Nine-Ball Run : 64 of the World's Top Billiards Players, Men and Women, Are at the Biltmore to Crown One of Their Number the Champion

Times Staff Writer

In the early stages of a billiards match, Mike Sigel sulks around a pool table, giving his head a quick left-right shake, raising one eyebrow and sighing as if he might never pocket another ball.

His worried expression helps explain the receding hairline.

But in the latter stages, Sigel struts confidently around the table, his table. He talks to the crowd about the last ball he pocketed and will even give a play-by-play of the run of shots he made to win the last game. All the pool table is his stage.

These days, Sigel is the best pocket billiards has to offer, and, if you believe his head-shaking, eyebrow-raising, opening act, he's the closest thing to a hustler in the game.

But somewhere between the worrier and the showman is the real Mike Sigel, Iron Eyes Mike. Not to confuse this Maryland native with that other Iron Mike, Tyson. Sigel's left hook is precision-performed with a cue stick instead of boxing gloves, and it's his eyes that are made of steel. When he's really in action, he's all business and his almost constant dialogue with the crowd gives way to the fix of his eyes upon the billiard balls and the pockets that are their destination.

"When he's right, he's unbeatable," said Steve Mizerak, a former world champion who is winding down his career.

Sigel was "right" when he worked his act on Takeshi Okumura Thursday night in the first round of the Peter Vitalie Invitational California Nine-Ball Championship at the Biltmore Hotel. Sigel handily beat Okumura, the Japanese national champion for four straight years, 7-6, 7-4.

This event, which continues through Sunday is being billed as pool the way it ought to be, a game that doesn't rhyme with trouble or cause any problems for the citizens of River City.

Sixty-four of the world's top players, including national champions from Japan and the Philippines, past greats and seven women, are playing in the single-elimination $50,000 black-tie event.

More than 30 million Americans play pool, or pocket billiards, depending on how genteel one wants to be. That's more than the number who play tennis or golf. The game is among the top 10 participant sports in the country.

But unless it's Mizerak's "just showin' off" beer commercial or a movie starring Paul Newman, it's not on television much. Tournament director Jay Helfert even had to explain the format to the opening night crowd of 1,000.

Each match is best 2-out-of-3 sets with a set consisting of the best 7-out-of-13 games. In billiards parlance, that's a race to seven.

Nine ball is played with only the one through nine balls, and the game ends when the nine ball is pocketed. On any shot, a player must strike the lowest numbered remaining ball on the table. As long as a player makes a good hit on the lowest numbered ball, any balls pocketed count, and a player continues his turn until the nine ball is made or he fails to pocket a ball. The player who sinks the nine ball wins.

Seven of the players are women, two of whom are married to men in the field. There's Sammy and Loree Jon Jones and Jim and Ewa Mataya. A third couple, Okumura and Yoko Miura, Japan's top female player, will marry in July.

Except for Jean Balukas, who is the best women's player of all time and this year began playing regularly on the men's tour, most of the women are really just part of the show. Ronnie Allen of Burbank, the original Fast Eddie Felson, called the women's presence unusual, and gave few of them a chance to do anything other than show off tuxedos that were more fashionable and brightly colored than the men's.

But Sigel knew why the women were playing against the men.

"I think it's a good idea right now," he said. "Jean's getting a lot of coverage, and if the women can draw that, it's good for the game."

Balukas, 27, won her first women's national championship at 13, and in the 14 years since has won more than 100 titles. A good athlete who might have become a tennis pro if she hadn't loved pool, Brooklyn-born Balukas twice finished second in ABC's Superstars competition for women.

"I competed against the men in the late 1970s, and I beat some good players," Balukas said. "But the players didn't like it. I was invading their game and they let me know it. I let that affect me. But this time, I'm here for good."

Balukas, who at age 15 beat the legendary Willie Mosconi in the CBS "Challenge of the Sexes," has one reason for playing the men on their tour: "I want to see how good I am, even if I have to get to used to losing."

The 16th-seeded player in the tournament, Balukas already has two top 16 finishes on the men's tour and has won all six women's tournaments this year.

But while Balukas has a legitimate shot at knocking off some of the top men, of the other women, only Jones got through the first round with a 7-4, 7-4 win over Edgar White, an old-timer from Detroit. Balukas won her opening match against Gary Nolan of Oklahoma City, 7-1, 2-7, 7-4 and takes on Mizerak today at 12:30.

Not that these women aren't good pool players, but about 25 of the top men in the field can make a comfortable living, $30,000-$50,000 a year, playing professionally. The women can't, and they don't have the experience. Sigel has made $79,801 already this year. Balukas made only $25,000 in women's tournaments all of last year.

"A lot of us are housewives," said Robin Bell, a Costa Mesa mother of five who was beaten by Greg Fix of Rochester, Minn., in the first round. "We have kids. It's not a living for us so we can't spend as much time practicing." Bell finally convinced her husband, Joe, to put the family pool table up so she could practice at home for tournaments. The table's up, outside.

"I have these kids, where am I going to put it in the house?" Bell said. "But I think it's really a compliment to the tournament to have us in. It's a good opportunity for us."

The billiards business is booming thanks in part to Newman and Tom Cruise, but the game isn't filled with hustlers. It's filled with good players from the United States, Japan, the Philippines and Mexico.

The players see the tournament as an opportunity to turn the game into a spectator sport.

"I don't particularly care for single-elimination," said Sigel, who estimated that he has won 80% of his tournaments by coming through the loser's bracket in the more traditional double-elimination format. "But if they get a good response from this, there's no telling what could happen. I'm sure single-elimination is a lot easier for people to follow."

Said Sammy Jones: "Single-elimination is a shorter game. It's easier to show your game in a half hour than three or four hours. You have to watch out for the boredom factor."

Among the highlights of the tournament's first day were the appearances of Okumura and Miura, the first couple of Japanese billiards. In Japan, where the game is not just popular, it's fashionable, billiards is played in a different style. Players don't play for position as much in Japan--they don't try to deny their opponent a good shot when they have a shot that's unmakeable. They always go for the shot. It's considered dishonorable to play it safe.

"I am more aggressive (than players in the United States)," Miura, 27, said through an interpreter. She's had a second- and a third-place finish in two U.S. women's tournaments and will begin competing in men's professional tournaments in Japan after she and Okumura are married July 19.

So while the two already married couples in the tournament field will only have to worry about beating each other in practice once this tournament is over, Miura and Okumura face the prospect of many meetings.

Said Okumura: "Well, of course it will be a difficult situation to be in, but, after all, it is competition."

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