Helena "The Sledgehammer" Thornfeldt isn't satisfied with the rack.
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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. 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 Women's Professional Billiards Association season.
Barretta is only slightly distracted by Thornfeldt's gamesmanship. She calls out, "Steve! 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 one. 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. 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. And then when I turned pro I quit my job and now this is all I do. The blonde and buff year-old Barretta she has posed wearing a bikini for a magazine started playing pool in at the relatively advanced age of 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.
She entered ranked 29 on the tour. My goal is to get into the top 10 and see what happens from that. Barretta comes into ranked Being in the top 16 has competitive advantages. And maybe make more money. 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.
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 Moneyexists in an American sports world that, outside of football, basketball and baseball, is looking for something that can described using the word "extreme.
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.
After merging efforts, then divorcing from the men players in the early s because the men wanted a bigger say in how things were run, the WPBA formed a league of its own. Laurance graced the cover of The New York Times Magazine ingiving the women's game, and pool in general, a huge boost.
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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 WPBA still distributes prize money deep into the draw. 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. 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? 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 asment, 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.
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.
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In her quarterfinal match at the Cuetec Cues Florida Classic against Karen Corr, Barretta improbably takes a lead in a "race to seven. 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- 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 one. If math and creativity worked for Barretta against Corr, she was about to experience chaos. 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, 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 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! 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.
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. Laurance, then Ewa Svensson, came to the United States when she was She married year old Jimmy "Pretty Boy Floyd" Mataya, a poster-boy for the old stereotype of the male professional pool player.
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At 18, Laurance was invited to New York to be a model, but didn't like the lifestyle. This was '82, ' 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. In, Laurance was approached by Brunswick Billiards and ed to a sponsorhip agreement.
They are still together. 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.