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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.

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"The queen and princess were taken, unfortunately, so I got demoted to duchess," Fisher says, jokingly. "I'd rather be known as Allison Fisher than the 'Duchess of Doom.'" Fisher supplements her tournament loot by running weekend instructional clinics in Charlotte with her friend and fellow pro Gerda "G-Force" Hofstatter of Austria, the 1995 world champion. Fisher is also sponsored by the American Poolplayers Association and by Cuetec Cues. When she's at home, Fisher likes to garden. (Duchess of Bloom?)
But her dominance on the tour isn't always a laughing matter to her competitors. "I've already told the people from Europe, 'We're gonna send ya'll back home. You need to go back home,'" says San Antonio's Vivian Villarreal, a legendary, hall-of-famer known as the "Texas Tornado" who was ranked ninth at the beginning of 2005. Villarreal takes the blame for Fisher's transfer to the United States.
"We had a Mosconi Cup [a competition between teams from the US and Europe] in [England] and Allison showed up and we were playing against her and she was complaining there was no money out there anymore for the women, just for the men," Villarreal says, with a slight Texan drawl. "I was the one who invited her to come over here and she hasn't gone back. So, I told her I would give her a one-way ticket back home. She laughs about it. She said, 'No, I'm doing just fine.' I said, 'I know you are.'"
Fisher always seems to be on TV. In Florida, Fisher runs into Jeanette Lee, who has got serious game. Both Fisher and Lee, ranked third, have been playing well in Florida. Theirs becomes the premier match of the tournament now that Karen Corr has been eliminated. Fisher, no matter the outcome, will end the year ranked number one. Lee has not yet won a tour 9-ball event in 2004, though she did defeat Laurance at the 2004 Women's Trick Shot Challenge. Lee is hungry.
Lee enters the arena smiling, looking at her husband and their six-month old baby girl, Cheyenne. Lee is married to George "The Flame Thrower" Breedlove, formerly ranked number six among professional male players. Lee looks over at Fisher, who enters with much less fanfare. Prodded by the tournament director to spice things up, Lee says playfully, "She's going down!" Fisher smiles.
The crowd is pumped up and pulling for Lee. Quickly, Lee goes up 5-0. Fisher has "gotten out of line"—played bad position—on some key shots, missed a couple with ball in hand and left Lee easy tables. In rack six, Lee breaks and is cruising until she gets to the 4-ball. It's sitting next to the 9-ball, but a shade farther down the table. The cue ball is up-table and slightly to the right of the 4. Everyone senses what Lee is about to try. Fisher seems resigned to it. The tournament director moves closer to the table to make sure that the cue ball hits the 4-ball first. Lee plays a "billiard," meaning, that she hits the 4-ball with the cue ball, which then caroms into the 9-ball and sends it into the corner pocket. Lee takes a 6-0 lead. A big roar goes up as Lee pumps her fist.
In rack seven, Fisher breaks and sinks nothing. Lee promptly shoots the 1-ball and as the cue ball bounces she yells, "Don't do it!" But it does. The cue ball drops into the pocket and Lee scratches. The crowd moans in sympathy. Fisher, out of her chair, jokes, "What a shame." The crowd laughs. Lee lifts her cue and pretends to bash Fisher over the head. Not exactly trash-talking, but the fans get into it.
Fisher misses a relatively easy 7-ball, all but surrendering. Lee stands and says, "I won't say it," but she does: "What a shame." Fisher gives a dour smile. Lee ultimately wins 7-0. It's a resounding victory over Fisher, arguably the world's best player. Lee celebrates by kissing her husband and daughter in front of the ESPN camera, then waves baby Cheyenne's arm to the viewers at home. Jeanette Lee, nicknamed and marketed as The Black Widow, has beaten the Duchess of Doom. She goes on to defeat Julie Kelly, gaining her first 9-ball victory of the year and elevating her to number three entering 2005.
Early on, Jeanette Lee, like Fisher, did not fancy her nickname. Lee got it before she turned pro, even before she became known for her all-black wardrobe.
"Well, it started as a joke," Lee, who is Korean-American, remembers. "I was playing pool at the then Howard Beach Billiard Club [in Queens, New York] and we were reminiscing around 3 a.m., closing time. And Gabe [Vigorito, the owner] said he remembered when I first used to walk into the room. 'You know, this little Asian girl walking in all cute.' And I just walked over and looked at the tables and I seemed just kind of sweet. But then I got a rack of balls and my eyes changed and my demeanor changed and I started whacking all the balls in and the first thing he thought of was that I reminded him of the black widow [spider]. And from that day forward, everyone would be, like, 'Hey, Black Widow.' And I'd say, 'Shut up!' It didn't bother me until it started getting known because I was getting good very quickly."
Lee turned pro in 1993 and became No. 1 a year and a-half later. Fans and the media started to use the nickname. The family wasn't crazy about it.
"I'll tell you the truth, my mom was never really interested in coming to the tournaments and when she finally came, she came with one thing in mind: She was going to change my nickname," Lee recalled. "So she would go sidle up to people in the crowd and say, 'You know, that's my daughter.' And they'd go, 'Yeah, the Black Widow.' And she'd go, 'Oh no. She changed her nickname. That's not her nickname anymore.' They'd go, 'Really? What's her nickname?' 'Oh, it's Lily of the Valley.'" Lee then adds sarcastically. "And, amazingly, it didn't stick. I just can't figure out why.
"I wear long, black hair because I have a scar down my back. [Lee has scoliosis and has had five surgeries]. I wear a glove because I didn't want chalk all over my black clothes. I wear black because I'm from New York, and that's what people do in New York."
When she shoots, Lee furrows her eyebrows. No opponent interprets the look as friendly. Finally, Lee accepted the nickname and turned it to her advantage.
Every year, in Las Vegas, Lee uses the nickname to lure 40 people to the "Black Widow Experience," a weekend that promises you'll "Enter a billiards player, leave a friend (and a much better billiards player!)." Lee's agent will tell you that she is the only player who transcends the game of pool. It's hard to argue. Lee is undoubtedly the best-known female player—maybe the best-known pool player, period—outside of the immediate pool world. Still, that has hardly translated into runaway marketing success.
"It's amazing," Lee says. "I don't have a clothing sponsor. No one seems to be interested. It just boggles my mind. They say the ESPN viewer is not their market."
Lee is a commentator on the pilot of a new Bravo channel cable TV show, "Celebrity Pool." Think "Celebrity Poker" with sticks. Expected in mid-June is the Game Show Network's "No Limit 9-Ball," reportedly to be renamed "Ball Breakers." Ewa Laurance will appear with a host from ESPN's "X Games." The show will emphasize wagering. The question is whether all this will help promote the "pure" game.
About 40 million people in the U.S. play pool, but only slightly more than nine million "played at least twenty-five days per year," according to a 2004 report from SGMA International. The report, "Sports Participation in America," also indicates "billiards/pool players are more likely than the general population to also engage in activities such as table tennis, darts, paintball, and roller hockey." There's an eclectic demographic for you. Advertisers and marketing experts explain that to reach the mostly male audience interested in women's pool, there's no need to go after them through women's pool. Those fans come from all walks of life and the ones who are more into pool are likely to be coveted by the pool industry, which already advertises on the WPBA TV matches. These realities ache the leading players.
"I think the sport can have more exposure. I think it warrants bigger prize funds and some kind of corporate sponsorship," says Lee, who says she is dedicated to being a great mom, wife and ambassador of the game, and becoming number one in the world again. She wants to give something back to a game she loves and gave her new life.
"When I was discovered with scoliosis and they put rods in my spine, it was really life-altering in a lot of ways. Number one, I couldn't be as active. I was always in pain. I was always very protective of people touching me. I feel like I was beaten down when I was 17, 18," she says. "Emotionally, I was very alone. I'm talking about in my heart, in my mind. It had nothing to do with what was really happening. I think I was depressed. Then I found pool."
When Lee was mastering the game, she would practice her stroke while riding the New York City subway. Before going to sleep, she would tape the fingers of her left hand together so she wouldn't forget her bridge. She used a Coke bottle to make sure that her eye-hand skills stayed sharp, moving the cue through the mouth of the bottle without touching the rim.
"It was a level of dedication and obsession and psychoticness that really brought all this about," Lee says.
Maybe the marketing should follow the same course. The irony in the challenge confronting the WPBA is that to make "pure" pool successful, the game itself cannot be the product the organization promotes. The generally sedate players need to market themselves. The difficulty is that to make pool a success, the players must simultaneously be rock stars and win. The Anna Kournikova blueprint won't work here. If history is any guide, Lee, Fisher, Laurance and the other women of the WPBA will pursue the battle for recognition and reward with dedication, obsession and maybe a little "psychoticness," in much the same way they became champions. Why not? They've already got all the toasters they'll ever need.
Alejandro Benes shoots pool at home. It's not a pretty sight and shouldn't be seen in public.
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