is in trouble. Sure enough, his best run was only 22 balls. Lisciotti piled on another 69 to win in a breeze. Now each player had a loss.

As they readied to play the final game, spectators scurried around laying bets. The odds were even. Mizerak had never been beaten back-to-back in championship straight pool, but Lisciotti was playing his absolute best. The game began at 2:30 a.m. Lisciotti won the lag; Mizerak broke. Following an exchange of safeties, Lisciotti spotted a dead two-ball in the rack and blasted it home. Five more balls and Lisciotti left himself with a bank shot that he missed. Mizerak approached a wide-open table. He realized that he needed to lay a truckload on Lisciotti to upset the tempo. Quickly he polished off the rack and spun triumphantly on his heels toward the powder can. On the ensuing break, Mizerak buried the cue ball deep in the rack, ending his run at eight. With both players working cautiously—and Lisciotti lengthening the game well past those eight innings he felt he needed—there was a virtual stalemate until 3:45 a.m. At that point, Mizerak had the table, but he trailed 85-73 and was getting tired. He called the one-ball in the side. It glanced off one lip of the pocket, hit the other and hung on the table. After Lisciotti piled on 48 points, Mizerak washed his hands. Lisciotti needed only 17 more balls, and he calmly drilled them in.

Reporters surrounded the new champion. No, $12,500 wasn't his biggest score; he had taken $15,000 out of Carbondale, Ill. one night last summer. Linda Mizerak raced toward her husband. He slung an arm over her shoulder. "I'm exasperated," he whispered. "My stick feels like a 50-pound board."

About 400 fans still were in their seats at the end. Twelve hundred had attended the final, adding $5,000 to the gate and bringing the PPPA purse money to within $3,000 of its advertised $50,000. Margo announced that the PPPA would sponsor another straight pool gig in Manhattan in January. The association had survived its tournament. As Mizerak and Lisciotti departed, the dawn was breaking.