C L I P S |  R E S U M E

The fierce fragile personality of pool champion Jean Balukas finally buckled under the weight of its own legend.

New York Woman
September 1991

Too Good for Her Own Good

JEAN BALUKAS DISCOVERED POOL THE YEAR HER PARENTS PUT A TABLE IN the basement of their Brooklyn home to keep her four older brothers out of the local parlors. She was four. By the time she captured her first US title in 1972 as a shy and gangly thirteen-year-old, the pool world had crowned her its Little Princess. Over the next sixteen years, Balukas racked up seven US titles and eight world championships and came to completely dominate women’s pool. So accomplished was her game that in 1979 Balukas crashed the more competitive men’s tour. Years more playing time and experience give male pros a big advantage, "but if Jean really wanted to pursue it," says a veteran Manhattan billiards-club owner, "she could beat the top men."

Does Jean really want to pursue it? is the question I have come to Brooklyn to ask. Which is how I find myself leaning across a table at the Hall of Fame Billiards, getting a lesson in how to put "english" on the cue ball from the greatest women player ever to play the game.

Feeling betrayed by the women players, resented and harassed by the men, the now thirty-two-year-old Balukas left the sport abruptly in 1988. She has been running the Hall of Fame, the Bay Ridge parlor he rather bought in 1967, and brooding over her estrangement ever since. Balukas sounds angry, hurt, frustrated, at times defensive and often bewildered by what went wrong. But the simplest explanation for her stormy departure may be that Jean Balukas was just too good for her own good.

Las Vegas. June 1988. The Women’s Final at the Brunswick World Open 9-ball tournament. Jean Balukas vs. Robin Bell.

The match is being broadcast live from Caesar’s Palace. Balukas cuts a formidable figure as she strides up to the table with her scalding talent and unrelenting instinct for the kill. She has brought a string of sixteen consecutive tournament victories to the Brunswick Open. But she seems testy and distracted tonight. In fact, her play has been so inconsistent throughout the tournament that even Balukas is surprised to find herself in the final round.

Robin Bell, on the other hand, is having the tournament of her life. She has never beaten Balukas. But tonight could be the night. Bell looks calm and confident, and there is nothing short of magic in her stroke. She leads three games to two when she breaks to start the sixth. The object of 9-ball is to pocket the balls in numerical order, starting with the lowest. The first player to win a preset number of games (typically nine or eleven in professional women’s matches) wins the match. Bell sinks the nine ball on the break. Then, astoundingly, she sinks it again on her next break, and just like that she is up 5-2.

The odds of sinking the nine on the break are long. When the nine balls are racked in a diamond shape at the start of the game, the nine is in the middle, so there’s no way to actually aim for it. In the opinion of Jean Balukas and most other pool players, the luck factor makes nine ball an inferior game. Not only is it an automatic winner whenever the wild-card nine ball goes down on the break, but shooters don’t have to call their pockets the way they do in straight pool. So if a ball intended for a side pocket caroms into a corner pocket by mistake, the shot still counts.

This last rule really rankles Balukas. "If you’re a professional and you’re shooting at a pocket, you should get it in that pocket," she insists. Balukas once pocketed 134 balls in a row, a record feat she dismisses with a humble shrug. Pool, she cautions, isn’t just about making good shots. It’s about leaving yourself good shots, while at the same time leaving your opponent tough shots, or better yet, no shots at all. The key is controlling the cue ball, and in that respect pool is really a lot like chess, because good players plot many moves ahead.

"You break the balls and you see a pattern right away," says Balukas. "You see where each ball should go." To get them there, you apply a little spin, or english, to the cue ball, coaxing it in such a way that after knocking the first ball down, it obediently rolls into the perfect position to dispatch the next ball, and the next, and so on, until the table is empty, or "run." With each new break, a new pattern emerges. A player never sees the same table twice, which is what makes pool so compelling. But the game can be acutely and uniquely frustrating too. "In every other sport you get a chance to perform," says Balukas, who has excelled at just about every other sport, from softball and basketball to tennis, golf, bowling, even darts. "In this game, you can literally lose sitting in your chair."

Balukas faced that very fate at the Brunswick Open. She grew more and more agitated until finally she began to mutter in disgust: "Some world championship" and "Beat me with skill, not luck." Bell couldn’t help overhearing, and since Balukas was wired for sound, neither could the viewing audience. The referee warned Balukas and she quieted down. But by that time Robin Bell had lost her composure. Balukas swept the next seven games, and the title. When the match was over, Bell filed a formal protest with the Women’s Professional Billiard Association.

Balukas was fined $200. She appealed the decision, asking that an impartial jury review the case. Her request was denied, and for more than three years now Balukas has stubbornly refused to pay the fine. Until she does, the former number one player is banned from competition. "It wasn’t the $200," says Balukas. "[Women] pool players, who were ranked three and six and five, were the ones who decided I should be fined. I felt it should have been done by an outside panel, not by my competitors."

Perhaps, as Balukas believes, envied spurred the WPBA’s action. After all, prize money is so slight on the women’s tour – first-place average is $3,000-that players who finish out of the top three spots may not even cover their expenses. Balukas had monopolized first-place purses and the sport’s sparse endorsement opportunities for years. But on that night in Las Vegas, she seemed almost hell-bent on sabotaging her own career.

Balukas lugged a lot of emotional baggage to the Brunswick Open. Some of the men players, for instance, had never felt comfortable with the idea of competing against a woman. "I’m gonna put on a dress and go play with the women," was one of several taunts. But when they began arguing that no player should straddle both tours, Balukas saw their point. To avoid a controversy, she decided not to enter the woman’s draw for a Chicago tournament in early 1988. "Sure enough, when I got there," she says, "I found out that the first- and second-place winners in the women’s event were going to be invited to play in the men’s event. I was stabbed in the back."

The wound festered before finally coming to a head that summer night in Las Vegas. "It was a buildup of everything," she says. "A little burnout, a little frustration. It just got to a point where I had so much animosity toward the pool world. And that was my out. You know, you’re going to fine me? Well, see you later. That was my excuse to finally say I need a break."

Not even Balukas imagined the "break" would last three years. But it makes sense when you consider that Balukas was a shy and reluctant talent. She rarely practiced. "I would have much rather been a tennis player or a golfer," she admits. She stuck with pool because she was good at it, because even the sport’s modest remuneration rescued her from the drudgery of a nine-to-five job, and because, in the beginning at least, it was fun. Once she reached the top, however, she became obsessed with staying there. "That’s when I started getting nervous," she says. "That’s when I started putting a lot of pressure on myself."

The pressure was compounded by Balukas’s isolation from the other women players. Success seemed to erect an invisible wall around the champion. Her natural reticence and a competitive wariness trapped her inside. "The other women were friends," says Mike Panozzo, editor of Billiards Digest. "They hung around together at tournaments. But Jean was strictly business. She was fiercely competitive, and at times it made her appear standoffish. But that was the edge she had on the women players."

Balukas lost some of that edge when she made a few friends during her last years on the circuit. Ironically, Robin Bell was her best friend on the women’s tour. But Bell won’t condone her former friend’s behavior any more than Balukas will forgive her former competitors for making an example of her. The two have barely spoken since their Brunswick Open duel. "Off the table, Jean was great, funny and really friendly," says Bell, who is currently ranked number three. "But when she felt the heat, she couldn’t stand it. There’s a difference between a great player and a champion. A champion can lose with grace. Jean didn’t know how to lose."

While that seems a harsh assessment, Bell has a point that even Balukas inadvertently concedes. "Playing against the men, I learned to lose," says Balukas. But [losing] hurt with the women because I was expected to win all the time." As her career wore on, Balukas battled two opponents: the player shooting against her and the burden of being the best. Her fierce, fragile personality finally buckled under the weight of its own legend.

Balukas is quick to point out that she has not retired from the game. But she is gun-shy as hell about returning. She hasn’t resolved the events and emotions of the past few years, and she still hasn’t let herself or anybody else off the hook. "Hopefully, I’ll get back that love I once had for competing and be a player again," she says. "But I have no ambition to go back right now."

If and when she does, Balukas will face stiffer competition on the women’s tour. Ewa Mataya and Loree Jon Jones, the current number one and two, are not about to hand Balukas back her crown. "I think I can work my way up there again," says Balukas. "I can’t see how I can be as dominant. But I’m not going to put that pressure on myself to be number one, to stay number one." Jean Balukas is a great pool player. Whether she will be remembered as a true champion depends on how well she can keep that promise.

Mary Bruno is a contributing editor of this magazine

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