Ming Ng's first contest was a snap. On the first day of the Women's Professional Billiard Association Classic Tour at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino last month, Ng coolly dispatched a middle-aged woman newly returned to pool after many years of absence to raise her kids. The woman was rusty, and, let's face it, she just wasn't a match for Ng, who hones her game four to six hours a day.
This afternoon's contest, however, is a whole 'nother cue ball game. Ng, a Miamian whose professional nickname is "The Empress," is matched against Karen Corr, one of the best female pool players in the world. Dubbed "The Irish Invader," Corr cut her teeth with cue stick in hand playing snooker in Northern Ireland. Snooker is slightly more difficult than American pool because of the small-
er pocket openings and the measurement of the table, which, for first-time American players, looks the size of a Midwest vegetable garden. No surprise, then, that the WPBA is dominated by transplants from the United Kingdom and Ireland -- though there are plenty of American up-and-comers nipping at their heels.
Ng, ranked 20th in the WPBA, steps boldly to the green-felt-covered table, keeping her playful personality in check as she prepares to make the opening break in this game of Nine Ball. She's dressed in black pants and black halter top, and her long, onyx hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She's short, perhaps her greatest handicap in the game. But overall, she embodies one of the most important reasons women's professional pool is growing in popularity: She's sexy.
From a sports promoter's perspective, that's priority one. The final rounds in this tourney will be filmed for eventual broadcast on ESPN. Broadcasting women's pool is now workhorse programming at the sports network, filling the gaps between major sporting events and meaty talk shows like NFL Sunday Countdown, and it's usually a guaranteed ratings winner.
A phalanx of cool, coifed, nimble-fingered, tightly wrapped vamps who burn with a special kind of blue-flamed intensity has sprung up to meet the demands of national television. Many of them have adopted provocative nicknames -- like deadly stick-handler Jeanette Lee, "The Black Widow," a smooth, sophisticated Korean-American from Brooklyn -- giving them instant recognition and, they all hope, the makings of a national following.
Ng lays the cue ball next to the right rail in front of the racked balls. On her left hand, she wears a glove, fingerless except for the index and thumb. She passes the cue stick through those gloved digits while her other fingers fold under the overhanging rail. As always, she performs a ritualistic dance as she prepares the shot: eyebrows rising and falling, legs jiggling, and bridge hand fingers wiggling as she pantomimes the stroke over and over, finally letting loose and carrying through.
The 9-balls crack apart, a clacking swell filling the quiet room. The cue ball jumps a half foot into the air and then remains where it lands. Once the balls settle across the table, the muffled hum of the slot machines just outside the door is once again audible.
Ng and Corr face a long match in this grueling competition, with the first player to win nine games taking the match. (The tournament's televised matches are shortened to seven games each.) Two evenly matched players can go at it for an hour and a half. Like any skill sport, it takes a few minutes to learn how to play Nine Ball and years to become more than mediocre at it. The object is simple: Hit the balls into the pockets in sequential order, and the player who knocks in the 9 -- usually the last ball on the table -- wins.
The tide can turn quickly in a long contest, and the Corr-Ng match is witness to that.
If there's such a thing as a pool nerd, Corr would be it. She's skeleton thin, with long fingers that look like the small end of a boney cue stick. She wears oversized, rimless, round spectacles. Today, she's sporting an argyle-patterned sweater that hangs about her hips except in the front, where she's tucked it in to make way for the black leather pouch in which she keeps her cue chalk. When she shoots, she bends birdlike at a 45-degree angle at her waist while barely bending her knees. Her chin hugs the cue stick, often hanging below it, as her upturned head gazes down the table. She rarely smiles during a match and often doesn't even watch what her opponent is doing.
Pool lore concerning Corr is ample, but foremost is this: She always sees the end game. After the break, Corr extrapolates how she'll make each shot to get to the 9-ball. She's like a chess master playing three or four moves ahead of the game. If her opponent doesn't disturb the balls during her turn, Corr is up and making a shot immediately. If the opponent's cue ball ends up moving balls around, she takes her time, recalculating the end game in her head. Some say Corr's natural talent for pool is limited, but she more than compensates for that by breaking the game down geometrically in her mind.
Regardless of how she does it, Corr is unnerving, because she's a consistent winner: Last year, she took first place in both the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship and Billiards Congress of America's Open 9-Ball Championship. Ng took ninth place in each of those. She's played Corr before but has never beaten her. She believes she can today. A few days before the match, Don Fedorow, Ng's friend and the closest person she has to a coach, says of her: "She's a really tough turtle to drown. Everybody wants to win; she refuses to lose."
Most of the small crowd watching 20 feet away knows Ng from Hollywood Billiards, which is her sponsor and a regular haunt. They believe in Ng too, or maybe it's the natural urge to root for the underdog. Ng starts out poorly; she scratches in the first game, letting the white cue ball fall into a pocket, which gives Corr the opportunity to place it wherever she wants on the table. Corr sets up a combination shot and knocks the 9-ball in. Game one goes to Corr, as does game two. But Ng gets her sea legs under her by the third game, and she wins, smartly pocketing the entire rack.
Suddenly, Corr doesn't seem so invincible. Or at least until the next game begins, when Corr knocks three balls in on the break, then proceeds to clean off the table as Ng sits impotently nearby sipping bottled water.
But wait. Ng dominates the next game, and Corr doesn't get the chance to lift her stick. At 3-2, this is still anybody's game.
These are sweet days for women's pool. Unlike almost any other professional sport you can think of, women dominate the field.
"I think we're the only sport now where the women pros are leading the way," asserts Shari Stauch, publisher of Pool & Billiard magazine and a long-time pro who retired last year. "We have more sponsors. The players, individually, have more sponsors. We have more television hours. And our entire tour is televised. And the men have none of that."
Sure, men are better players, admits Stauch, who also works as a spokeswoman for the Women's Professional Billiard Association. "But with sports in America now, it's no longer a factor of how well you play; it's how many people know you play." The sport's profile will only grow in South Florida now that the Seminole Tribe is sponsoring Vivian Villarreal, one of the country's top players, who lives in San Antonio, Texas. That's just part of the aggressive push by the WPBA to market its players.
"We get the best ratings of most of the women's programming out there," Stauch says. "We get some of the best ratings that ESPN gets for sports programming. We're what ESPN calls 'utility' programming, meaning that they can run this not live and run it over and over and over again. They can run it at any time of the day and it will fare well against anything."
The reason for its appeal is apparent when you consider who's watching these tournaments on ESPN and ESPN2: Three-quarters of the viewers are male, with a median age of around 45. A lot of those eyes peeled on TV sets aren't wowed as much by hotshot billiards as they are by hot women.
No one understands that better than the Black Widow, whose nickname suggests both her deadly precision with a cue and her persona as a manslayer. For ten years, Lee has been women's pool's highest-profile player, a traffic-stopping femme fatale in skintight black.
"It's where we're at," Lee says of the game's sex appeal. "I can't say it's a good thing or a bad thing; it's just the fact that attractiveness sells. And we have a lot of attractive women here. Some are more conservative than others, but they're still beautiful. I mean, Grace Kelly is sexy. There were a lot of women that were classy and beautiful and sexy."
Lee delivered all of the above the evening before the four-day tourney began, when she and 15 other top players were paired with reporters and Seminole Tribe members for a raucous pro-am contest. Lee had the men eating out of her hand.
The statuesque Lee moved around the table with her long, ebony hair swishing about, warming up by playing David Cypress, a member of the Seminole Tribal Council. As he looked down the cue readying a shot, Lee knelt and put her chin on the rail above the ball he was aiming at. She curled her bottom lip down into a pout. Then she dragged her two feet of hair across the green velvet, a moving hirsute obstacle course. He made the shot, and she jumped up. "You're starting to get on my nerves right now," she hammed to the crowd that had been drawn to her antics.
Later, Cypress racked up the balls, and she broke them, but they didn't scatter much. "What kind of rack was that?" she screamed. "I was taking it easy on you, but now..." The Black Widow turned to the crowd. "He's got aracknophobia! He can't rack!"
For all her antics, Lee sliced through the amateur competition like a buzz saw through a log.
If Ming Ng attracts an audience's attention during a women's tournament -- and she most certainly does -- then she's positively exotic at Hollywood Billiards. The spacious pool hall, just southwest of the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and State Road 7, serves a predominantly male, mostly middle-aged or older crowd. In other words, the kind of guys who watch women's pool on ESPN. Women are few here -- although it's owned by a sister and brother -- and those who do show up are usually in the company of significant others. But this is one of Ng's primary workplaces, where she spends many afternoons and evenings.
A couple of weeks before the Hard Rock Casino tourney, Ng takes a break from her practice routine on a weekday afternoon. Sitting at a high, round bar table squeezed between two pool tables, she lights up a Winston that adds to the already considerable smoke plume hanging in the joint. She's wearing short-legged bib overalls and a white-brimmed hat. From up close, you can see the small diamond stud she wears in her pierced nostril. She's all smiles, relaxed and looking forward to the competition. Her teeth are perfect and white. She seems everything TV could want from a woman pool player.
Ng, in fact, made her TV debut this fall on ESPN's Trick Shot. She practiced about 50 hours to learn her trick shots, then submitted a video of her performance to ESPN. She was one of four women selected to compete at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. The Black Widow won first place.
"I learned it all by myself," Ng chirps. "It's just another area of pool to learn. It's like, if you were a doctor, you could specialize in bones rather than eyes. In pool, there's different games you can specialize in. I've always liked trick shots. It's very creative -- the execution, the stroke."
Ng is evasive about her early years, which were tumultuous, pervaded by poverty. She sums it up this way: "I come from a broken home. I've lived in a foster home. Here I am. So you know just a little bit about my background."
Ng opens up a bit more a few days later when she's joined by long-time friend Don Fedorow at a North Miami restaurant. She was born in Hong Kong, and at some point, her parents divorced and her mother moved to Miami. Her mother sent for Ming when she was 9, and Ming made the journey to Florida with her grandmother. Neither Ming nor her mother spoke English. She says she dropped out of high school to work to support the family. She's since earned a GED.
Asked what she expected out of her life in those early years, the question strikes her as absurd, and she laughs. "I don't know. I was just looking to make money to eat, to live. How can I think of tomorrow? There's no way. I didn't have a future. I'm on my own. How would I expect anything? There's no thought of anything."
Her passion for knocking balls around was present even as a teenager -- but only in the distinctly dowdy game of bowling. It was at Don Carter's Bowling Alley in Kendall that she met Fedorow, an avid pool player. "She was a pretty good bowler," he says. "Next thing you know, she's with her friends playing pool, and I could tell she had the knack for it. Eventually, from being there all the time, we became friends." Fedorow helped develop her game, and eventually she was making a living the way many pool mavens do: wagering.
He remembers when Ng was set to begin work at a new billiards club called Sharpshooters in the fall of 1992. Hurricane Andrew, however, destroyed the building before she could begin. Instead, she got a job at New Wave Billiards in southwest Miami, cleaning tables. For several months, National Guardsmen swarmed the hard-hit area and frequented New Wave, which had been spared. "They had no place to go because every place is closed," Fedorow recalls. "These guys like pool and like to bet -- five, ten dollars. She cleaned up on those guys, and they loved it because she's so small and so doggone sweet. She doesn't make an enemy doing it." He adds: "She has a way of stepping on your toes without ruining the shine on your shoes."
If Hurricane Andrew blew South Florida away in 1992, Ng absolutely blustered through the Sunshine State's pool tournaments and was ultimately named player of the year in the Ladies Florida Pro Tour. She then quit playing for three years for "personal reasons" and declines to elaborate. "We all have a life, you know?" she says.
The three-year hiatus, however, only invigorated her game. She was Florida champion of the Ladies Florida Pro Tour in 1996, 1997, and 1998, as well as rookie of the year in the Women's Professional Billiard Association in 1997. At the urging of a friend who was a billiards promoter, she moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to learn the business end of the game. "I was doing my pool thing, but L.A. was very, very big, and I didn't like the traffic," she says. "I didn't know my way around, and it was very expensive. But when you see an opportunity, you have to take it, good or bad."
She moved back to Miami in 2002 with a clearer goal in mind of becoming a top pro. Two good years have put her in the top 20 in the WPBA. But that's not enough.
"Right now in the billiards industry, it's only the top four who make the decent money," she explains a few days before the Hard Rock tourney. "I have to say, it's a very tough thing that I got involved with here. I'm always looking for more sponsorships. At this moment, we're all doing it for the love of the game and not the money."
The four-day Hard Rock tournament pays $15,000 for first place, and to see any money at all, Ng will have to finish in the top 16 out of 64 players.
When Jeanette Lee enters the tournament room, a stir sweeps through it -- partly because it's the Black Widow, and partly because she moves with a hefty entourage that includes her husband, George Breedlove, a top men's pool player; and their 6-month-old adopted daughter, Cheyenne, otherwise known as "Baby Widow."
Now the third day of the tournament, Lee has moved easily into the quarterfinals. By now, the field of eight tables has been replaced by one blue-velvet-topped beauty, and it is surrounded by a theatrical-cum-gladiatorial setting befitting the filming of an ESPN show. Two regal wooden thrones rest in opposite corners for each player, partitioned off from the audience by shaded Plexiglas panels. Intensely bright lights glare down upon the setting, and another set of lights burns toward the audience.
Lee, dressed in a black top with a see-through pattern, walks into the bright arena and begins to warm up. At the same time, Steve Tipton, the silver-haired emcee and tournament director, starts to limber up the audience.
"Who's a Jeanette Lee hater?" Tipton asks over his microphone. None of the 75-or-so people in the risers raises his hand or says a thing. "Nobody?" he asks. Dawn Hopkins, a long-haired brunet from New Jersey who is Lee's opponent for the match, jumps up from her chair and raises her hand. It catches Tipton off guard, and he titters into the mic.
Three video cameramen, one of whom operates a 20-foot boom camera, film the warm-up. Lee forces one of them to take a close-up shot of her husband in the stands. "Awwwwww," the crowd coos. She really knows how to get the crowd behind her -- even before the play begins.
The room is quiet as the match opens, the air punctuated only by occasional applause and loud remarks by two lager louts sitting high in the risers.
Hopkins is soon down 6-1. Two cameramen close in on Hopkins as she sits watching gloomily. She pretends they're not there. This is part of being a pro.
As Lee stands poised to shoot the 9-ball in to win the match, a white towel abruptly crumples atop the ball. Because all eyes had been affixed on Lee, it takes the audience a moment to realize that Hopkins had whipped the symbol of concession over there. "It's yours," Hopkins laughs.
"I'd guess that Ms. Hopkins has a future on the baseball field," Tipton announces.
The audience pours forward toward the pool arena to congratulate Lee and ask for autographs. A nanny brings her Cheyenne, and they circulate around the table, celebrating her move into the semifinal round.
A short while later, Lee and Hopkins are signing autographs behind the WPBA memorabilia desk, and the line snakes back a good 50 feet. The more inveterate buy a copy of Lee's book, The Black Widow's Guide to Killer Pool: Become a Player to Beat, for her to sign.
The WPBA prides itself on providing easy access to players. Once the fans clear, Lee sits for a while and talks about the Black Widow.
"It really developed accidentally," she says of her persona, which burst into fullness virtually as she turned pro in 1993. "It was the uniqueness of my being Asian with long black hair, wearing the black glove and black clothes, and the fact that I do look so focused at the table. It was just a time when the WPBA was on the rise and getting more exposure than ever. I started winning titles when all the other players were medium height and light-haired. I was something different. 'The Black Widow' is just what the fans and the media love. If I say, 'I'm Jeanette Lee,' I get a 'Who?' "
Lee was born in Brooklyn to Korean immigrants who stressed the traditional values of their homeland. She excelled at school and was poised to enter the elite Bronx High School of Science, but her life was upended as a teenager when she was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. She had a steel rod implanted in her spine to correct the problem; she's had eight surgeries and has suffered from bursitis and tendonitis related to the scoliosis.
"I have a lot of back and shoulder problems, arthritis," she says. "I get worn out very quickly."
Lee lore holds that so obsessed was she after discovering the game at age 18, she once played for 37 hours straight and had to be carried home by friends. There were no Asian women playing when she started, at least in the New York area. "In the pool rooms, there were women players, but none of them dared compete." She recalls trying to get a particular billiards club to sponsor a women's tournament; the owner agreed to put up $1,000 if Lee could get 16 women to compete. "I went to every pool room in New York," she says. "They wouldn't do it; they just wanted to play with their boyfriends or something like that."
She won the WPBA National Championship less than a year after turning pro and became the number-one-rated woman player in the world. She wasn't, however, wholeheartedly embraced by all.
"She was the Black Widow the day she walked in the door here," Stauch remembers. "She took some criticism from some of the women because she was brassy and young and dressed more daring than some of them. Then there were others of us saying, 'Go, Jeanette.' She was bringing in, single-handedly, a whole new younger audience."
She considers her greatest strength to be her determination. "It doesn't matter what the score is -- if I'm behind or ahead, I want to beat this person," she says.
And greatest weakness?
"Like I would tell you!" she teases. "My Achilles' heel... hmm. Cheyenne, maybe? Nothing on the table, really -- not that I can say. I have a well-balanced game."
Away from the pool table, she maintains a mellow life. "Generally between matches, I like to stay very relaxed," she says of touring. "I spend a lot of time resting. Pretty much, if I'm not eating, I'm lying down in the hotel room. I have a beautiful daughter who takes up a lot of my time. She goes everywhere I go, because I had a daughter so I could hang out with her."
That doesn't sound terribly exotic, someone opines.
"I'm sorry," she coos in a voice so sincere it could melt a 9-ball.
If you want to see what legacy the Black Widow hath wrought in women's pro pool, look no further than Jennifer Barretta. The 35-year-old dirty blond burst onto the pro scene last year, and during the first matches she played at the Hard Rock tourney, she could do no wrong.
"There's a maturing process for everyone who goes out on the professional tour," Tipton tells the audience as Barretta warms up for a quarterfinal game. "But I'll tell you, it's very obvious who's going to make it. Jennifer had something that most young players don't have: a calm confidence about her and a focus that was beyond her experience level." He adds that her website includes a diary of her tournaments, a biography and "other good stuff too."
"Photos?" a Southern male voice adds hopefully.
He's not going to be disappointed. The former bodybuilder and fitness competitor recently posed for FHM magazine in a gold bikini, crouching seductively on all fours upon a billiards table. She also addressed the issue of boobs and billiards in the magazine, noting, "Some female players say their breasts get in the way, but I swear it helps. If the cue is under my breast, rubbing a bit, I know I'm lined up correctly."
Barretta is up against Corr, who had earlier beaten Ng but hadn't eliminated her. Tipton hypes the match for the audience, saying it's "a classic David versus Goliath." Whatever Corr has on Barretta in the realm of experience and skill, however, the latter has the wholehearted support of the mostly male audience that hoots and hollers for her. Barretta has a wasp-like figure, accentuated by form-fitting black pants and a purple tank top. Her arms are finely sculpted, and even at a distance of 50 feet, the definition in her triceps is apparent. She approaches the table as if she's going to seduce it. Corr receives polite applause that sounds like a gentle rain on a tin roof.
"I'm the underdog," Barretta later tells New Times in a far-fetched attempt to explain the crowd's frenzy. "The underdog is always the crowd favorite." So it's not your...?
"No, I'm telling you," she pleads in her silky alto voice. "People like the underdog. If I'm out there, the number-one player some day, and some little rookie comes walking in, they're going to be rooting for her, no question."
"Is she always that serious?" Tipton asks as he turns his gaze to Corr. "Well, she's an Irish girl, and she's been known to tip a pint at times."
The sound men hook up Corr and Barretta in order to catch every sigh, groan, whoop, and comment either might make during the match.
It's certainly a world away from what women's pool was like back when the WPBA formed in 1976.
"Six of us weren't afraid to jump into a Volkswagen and drive 1,500 miles to play for $500 in an also-ran event," Stauch recalls. "There was no financial reward. Because of that, the skill level wasn't there. If you lose money, even if you win an event -- if it costs you $1,000 to go and you can only win $200 -- you're not going to put that much time into it."
A watershed moment for women's pool came in 1986 with the release of the film The Color of Money, which featured Paul Newman and Tom Cruise as pool sharks. "I grew up in a pool room -- my dad owned one -- and I was always the only girl in the room," Stauch says. "But within a week of that movie, there were 100 percent new faces in the pool room, and every single one of them was trying to shoot with her eyes closed."
The visibility of women pros also increased soon after that when Ewa Laurance, a blond, high-cheekboned Swedish player nicknamed "The Striking Viking," got the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Wearing a short, green, sequin dress in the photo, Laurance was the top female player at the time, and the photo became "a very famous cover in our sport," Stauch says. "When Ewa came over from Sweden, all she'd won was toasters."
It's still not easy to make a living at pool as a woman, but at least the paychecks aren't small appliances. "Every year, we go for a heftier goal as to the number who can make a living at it," Stauch says. "Realistically, I'd say 20, probably closer to 30, make a living at this. Most of the girls are house pros. They have sponsorships."
ESPN had broadcast men's and women's games together until the WPBA struck a deal in 1993 for solo chicks-with-sticks broadcasts.
It's those shows that so influenced the likes of Barretta, whose amazingly quick ascent in the pros has led her this night to a 6-6 tie with Corr.
The next game is all or nothing. Barretta breaks, and she plays like always: slow and methodical. "People used to complain," she says later. "I think people have a natural rhythm. Some just get up there and shoot the ball. I tried that, and I can't make a shot. When I take my time, I do everything right... or, I should say, I get it right more often."
Corr regains control of the ball, but it's not her night. She fouls, which allows Barretta the chance to set up the perfect shot. Goliath falls. The crowd goes mad.
Later, as she's signing autographs, looking at her wobbly hand, Barretta says, "I'm shaking still." Two teenaged boys in the line are paging through the tournament program. "I'm looking for her picture in here," one says. "Or her phone number," says the other.
After the crowd clears, Barretta says: "I just want to follow in the footsteps of my idol. I don't even have to say her name." (Hint: She's named after a deadly spider.) "She's been so helpful. She's the one who put me in touch with FHM. She's kind of taken me under her wing. She'll say, 'Don't do it this way; do it this way.' She's very generous with her knowledge. She knows that there's room for more than one."
Ming Ng didn't take any prize money back to Miami, despite winning two matches.
"I had a really tough draw in pulling Karen Corr, but even granted that, I didn't play bad," she ruminates a week after the match. "I felt like she got all the pressure, that it wasn't on me." Despite Ng's strong start in the match, Corr took it home by 9-2. Ng says she just didn't get "the rolls," which she describes as "the luck factor." Corr got the rolls.
The match that knocked her out of the double-elimination tournament also had some voodoo rolls. Purely by accident, her opponent knocked the 9-ball in during combination shots twice during back-to-back games. "That kind of mentally got me edgy," Ng confesses. She has now set her sights on the opening of the 2005 tour in February in North Carolina.
Barretta found more than her match in the semifinals against Julie "Motor Molly" Kelly, one of the Irish queenpins who dominate the game. Barretta seemed to crack when she was faced with the break, the match standing at 6-5. Kelly was one game away from the finals. Barretta drew back her stick and drove it forward. But the loud crash of balls never came, because she delivered a miscue that left the audience in a collective gasp and the cue ball sputtering along in slow motion. Kelly finished her off quickly.
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But Kelly faced the Black Widow in the final. "Every cow in Tennessee would like to be in that leather," Tipton said to the audience while he talked about Lee's outfit. He quickly realized that his tortured metaphor was getting some titters. "Or donate that leather," he added.
Leading at 6-5, Lee asked for the one five-minute break allowed per match. Returning from the ladies room, she suddenly turned to the audience and shouted, "Is this exciting enough for you guys?"
Kelly tied it up, 6-6, but the Celtic billiards gods were not to be kind. Lee, the billiards juggernaut, began cleaning the table off. "C'mon, USA," shouted a man in the audience. When Lee sank the 9, the crowd erupted. "U-S-A, U-S-A," chanted some.
Lee raised her arms above her head and jutted her cue like a flagpole.