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Ladies of the Cloth

In a sport with few financial rewards, professional pool players play for the love of the game.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 1)

"Pool's not X Games," says the glamorous Ewa Mataya Laurance (nicknamed "The Striking Viking"), the current president of the WPBA and 1994 World Champion, in discussing the battle the group faces. After merging efforts, then divorcing from the men players in the early 1990s because the men wanted a bigger say in how things were run, the WPBA formed a league of its own.

"Until we go to extreme pool, pure pool is not that exciting," says the 41-year-old Billiard Congress of America Hall of Famer. Laurance graced the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1992, giving the women's game, and pool in general, a huge boost. "Pool is beautiful, it is elegant, it's sexy, it's passionate, it's a lot of things, but it is not X Games exciting. I don't think there's anything wrong with an intelligent game, you've just got to promote it a little differently than you do X Games."

The WPBA hasn't yet found a way different enough to satisfy the players. Total prize money remains small compared with, say, women's golf or tennis. The seven WPBA Classic events offered a total of $610,000 in 2004. (More than $200,000-plus is offered in other events during the year.) The WPBA still distributes prize money deep into the draw.

"When the WPBA first started the classic tour [in 1993], every place, last place was paid," says Laurance, who recently has had "too little time to practice" and was bounced quickly in Florida. "A big part of why we did that is we needed players. We had 15 tournaments at the time, less prize money than we do now, no television and we needed players to support it, to kick-start it. The entry fee was $500. You got $250 back if you came in last, or something like that. So, it was just enough to keep everybody coming back. Had we not done that, we could have burned ourselves out very easily and ended up with six players only. When there's corporate sponsorship, are we going to change it?" she asks. "Possibly. It's different in a sport like golf, where if you finish in the top ten, you've paid the bills for the rest of the year."

Since it was founded, the WPBA has made numerous efforts at breakthrough marketing that would presumably increase the prize money. The association even hired experts who were ultimately "overwhelmed" by the assignment, according to the official history. In part, what Laurance cites as pool's strengths—beauty, elegance, sex appeal, passion—are what attract the players who believe they can be successful, players who generally have been playing a long time and who see patterns and have the discipline to pocket a ball and gain position on the next. Or, less "exciting" still, players must often play defensively—play a safety, unable to sink a ball—and leave the cue ball in a position from which their opponent will have difficulty making the next shot. Maybe for the average American sports fan, pool has too little action and too much geometry.

"Every table is like a puzzle that needs to be solved," Barretta says. "I've always been great at math and I've always loved solving problems. It was the ultimate game of problem-solving. If you combine the mathematical thing with the creativity, it's like the best of both worlds."

In her quarterfinal match at the Cuetec Cues Florida Classic against Karen Corr, Barretta improbably takes a 6-2 lead in a "race to seven." Corr comes back to tie at 6-all. In rack 13, Corr makes a highly unusual mistake, scratching by grazing the 3-ball with the cue ball in an attempt to play safe on the 2-ball. In 9-ball, the lowest-number ball on the table must be hit first by the cue ball. Any ball can go in, including the 9, as long as that happens. If the 9 goes in, the player wins. No need to "call a pocket,"or announce into which pocket the ball will go. Corr's foul gives Barretta "ball in hand," meaning she can place the cue ball anywhere on the table for her next shot. Barretta runs the rest of the table, beating the world's number one. If math and creativity worked for Barretta against Corr, she was about to experience chaos.

Barretta's semifinal match is against Julie Kelly, an Irishwoman tagged "Motor Molly." Kelly, away from the table, is engaging and talkative. At the table, she concentrates intensely, quietly. Because of TV, the semis are a race-to-seven wins instead of the nine needed in the earlier rounds. Kelly is ahead of Barretta, 6-5. Kelly is, in the parlance of competitive pool, "on the hill"—meaning that she needs one more game to win. Barretta breaks in game 12—the break alternates game to game—and miscues. She has lifted her body before making full contact with the cue ball. The ball travels a foot and hits nothing. Barretta has fouled. Kelly now has "ball in hand.

In the previous game, Kelly banked the 2-ball into the 9 and won the game. It was a shot few would have seen, and maybe Kelly didn't either because after making it she stuck out her tongue with her mouth open as if to say, "Wow!" In game 12, Kelly, ball in hand, cracks the rack and drops a ball. The 1-ball remains on the table and is lined up to go into a corner pocket. A lot of green—a long distance—stands between the 1 and the cue ball. Kelly, whose stroke is a little bit of a jabbing motion, strikes the cue ball—sometimes called "whitey" or "the rock." Whitey hits the solid yellow 1-ball. Hard. It's often surprising to those watching professional players for the first time to see how delicately they usually strike the cue ball.

The 1-ball misses badly and bounces off two rails. Unintentionally, chaotically, the 1-ball runs into the yellow-striped 9-ball and sends it into the corner pocket directly opposite from the one at which Kelly was aiming to sink the 1-ball. Kelly has won, gaining her second-ever final on the WPBA tour. She puts her hand over her mouth and looks truly shocked. She apologizes to Barretta, who is initially stunned but then rises from her chair and proceedes mockingly, to strangle Kelly. After they hug, of course.

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