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Twelve years ago, at age 31, Martin began playing pool a few nights a week. "Those were hard years," Martin says. "Home at 6, pool from 10 until 3 a.m. and back to work by 7. I hated to get out of bed."
In 1971, using his savings and whatever he could borrow, Martin quit his job as a printer and bought the Clifton Billiard Lounge. That year he beat Irving Crane, Luther Lassiter and Joe Balsis—then the big three of straight pool—to win the World Invitational in Los Angeles. He has been at or near the top of the pool heap ever since.
At the table, Martin generally has trancelike concentration, a silky stroke and classic control of the cue ball. When he is on a long run, players call it "the Martin sleepwalk." He takes pride in playing for nothing more than cab fare, and until two years ago he had never played nine-ball, the gambling game of pool. He is professorial and perfectionist, and has written a book—The 99 Critical Shots in Pool.
By contrast, Allen Hopkins, who emerged from the second flight to face Martin in the finals, hardly ever reads a book. "I prefer doing things," he says. Hopkins grew up shooting pool in Cranford, N.J., parked cars for a while after high school and then took to the road looking for nine-ball games. In 1971 his high school sweetheart, Sandy Geiger, suggested he come on home. "O.K.," he said, "but I'm always going to play pool." Soon after they were married, and from a stash of $15,000 he had picked up on the way home, Hopkins and some partners bought what is now Hopkins Billiard Room in Green Brook, N.J.
Hopkins still travels to play, mostly in the South, and prefers not to talk about it, though he won four nine-ball tournaments in the last few months. Until last year, when he took the PPPA championship, he was not thought of as a power in straight-pool circles. For a world-class player, Hopkins has a jerky stroke and plays angry, slamming down his chalk and often crouching to eye a path for an object ball, squinting his deep-blue eyes like a Western gunslinger. He is known as a rabbit when he is ahead and a bear when behind. "Hopkins will wear you out and grind you down to the bone," said Steve Mizerak, a four-time U.S. Open Pocket Billiard champion who was widely regarded as the man to beat at the Biltmore.
Beat Mizerak twice is what Hopkins did in reaching the final. After being stunned 150-19 by Rempe in the opening round, Hopkins came alive in the losers' bracket, eliminating Rempe before getting to Mizerak for the second time. "I haven't played straight pool since last August," Hopkins said. "There's no action, so why bang heads?"
Saturday night, before a crowd of 900, the biggest of the tournament, Martin and Hopkins started cautiously, but in the seventh inning Hopkins loosened up, running 57 balls for a 94-53 lead. In the 10th he cleaned off two more racks to go ahead 121-57, and had Martin squirming in his seat. But then Hopkins overcut an easy shot at the 6 ball in the side and kicked the floor. For a moment Martin didn't stir. Then he rose from his seat exclaiming, "Oh, I was sleeping."
In his next 15 turns, with both men playing deliberately, Martin inched back into contention, mixing safeties, intentional fouls, small runs and more safeties with a constant stream of chatter to the crowd: "Lord, help me. Got to have a sense of humor. I do something right? Ah, the pressure and the pain." The display, totally uncharacteristic of Martin, had even Hopkins smiling. Behind 153-136, Martin chalked up, pocketed the 7 ball and finished off a rack. He then ran racks two, three and four to reach 192, but a break shot missed the rack and Martin played a safety. Two turns later, the rack of balls loose but not wide open, Martin stroked a length-of-the-table 14 ball in the corner. It missed badly and scattered the rack of balls all over. Hopkins leapt to his feet, needing just 47 balls.
He sank three balls quickly, eyed a difficult one-in-the-corner and pumped the cue ball softly. The 1 ball trickled toward the pocket, grazed the rail, jiggled in the mouth of the pocket and hung on the table.
Martin rose, wiped his hands with a towel and quickly drilled home the last nine balls. Out of the crowd came Ron Jarvis, the weekend player, with a cigar in mouth. He hoisted Martin on his shoulders, getting a king-sized piece of action for his $300. "It's a game of desire," Martin said, "and I desired it and desired it." He took home $4,000, and Hopkins $2,500.