As rock music hammered in the background, Barbara Ireland leaned across the blue baize-covered table, cocked her stick at the cue ball and stroked the yellow-banded nine-ball into a side pocket.
A pool shooter since childhood, the Perry Hall resident straightened up with a triumphant smile and a clean win over Earl Milstred, a higher-ranked male shooter.
But Milstred had the last laugh as his team of men and women beat Ireland's crew -- one of two female teams playing in a mixed league in the area -- three matches to two.
Women are no longer a novelty in local pool halls, the once male bastions having been largely transformed into gathering places where the sexes can compete on equal footing and have a good time doing it.
"I love the game. It's a hobby, and it's competitive," said Therese Perez, 33, an office manager and captain of a female team that plays in an eight-ball league in Dundalk.
Perez, a pool shooter since age 14, led an earlier version of her team to a national tournament of the American Poolplayers Association (APA) in Las Vegas in 1995 and finished 65th out of more than 400 teams.
"When women first started, I think the guys underestimated us, but in today's society they don't do that anymore," she said. "They can't do that anymore."
In Maryland, between 1,300 and 1,500 women are members of the St. Louis-based APA, the world's largest amateur pool organization, according to Terry Justice, who owns the franchise for the largest division of the Maryland APA league.
That's out of a total membership of about 10,000 statewide.
By contrast, the APA office in St. Louis said there are about 3,800 women members in a national membership of nearly 158,000.
Justice said the conscious effort to change the image of pool has attracted an ever-growing number of women to the game.
"We have changed the environment over the last 10 to 15 years and put pool in the same realm as bowling," Justice said. "We try to educate players in good sportsmanship, and we enforce the rules strictly."
Ireland, who once shot pool four nights a week for teams, praises the attitude of the men she has played with and against.
Key to the level playing field is the APA's "equalizer" handicap system, similar to the handicap in golf. It lets less-skilled shooters play better players.
The macho factor is minimal. In their recent match, Ireland and Milstred walked away laughing from the table at Hansen's Chestnut Club, a brightly lighted, members-only pool hall in Hampden crowded every Sunday night with men and woman playing nine-ball in a six-team, in-house league.
Monica Martinez, 26, said a former boyfriend got her interested in pool.
"It's a great learning game, learning the angles when the object ball is concealed," she said. "It's also a good way to get out to spend an evening with my girlfriends."
Her roommate, Maria Bebber, 21, learned to play on a home pool table as a child. "I'm in it for the fun. I love the game, and I want to get really good at it," said Bebber, who received two cues for Christmas.
Information on joining or forming a team in the American Poolplayers Association is available from the league's local office, 299 Willow Spring Road, Baltimore 21222, or by telephone from 410-285-5505.
Pub Date: 4/11/97