It was still early in the match, but Tom Jennings was 140 balls ahead as Larry Lisciotti stared at the table. Fourteen balls sat in a tight cluster that was shaped roughly like the continent of Africa. Inside the pack, at about where Angola would be, the 4 ball was pinned against the 11. Played correctly, the 4 would drop straight into the corner pocket. Lisciotti's problem was that to hit the 4 ball he first would have to bank the cue ball off the side rail at the precise angle. It would be a risky shot, made riskier because Lisciotti was tense. So far, little had gone right in his match with Jennings.
Lisciotti cleared his throat. "Why not?" he muttered. Hunched over the table, a medallion dangling from his neck, he aimed, drew back his cue stick and drilled the cue ball toward the rail.
The action was taking place on the second night of the $10,000 Challenge of the Champions, which a fortnight ago brought the two reigning U.S. straight-pool champions together for the first time. The two U.S. champions? Indeed. Jennings won the 1976 U.S. Open, an annual tournament sponsored by the Billiard Congress of America, but his victory was tarnished. Before the Open, the BCA had announced it was cutting its prize money from $50,000 to $25,000. In protest, a group of 32 players, including most of the best shooters, had quit the BCA, formed the Professional Pool Players Association and held a championship at Asbury Park, N.J. Lisciotti won that one, clinching his victory by winning two consecutive games from Steve Mizerak, who until then had been regarded as the prince of pool.
The game that Lisciotti and Jennings played was 1,000-point catch-up, 200 points a block. Simply put, play on the first night would end when the leading scorer had sunk 200 balls. The second night, play would end when the leader had 400, and so on for five nights. In each block, the leader could advance by only 200 points, but the trailer could take the lead by making up his deficit and then sinking 200 balls before his opponent did. This format clearly favored a streak player—one specializing in long runs—over a consistent shooter, and it was designed to prevent a runaway. That way the bettors would stay interested.
And there were plenty of them packed into the back room at Hopkins Billiards in Green Brook, N.J., where about 250 spectators a night sat in a little gallery or lounged atop the half a dozen other pool tables stored there. Those who had come to bet were getting some added entertainment, because Lisciotti vs. Jennings was not merely a match of national-championship pretenders. It was also a struggle between two different visions of what pool should be—the hustlers' game and the clean, well-lit game the BCA would like pool to become.
Jennings, the BCA's man, exudes suburbia. He is 26, single, and lives with his folks and three younger siblings in a colonial house in Edison, N.J. He teaches calculus at nearby Middlesex County College and is working toward a Ph.D. in math from Rutgers. He is bright, thoughtful, articulate and reserved.
In 1966, when Jennings first set foot in a poolroom, he was accompanied by his father, an accountant at J. C. Penney, who shoots skillfully enough to sink an entire rack if all goes well. Two years later, the 17-year-old Jennings was rattling off 100-ball runs, accepting challenges—non-betting only—from the top neighborhood players and, in poolroom parlance, beating them like drums. "I have the capacity to run many balls," he says, "250, 275, 300. Not many players run them like that. At least not consistently." As a preparation for the '76 Open, Jennings invented a game for himself. For six weeks he practiced every night, the sessions ending whenever he made 100 balls in a row. Not once did he have to stay longer than an hour and a half.
A 100-ball run is nowhere near Willie Mosconi's BCA record of 526—an accomplishment so astounding that few players today believe that he did it. Only once in the history of the BCA Open has a player run 150 straight, and that was a dozen years ago.
Among the pros, Jennings is viewed as a conservative shotmaker and cautious tactician, although he does not seem so because he has a very long bridge and a freewheeling stroke. He uses a 64-inch cue stick, the longest made and the most difficult to control. Experts also contend that Jennings lacks the seasoning—the nerve-dulling kind that comes only from gambling—to be a champion of the first rank. When the cash goes down, they say, practice runs, no matter how long, are as useless as buggy whips. Jennings disagrees. "Pool is a form of expression," he says. "I'm content to practice and develop my skills."
Well, maybe not perfectly content. After winning the Open, Jennings set out to market his title. He designed a trick shot he hoped Alka-Seltzer would use in a TV commercial. He places two tablets near two glasses of water on the head rail and then drills a cue ball into the cushion. Plop-plop, fizz-fizz—the tablets jump off the rail and land in the glasses. Jennings also mailed a packet of ideas to Cleveland sports impresario Mark McCormack, visited New York City publicist Joey Goldstein and phoned Michael Trope, the Los Angeles-based football players' agent. All that materialized from these efforts was an endorsement for calfskin gloves that began, "Tom Jennings' hands are worth millions." For payment, the million-dollar hands got $500.
Even more annoying for Jennings was the rigmarole of trying to make a match with Lisciotti, who was regarded by most authorities as the real champ because he had won his title against stronger opposition. Officially, the PPPA said it would not sanction the match on the grounds that Jennings was not a PPPA member. To join, he was asked to pay $100 in dues plus another $300, the amount players had anted up to enter the original PPPA tournament. Jennings considered the $300 a penalty and refused to pay it. Unofficially, Pete Margo, secretary of the PPPA, admitted he dreaded the match because he thinks Lisciotti is unreliable. Last October, Margo entered him in a major PPPA event in Norfolk, Va., but the champ begged off, saying he had just narrowly escaped death in a horrible car wreck. To Margo, that meant Lisciotti had a profitable pigeon waiting elsewhere. "Larry's always in a car wreck," Margo says. "What's that now? Fourteen this week?"
In April, David Cradock, a wealthy Virgin Islander, invited the PPPA to send its top players, all expenses paid, to St. Thomas for a tournament. Margo decided not to include Lisciotti. This gave Jennings an opening to put together the match the PPPA had frowned on. Left out of a tropical vacation by his own association, Lisciotti agreed, after a few phone calls, to meet Jennings head on. To Jennings, the making of the match was the first step in a crusade. After Lisciotti, he would whip Margo and then take on Mizerak. With the title indisputably his, Jennings would have McCormack, Goldstein and Trope coming to him. He might even appear on the Tonight show. He figured that once America realized its pool champion was an upstanding young man, the game's hustler image would be cleaned up forever, and some foresighted advertiser would sponsor a pool tour. "I realize, too," he says, "that maybe they won't."
Lisciotti, who has yet to work a day in his life, has no such grandiose ambitions. He does not care about games against the big names; any guy he can win a quick $50 from is his favorite opponent. He uses a Balabushka, the Rolls-Royce of cue sticks, but has such a short, punchy stroke that he looks as though he were driving a truck. Lisciotti hates crusades, pool organizations and anyplace he stays for more than a month. He likes—in order of preference—pool, golf, horses, blackjack, the stock market and barrooms, especially around 5 a.m. He also likes paydays. At first, a promoter wanted to hold the Lisciotti-Jennings match in Arlington, Va., but Lisciotti refused to play there. He preferred New Jersey, where Jennings is known and was likely to draw backers.
Lisciotti, 30, grew up in Manchester, Conn., where he was co-captain of the high school basketball team, a five-handicap golfer and the local pool shark. At 17 he ran out of pigeons and hit the road. He's been gone ever since.
One night when he was 18, Lisciotti was playing eight ball in a bar in Tulsa. As the roughnecks lining the bar angrily watched, his winnings grew to $2,000. Near closing time, Lisciotti spotted his opponent four balls and bet him $500 and five men at the bar another $100 apiece. He dumped the game, laid his cue stick and ten $100 bills on the table and went to the men's room. "Listen to this," he says now. (Lisciotti stories often begin "Listen to this.") "I climbed out a window and ran to the car."
Another time, Lisciotti claims, he played nine ball for $1,000 a game against a tipsy millionaire at the man's house in Charlotte, N.C. Lisciotti was $15,000 ahead and was aiming at the 9 ball—and another grand in winnings—when he noticed his opponent was pointing a .38 at him. Lisciotti missed the shot. The man fired and a bullet flew past Lisciotti's head. Five more times Lisciotti advanced to the 9 ball, but each time he saw the .38, flinched, missed the shot and ducked as a bullet zoomed by. By the seventh rack, Lisciotti was fed up. "If he's going to kill me, let him," Lisciotti said to himself, and drilled the 9 ball into a pocket. "I heard a click," he says. "Listen to this. The guy ran out of bullets."
As the cue ball came darting off the rail in the back room in Green Brook and sped toward the rack, Lisciotti was thinking that his reign as the new prince of pool was about to end. Then the cue ball met the 4 ball at just the right angle, driving it hard into the corner pocket. Lisciotti chalked his stick and ran 29. Clearly, he was loosening up. Jennings, meanwhile, was having trouble sinking cripples. By the end of the block, Lisciotti had made a run of 88 balls and overcome most of the 140-point deficit. He trailed 400-382.
The next night Lisciotti took a 600-523 lead. An 84-ball run and two miscues by Jennings gave him a lead of 103 balls after four blocks. On the afternoon of the final. Lisciotti slept, while Jennings changed the tip on his stick and thought about his play. His longest run had been 69 balls, and he had no explanation for his indifferent performance. That night, with the score 874-713, Lisciotti stood, addressed the 5 ball and dropped it in the side pocket. Before he sat down again, he had reeled off 125 balls for a total of 999.
If Jennings was ever going to run 300 balls, this was the moment to do it. He strode slowly to the table and cleaned off the rack. The crowd applauded enthusiastically, making Jennings smile for the first time since the match had begun. He ran another rack of balls, and then a third and a fourth. In the fifth rack, with the 7 ball perfectly positioned near a side pocket for a break shot, Jennings undercut the I ball. His run had ended at 57. Lisciotti quickly drilled the 7 in the side.
For a long time afterward Jennings sat motionless. "I just don't understand it," he said over and over. "At no point did I play to my potential."
Lisciotti stuck the $10,000 check in his pocket. Listen to this. He's still the prince.