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.