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.