Women making a bigger splash in the new, upscale pool halls

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You know the pool shark: Cigarette dangling from sneering lips, he bends over the table, positions his cue stick against a pinkie-ringed hand and nails his target with a satisfyingly macho clack.

What to make, then, of the Women's Professional Billiards Association -- its logo is a silhouette of a spike-heeled woman with a cue stick -- which comes to town today for the Baltimore Billiards Classic, a $50,000 tournament? What to make of its souvenir program full of artful, soft-focused pictures of players who look decidedly more like country-western singers with big smiles and bigger hair than any pool player you ever saw in "The Hustler"?

"It's not like that anymore," Linda Haywood says of the smoky, seedy milieu that has surrounded her game in the past. "I've always thought anyway that women were built for the game -- they have the finesse and the gentleness. You don't need any strength to play the game."

Ms. Haywood, 34, an insurance saleswoman who lives in Dundalk, was a professional billiards player for about seven years, before the recent swell of attention that has put the sport on magazine covers -- usually in the guise of Ewa (pronounced Ava) Mataya, a leggy blond from Sweden who plays out of Michigan, and is one of the top-ranked female players and its most photogenic spokeswoman.

Ms. Haywood quit the professional ranks about four years ago for a more reliable 9-to-5 kind of job, but decided to enter the qualifying rounds to compete against the professionals in the Baltimore tournament. She and Patti Jakusz of Reisterstown, qualified.

The tournament, one of 12 stops in the WPBA's 1993 Classics Tour, will be held at Baltimore Billiards, one of the new, "upscale" pool rooms that have become popular in recent years. That there are 12 stops and big-money prizes on the tour, not to mention taping for later broadcast by ESPN, indicates how women's billiards has grown in popularity.

"It's the first year they've had this kind of a tour," says John Lewis of the Billiard Congress of America, the sport's governing body. "The only reason I feel that men are better than women in our sport is that they got a 400-year head start."

Women increasingly are taking up the game, industry surveys show. A third of the 39 million people who played pool at least once in 1991 were women; 10 years ago, women made up just 10 percent of the pool players. And pool-playing in general is on the upswing: Among frequent players (those who engage in their sport more than 25 days a year), it has surpassed bowling as the No. 1 recreational activity, according to the industry group, Billiard & Bowling Institute of America.

The centuries-old game -- it was mentioned in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" -- has fluctuated in and out of popularity over the years. Its recent surge, many believe, is due to "The Color of Money," the glossy 1986 sequel of "The Hustler," and the subsequent proliferation of "yuppie" pool halls, such as Nottingham's in Columbia, which celebrated its first anniversary last Sunday.

"It's the kind of place you can bring your wife or your mother," owner Alan Berrier says. "It's just a very comfortable place."

The upscaling of pool halls has proved less intimidating to women than the stereotypical joints of the past, agreed Michelle Rokos, marketing supervisor of Baltimore Billiards, a division of Fair Lanes. Baltimore Billiards, which opened its Linthicum location in December 1991 and its Eastpoint room in September, is sponsoring the women's tournament.

"It's a great way to show that pool is not just for seedy people," Ms. Rokos says. "Most of these players are moms and career people."

"We get a lot of, 'Well, isn't a poolroom a bad place for women to go?' " says Shari Stauch, editor of Pool and Billiard Magazine and a professional player who will be competing in Baltimore.

"That's really passe -- anyone who has been out and about can see how that's changed."

Like the other players, Ms. Stauch, who lives in the Chicago area and worked as a consultant to "The Color of Money," will be

competing in the Baltimore tournament to accumulate points that will add to her ranking. (Players get a certain number of points for finishing first, second and on down.) The top three players have been neck-and-neck throughout the year, with a Texas woman, Vivian Villareal, recently edging out Ewa Mataya of Michigan, with Robin Bell of California just below them, Ms. Stauch says.

"The women tend to dress up the tournaments, and that draws a lot of men," Ms. Haywood says. "You do get a pretty good crowd sometimes."

Indeed, the sport has capitalized on the crowd-pleasing quality of the women pros -- some of the tournaments even require that the players wear formal gowns while competing.

"They're knockouts," Mr. Lewis says bluntly. "We are really lucky to have these women. They're gorgeous, they're experienced at the game, they express themselves well."

The women seem just grateful: If it takes a little sex appeal to get their sport some attention, and the all-important corporate sponsorship that pays for some of the expenses of touring and prize money, so be it.

"When you get the television crews out, it helps to look good," Ms. Haywood says of the expected taping by ESPN. "The game has had such a nasty name in the past -- when you thought of pool, you thought of gambling and drinking."

Ms. Jakusz, the other local woman who will compete in the tournament, recently moved here from Milwaukee and has noticed a difference in the pool scene.

"It's a little more acceptable in Milwaukee for a woman to go into a bar and play pool. Here, pool rooms are more family-oriented -- some of the pool rooms, you can't buy a drink," she says. "They're trying to get away from that 'dirty pool' image."

Ms. Jakusz, currently an unemployed computer programmer, admits to having met her boyfriend in a pool hall.

"It took me a while to trust him -- I know pool players," she says with a laugh. "But really, there are upstanding citizens who play pool."

BALTIMORE CLASSIC

What: Competition among top women players for $50,000.

Where: Baltimore Billiards, 7701 Eastern Ave.

When: Today, 5:15 p.m., Pro-Am Tournament featuring local media and sports celebrities; 8 p.m., "Shoot the Pro," in which the public can play against the pros in a benefit for the Ronald McDonald House. Friday and Saturday, noon to 10:30 p.m., tournament match play. Sunday, noon to 3 p.m., match play; 6 p.m., semifinals; 7:30 p.m., championship match; 9 p.m., awards ceremony.

Tickets: Available at door or in advance, $5 Thursday through Saturday; $7 Sunday. Call (410) 282-7968.

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