Renée Mata is a 4-foot-11 ball of irrepressible good vibes. She never stops grinning and stops talking only slightly more often. So when she takes a break from shooting pool one Saturday morning in mid-January to tell me, still smiling, that she’s “in a funk,” I honestly can’t tell if she’s joking.
Thirty-year-old Mata (Ren, to her friends) is one of 30 women at Billiard Palacade, a dark pool hall in Balboa Park, one of the last ungentrified neighborhoods in San Francisco, and there’s nowhere she’d rather be. But the funk is very real: she didn’t get much sleep last night because she didn’t get home from work—pouring beers and cooking hot dogs at another pool hall six miles uptown—until 2:30 a.m., and her shift had been so busy that she didn’t get much time to practice her game. That same day had begun with a 6:30 a.m. baking class at the City College of San Francisco, where she learned how to make pot de crème. Now it’s time to compete at the penultimate stop in what may be the most competitive regional women’s pool tour in the country.
“These girls are all my friends, but they’re also crazy good pool players,” Mata tells me, fresh off a streak of eight consecutive hugs with her competitors. “So if I’m not on top of my game because I didn’t get enough sleep or didn’t eat right or didn’t have a good practice session last night, I’m going to have a rough day.”
The event is the eighth stop in the West Coast Women’s Tour, a series with monthly events across Northern California. The tour focuses on nine-ball billiards, in which players must use the cue ball to strike the lowest-numbered of the nine balls on the table. Top performers will qualify for the annual American Poolplayers Association Championships in Las Vegas in August, and several of the regulars travel widely for bigger competitions. But the California tour is not just for elite players—the women at Billiard Palacade range in age from their teens to their 70s, and the spread of skill levels is at least as wide. A handicap system encourages women of all abilities to participate: the pro player who cofounded the event in 2007 has to win eight games to win a match, while newbies must win just five.
Mata falls somewhere in the middle. For the past five years, her life has revolved around pool. She quit her job managing a Bay Area Target store when she convinced the owner of her favorite pool hall to hire her, so she practices nearly every day at work. She plays in a team league as well as on the women’s tour. When she was a kid, her dad loved watching pool on TV, and she dreamed of playing professionally, too. But the only pool halls near their home were inappropriate for little girls—so she didn’t start playing regularly until she was 23, when her brother’s girlfriend asked her to join her team. She wasn’t very good, she admits, but her drive to improve was insatiable. “[My brother’s girlfriend] says she created a monster by inviting me to play,” Mata says. She’s not sure she wants to go pro, but she’s working toward bigger tournaments, like the one in Vegas. And while she has the talent to beat almost any player in Northern California, she’s inconsistent, so starting a tournament in a funk does not bode well.
Because pool is a mental game, the atmosphere during a tournament is generally silent but for the crash of cue balls striking the other nine. As the women twist cues together and run precision-shooting drills, Mata’s voice and laugh are among the few sounds that slice through the quiet. I hadn’t recognized her when I first spotted her across the room: during her shift two nights earlier, four piercings (two in her nose and two below her lip) had been her only facial adornment. Today, aware that a photographer is coming, she’s in full makeup, with dramatic cat-eye eyeliner and pink, glittery eye shadow that matches the highlights in her black hair. The second-shortest player in the tournament, she has to stand on tiptoe to make many of her shots, and she has found one of the few chairs in the room that will allow her feet to reach the floor when she sits down.
Two days earlier, Mata told me that she thinks of this particular tournament as more of a fun time than a competition—“This is my girls’ weekend, with no boyfriends or men at all”—but make no mistake: she is here for a prize. When the draw is announced and players move to their assigned tables, even the bubbliest player in the room goes mum, the smile suddenly gone from her face. She jams in a pair of white earbuds, turns on a playlist that ranges from Demi Lovato to Childish Gambino, and racks the balls into the diamond shape that begins a game of nine-ball. As the tournament begins, six 20-something men who have just walked in look crestfallen: the women are using all 15 tables, so there’s no room for them to play.
Women have been playing billiards since the sport’s earliest days, when it was a hobby for European royals in the 15th century. Mary, Queen of Scots, complained about being deprived of the game while imprisoned, and her body was covered with the cloth from her billiards table after her execution in 1587. But until the 1970s, there were few women’s tournaments, and decorum prevented most female players from spending time in pool halls with men. In 1934, a Pennsylvania woman named Ruth McGinnis was named “Queen Billiard Player of the World” by the World Billiards Association after winning a series of games against both men and women in Chicago—but she retired more than ten years before the creation of the first national tournament for women in 1967. Eight years after that, two players seeking to give women more opportunities to compete—without being intimidated by more experienced male players—created the Women’s Professional Billiard Alliance (now the Women’s Professional Billiard Association), to oversee women's events, the first governing body for women’s events.
In 1981, two professional male players developed the first governing body for amateur pool tournaments, the American Poolplayers Association. Looking to encourage more casual players to compete, the pair developed a handicap system that would give rookies a chance at beating more established players in coed recreational tournaments. “When they started, they couldn’t convince women to play unless they were already really good,” says Renee Lyle, whose stepfather cofounded the APA and who has served as president of the group since 1995. “But the handicap forces teams to go find people who don’t even consider themselves pool players, and then they fall in love and get better over time.” A third of the APA’s 250,000 members are women, which Lyle says is significantly higher than in groups that don’t use handicaps.
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Before the 1990s, competitive events for female pool players were rare in the United States (though more common in Asia and Europe, where pool is a more mainstream sport). Female players who are now in their 30s and 40s say they were routinely discouraged from playing as children, whether by men who refused to take them seriously, or by protective parents who refused to let their young daughters hang out in smoke-filled pool halls frequented by older men.
Eleanor Callado—who cofounded the West Coast Women’s Tour with her twin sister Emilyn in the early 2000s, and is now an internationally ranked pro on the WPBA circuit—was introduced to the game by her father, as an eight-year-old growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. But she and her sister only got to play twice before their mother put a stop to it. “The second time, he got us home at like 3 in the morning and she’s like, ‘No, never again,’” Callado, now 33, tells me over a plate of nachos between matches, giggling at the memory.
Their mother relented when the twins were 13 and began playing in junior tournaments, but not everyone was so understanding. For their 16th birthday, shortly before Callado won her first junior national championship, they invited 12 girls to a local pool hall for a party with a DJ and a catered meal. Not one showed up—their parents wouldn’t allow it. “It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon!” Callado marvels now.
Many female players attribute the evolution of pool’s once-seedy image to ESPN, which broadcast women’s championships in the 1990s and 2000s. The number of WPBA events grew from a few per year to as many as 10 or 12, and Lyle says the percentage of female players in APA leagues grew from 15 percent to about 35 percent. The spotlight also made Jeanette Lee, the top-ranked female player in the world during much of that time, into a household name. She was known for the slinky cocktail dresses she wore while playing—and for her nickname, the Black Widow.
“We wanted so hard to class it up and pull the sport’s reputation up from backroom smoky bars and all that, so some of us went to the extreme of dressing up and making it a classy event, which the men didn’t have to do,” Lee, now 46, tells me from her home in Tampa, occasionally interrupting our call to issue instructions to her mother about the paella they’re cooking together. “The more we were on TV, the events and prize money just skyrocketed.”
A decade ago, though, ESPN moved women’s pool from its TV channels to its internet streaming service. The network cited poor viewership; women in the industry say they could never get a consistent time slot, so it was hard to build a fanbase. That change, combined with the economic downturn, struck a blow to the sport’s growth. Lyle says revenue plunged for the WPBA, of which she is a board member, and the number of pro women’s tournaments dropped from ten a year in the early 2000s to just one, as recently as 2016.
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The industry is beginning to bounce back; the WPBA is hoping to host five or six events this year, and at least eight in 2019. But while the decline in exposure has not led to fewer American women playing pool overall, it has made it virtually impossible to earn a living doing it, let alone become a celebrity like the Black Widow. Callado, who was ranked 13th in the world in 2016, earns less than $5,000 a year in prize money; her endorsements cover equipment, but not travel costs or entry fees.
“I can’t tell you the number of women who come up to me and say, ‘I saw you on ESPN, and it inspired me to take up pool,’” says Lee. “But if they’re younger than 25, they have no idea who I am. It’s not going to stop the train of people learning to play, but now it’s harder to see someone who’s really good who inspires you to get really serious about it.”
These days, the reason women-only billiards tournaments exist is not because players like Mata can’t beat men. It’s because they can. While APA events and other casual tournaments are typically coed, every serious female player has an arsenal of stories about less-skilled men disrespecting them, harassing them, and mansplaining the game. Mata says she won’t play in bars anymore because it’s not worth dealing with comparatively low-skilled men who suddenly think they’re sharks once they start drinking. A two-day pool tournament with no men allowed represents as much of a safe space as any fiercely competitive sporting event can.
Just $300 is up for grabs at the West Coast Women’s Tour stop at Billiard Palacade, but the top eight finishers will earn points that will boost their rankings and help them qualify for larger tournaments. For the best amateur players, the goal is the APA Championships, a chance to measure their skills against players from across the country. For the rest, it’s simply the most fun way to spend a weekend.
This is Ren Mata’s last chance to earn points; she has to miss February’s tournament, the last of the season, because she has a competition with her league team the same weekend. She has been competing seriously on the women’s tour for three years now, and she plans to spend the three months before the start of the next season practicing daily, so she can improve her standing in 2019. Even if she doesn’t end up going pro, she tells me, she wants to be able to play at that level. “Of course I want to win every game, but if I feel like I’m constantly getting better as a player, that’s even more important,” she says.
A random draw has matched Mata against Motoko Siguenza, the same higher-ranked player she had to face in the last tournament. “Argh! Why can’t I get someone I can beat when I’m tired?” she mock-yells. The effects of her funk are visible almost immediately when she scratches on an easy shot early in the first game of the match, setting up her opponent for a run of five balls. Siguenza, though, misses a clean shot on the nine-ball, giving Mata a straight shot to win the opener. She misses, Siguenza takes the game, and Mata begins racking the balls again with no visible reaction. She loses the match 6–3.
The tournament is double-elimination, though, and Mata’s second match pits her against an obviously weaker player, whose handicap means she just has to win five games before Mata wins six. Mata wins the first game easily, but gives away enough points to leave the match tied at 3–3. Then, in game seven, she makes a rookie mistake: she sinks the nine-ball but scratches the cue ball, an automatic loss. She does the same in the next game, giving away the match. She grimaces performatively, throwing her hands in the air. But once she’s out of the competition, she starts grinning and playing on an empty table almost immediately. “I told you it wasn’t my day!” she says. “I had some good shots, and a lot of bad shots, and here we are.” On Callado’s advice, she plans to skip the “second-chance” bracket for eliminated players tomorrow, in favor of a coed tournament with a $1,000 prize.
Eight hours in to the first day of play, I get a firsthand glimpse at the annoyances that come with being a woman in the often-macho pool world. Only half of the tables in the room are being used for the tournament at this point, but Mata and several other eliminated players aren’t tired yet, so they’re playing friendly matches on the rest. A handful of men are milling around, irritated that there’s still no space for them. I am watching Callado dominate a match when a middle-aged man sidles up next to me and begins critiquing her form. “That was a very amateurish mistake,” he scoffs when she misses a bank shot.
I’m not the one he’s criticizing, and I’ve known Callado for all of a day, but I find myself fuming. “She’s an internationally ranked pro!” I snap. He’s taken aback, stammering something about how she’s not that highly ranked this year. After she reports her 8–2 win, I run up to tell Callado about the conversation as she purchases a celebratory beer. But, surprisingly, she’s not half as annoyed as I am; she rolls her eyes, but she’s laughing, too. She’ll go on to win the tournament fairly easily, but her real focus is on a pro event in Michigan a couple of weeks later. This is just for fun, and one ignorant guy isn’t going to stop her from having a good time. “That’s sort of the point of all this,” she says, gesturing around the room at the event she founded more than a decade ago. “I mean, how cool is it that you get all these women in a male-dominated sport and just get to pretend the men don’t exist for a weekend?”