This week's Sunday Long Read takes us to the dimly-lit pool halls of San Francisco, where the game is nine-ball and the action is as smooth as the shots are glorious. But the players here are all women, and the skill level is remarkable as they compete for a spot in the Vegas big time.
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 of all ages, from all walks of life play here, for the love of the game, for the challenge of competition, and just to prove a point. But that doesn't always go over well with men in the sport, or at the halls, and even in 2018, billiards is still a "macho guy thing".
These women are looking to change that, and more power to them.