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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

Helena "The Sledgehammer" Thornfeldt isn't satisfied with the rack. Jennifer Barretta, her opponent in a fourth-round pool match at the Cuetec Cues Florida Classic, a nine-ball tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, is trying to get each of the nine object balls to be in contact with the adjacent balls. Tight racks are important, but the Iwan Simonis cloth on the Brunswick Gold Crown table isn't cooperating.

"Helena is sharking Jennifer," says a player who is watching the match. "Sharking" means that Thornfeldt, known for her powerful break, is trying to shake Barretta's focus. Ranked sixth in the world, Thornfeldt is losing to Barretta, a relative newcomer to the game and the tour, who was ranked 18th coming into the tournamnet, the final event of the 2004 Women's Professional Billiards Association season. Barretta is only slightly distracted by Thornfeldt's gamesmanship. She calls out, "Steve!" for the tournament director to come to table number five and take over racking the balls, something he routinely does beginning in the semifinal round. Thornfeldt is silenced and ultimately vanquished nine games to four. Barretta is in the quarterfinals. That means ESPN. That means exposure. That means playing Karen Corr, the "Irish Invader," at that moment, the world's number one.

Nearly 150 hours of women's pool is on ESPN and ESPN2 annually, including re-runs. The Women's Professional Billiards Association's (WPBA) budget has doubled, to more than $1 million dollars a year over the past six years. The nonprofit association uses the money to promote the women's game and stage tournaments like the one in Florida. Barretta, Corr and Thornfeldt are three in the field of 64 players that compete in most events put on by the WPBA each year. They are representative of the draw pool has on women around the world. Corr is Irish, but resides near Philadelphia. Thornfeldt is from Sweden, but lives in Georgia. Barretta lives and trains in New York City, but grew up in Pennsylvania, where she was a competitive tennis player. When she moved to New York, she found court time to be too expensive and looked for something more affordable.

"I started searching for some competitive outlet," Barretta says. "And I tried ballroom dancing, I tried to get back into tennis and I tried a few other things. Professional snowboarding was my other aspiration. I was, like, obsessively snowboarding for a while there until I realized you have to break things and get hurt to go pro with that, so I was, like, 'No, I don't wanna do that.' Then I started playing pool just casually and I got sucked into a league and next thing you know that's all I wanted to do, play pool. And then when I turned pro I quit my job and now this is all I do."

The blonde and buff 36-year-old Barretta (she has posed wearing a bikini for a magazine) started playing pool in 1997 at the relatively advanced age of 29. For eight hours every day, Barretta practices at Amsterdam Billiards, a pool hall on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which is one of her sponsors. It's paid off.

"I turned pro October 2003," Barretta explains. She entered 2004 ranked 29 on the tour. "And right now I'm in a virtual tie for 17th. My goal is to get into the top 10 and see what happens from that."

Barretta comes into 2005 ranked 12. Being in the top 16 has competitive advantages. "It means that you don't draw another top 16 [player] for two rounds instead of one" she says. "So, it's easier to have a better tournament."

And maybe make more money. Barretta left a successful career as a fashion designer to make $19,150 in 2004's tournaments. Being married to a successful personal trainer—her husband works with a lot of celebrities—makes it possible for her to pursue pool as a career.

"It's very difficult getting sponsors and the prize money isn't enough," Barretta says. "It may cover your expenses, but it doesn't give you much to live on. To cover your expenses you have to make about $1,500 every tournament. If you have a bad tournament, that can put you in some financial trouble. But anyone who ever gets into pool knows that you don't do it for money. You do it because you love it."

Loving pool is a common reason given by the women for turning pro, but more is needed to make the pro game flourish. Women's pool, the ethos of which is nothing like what you've seen in The Hustler or The Color of Money, exists in an American sports world that, outside of football, basketball and baseball, is looking for something that can described using the word "extreme." Many of the players themselves will tell you quietly that two main things need to happen to meet the marketing challenge. First, snowboarding aside, the game needs to become more outwardly exciting. Second, to have even a chance of accomplishing the first thing, stronger personalities need to emerge among the women, most of whom are more comfortable focusing intently—and silently—on pocketing the next ball.

"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.

 

 

Ewa Laurance began playing pool at the age of 14 after following her brother into a pool room in her native Sweden. She eventually started winning tournaments all over Europe. First prize in many of them was a toaster.

"I think it's somewhere between three and six toasters that I won, that my mother had at home," Laurance remembers, laughing. "There was no money whatsoever in pool in Sweden at that time, nowhere in Europe."

Laurance, then Ewa Svensson, came to the United States when she was 17. She married 31-year old Jimmy "Pretty Boy Floyd" Mataya, a poster-boy for the old stereotype of the male professional pool player. (Laurance is now married to actor and ESPN pool commentator Mitchell Laurance.) At 18, Laurance was invited to New York to be a model, but didn't like the lifestyle.

"I hated it," Laurance says. "There was a lot of pressure, a lot of drugs. This was '82, '83. Somebody would tell you, 'Come by my office, I think you're perfect for this or that show,' and you get up there and there's coke on a tray. So, it was really uncomfortable and a very judgmental business. I just wanted to play pool."

In1988, Laurance was approached by Brunswick Billiards and signed to a sponsorhip agreement. They are still together.

"My whole life changed right there," Laurance remembers. "That changed things because now I could actually look at this as a business."

Allison Fisher's story mirrors Laurance's. Fisher is one of the few women players who can make something of a living just from playing tournaments. A native of Peacehaven, England, the 37-year-old Fisher has been playing on green tables since she was seven years old. Her first game was snooker.

"My father was watching it on television and I liked the look of it and asked for a small table," Fisher explains on the way to a radio interview. "Then when I was 12, I was in bed in tears and my mum asked, 'What's wrong?' and I said, 'I wanna go on that full-size table' at the local pub we used to go to." The owner of the pub gave the OK. Fisher played so well that that the better male players at the pub would teach her the finer points of the game.

"When I was at school," Fisher recalled, "I wanted to be a physical education teacher, but at 14 my [guidance counselor] asked, 'What do you want to be when you leave school?' And I said, 'I want to be a professional snooker player.' And he asked, 'No, what do you really want to be?' And I said, 'That's what I really want to be.'"

Fisher's tale evokes the line from Rod Stewart's "Maggie May:" "I suppose I could collect my books and get on back to school. Or steal my daddy's cue and make a living out of playing pool." Fisher had won "well over a hundred snooker tournaments," including 11 world titles. But back then, she couldn't scratch out a living.

"I'd heard about the American pool scene and I didn't see snooker for women going anywhere," Fisher says. "I mean, I would win a national event and get like $700 or something ridiculous." So, she flew to America. "It's paid off coming over here. I got a one-way ticket over. Played my first tournament, fell in love with it and stayed."

That was in 1995. She placed ninth at that first American event in Charlotte, North Carolina, near where she now lives. Fisher won two of the next three tourneys. Some American players jokingly complain about international competitors like Fisher, Corr, Kelly, Taiwan's Ga Young Kim (the 2004 World Champion) and others. Fisher began and ended 2004 ranked number one. From 2001 through 2003, either Fisher or Corr won every WPBA tournament but one. Fisher has won at least 47 WPBA classic tour events (as well as three consecutive 9-ball World Championships, 1996-1998), but 2004 was more challenging. Fisher won three of the seven tour tournaments and $74,500 in prize money.

She is, to her chagrin, nicknamed The Duchess of Doom.

"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.

Women of CA photo gallery

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