|C L I P S | R E S U M E|
New York Woman
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 womens pool. So accomplished was her game that in 1979
Balukas crashed the more competitive mens 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 Womens Final at the Brunswick World Open
9-ball tournament. Jean Balukas vs. Robin Bell.
The match is being broadcast live from Caesars 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 womens 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 theres 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 dont 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
This last rule really rankles Balukas. "If youre a professional
and youre 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, isnt just about
making good shots. Its 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
"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 couldnt 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 Womens 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 wasnt
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 WPBAs action.
After all, prize money is so slight on the womens 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 sports sparse endorsement opportunities for years. But on
that night in Las Vegas, she seemed almost hell-bent on sabotaging her
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. "Im 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
womans 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 womens event were going to be invited
to play in the mens 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,
youre 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 sports 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. "Thats when I started getting nervous,"
she says. "Thats when I started putting a lot of pressure on
The pressure was compounded by Balukass 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 womens tour. But Bell wont condone her former friends
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 couldnt stand it. Theres a difference between
a great player and a champion. A champion can lose with grace. Jean didnt
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 hasnt resolved the
events and emotions of the past few years, and she still hasnt let
herself or anybody else off the hook. "Hopefully, Ill 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 womens
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 cant see how
I can be as dominant. But Im 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