We think of pool shooters having it out in barrooms, back rooms or maybe dimly lit auditoriums, and yet last week here they were, the world's best, wearing tuxedos and playing under the glittering chandeliers of the Grand Ballroom in the Biltmore Hotel in the heart of New York City. The Professional Pool Players Association had chosen to bring this year's World Open Pocket Billiards Championship into the spotlight. With perhaps pardonable exaggeration, they billed it as a $100,000 tournament. "The whole idea was to draw other than just pool freaks," said PPPA Secretary Pete Margo.
The non-pool freaks that the PPPA hoped to draw were promoters, potential sponsors and television executives who might be moved to improve the future of pool by investing a little cash in the game. What pool needed was a stake horse, as the players would say.
Since its inception in 1976, the PPPA has done a good deal for pool, putting on two world championships in Asbury Park, N.J. and selling four events to ABC's Wide World of Sports and NBC's SportsWorld. Other deals were in the works, but, largely because of pool's shabby image, the game has been unable to attract sponsors for any of its events.
Twenty-five years ago things were different. Pool's stars were tournament players like Willie Mosconi and Andrew Ponzi, gentlemen who wore pinky rings and played the game in tuxes. But after Mosconi retired in 1957, world tournaments vanished and pool went into recession. In 1961 The Hustler was released, with Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, a rascal who slept days, drank nights and lived mainly to hold folks up with his two-piece cue, and a pool boom-let developed. But in the end, not even Newman could help, and an estimated 20,000 poolrooms closed down.
The PPPA thought that glamour—black ties, the Biltmore and a prohibition on the usual after-hours money games—might help. A New York publicity firm was hired to spread the word.
Ads were booked in the newspapers, reporters from the Times and the Post were lured to a press conference at "21" and competitors were lined up for guest spots on Good Morning, America, America Alive, and Midday Live. Then, two days before the tournament opened, the New York dailies went on strike, which killed not only print coverage but local TV time as well, because with the newspapers out, television felt obliged to supply its viewers with gossip columnists, movie critics and Soupy Sales reading the funnies.
The news blackout was especially unfortunate because this year's Open had perhaps the finest field ever assembled, including the winners of every major tournament since 1975. It was also the largest world-tournament field ever, 52 players, one of whom was 19-year-old Jean Balukas, the first woman to qualify for a world tournament. Balukas is a six-time women's U.S. Open champion, but qualified for this event almost by accident. Her father, the owner of a billiard lounge in Brooklyn, lacked one player to fill a 16-man qualifier, so he entered his daughter. She won by defeating Rich Hansen, who had finished a creditable 15th in the 1977 World Open.
In all, 19 PPPA players qualified. The other 33 in the field paid $300 each to enter. They included weekend players such as Ron Jarvis, a New York financial planner who might run a rack of balls if all goes well, but who was happy to pay the money to compete in a genuine world championship. "I'd be here anyway," said Jarvis, chomping on a cigar. "This way I get some action and, besides, the fee isn't that much more than I'd have paid for tickets."
The open entry also turned out to be a lifesaver for quality players who had neglected to qualify. One was Jim Rempe, who has won 35 tournaments since 1971, more by far than anyone. Another was Larry Lisciotti, the 1976 PPPA champ. Both had let their PPPA memberships lapse, and to enter they had to pay an additional $200 initiation fee. Add in the cost of a week at the Biltmore, and they needed to finish eighth or better just to break even. "It's a horrible investment," Lisciotti said. "We'd hate for anybody to steal it though," said Rempe with a wink.
The format was simple: two flights of double elimination, the two survivors to play a 200-ball final. In one flight, Ray Martin of Clifton, N.J. sailed through six games unbeaten, outscoring his opponents 900-254. In his second match against Margo, Martin ran 99 straight in an easy 150-25 romp. "When he's just plink, plink, plinking them in like that," said Margo afterward, "nobody on earth's tougher."