One would suppose it to be a routine gathering of the forgotten, the forlorn, the wasted, the scorned. For they came to Chicago to play pool, a game that challenges dexterity, concentration and logic, but scarcely one's ranking on the social scale of sport. Pool. That wicked game of degenerates, no-accounts, grandmothers and little girls.
That's right, America, grandmothers and itsy-bitsy pretty girls. Granted, many of those who convened for the Billiard Congress of America's men and women's U.S. Open Pocket Billiards Championships didn't quite fit either description, having drifted in from the smoky, dank back rooms that are the soft underbelly and cursed heritage of the sport. But there also came the seed of future respectability, a new breed of players groomed on melon-colored tablecloths in bright, modern family lounges.
And what could be more respectable and reassuring than having as your women's defending champion a gracious 57-year-old grandmother, Mrs. Dorothy Wise, or as her challenger a shy 13-year-old moppet named Jean Balukas? Even the men were in the spirit of things. Their defending champ was a 27-year-old schoolteacher, Steve Mizerak. It made polo seem almost risqu� by comparison.
For years now the world has been hearing how pool was shedding its old, racy hustler's image and moving into its rightful niche as a popular and demanding sport. But acceptance in the headier reaches of suburbia has continued at a pace approximately equal to that of a man on his way to the IRS office. And until wives can be assured that sending their husbands off for a night of shooting pool is somewhat safer than having them do odd jobs for the young widow down the street, the sport seems doomed to remain a furtive, nocturnal pastime.
Recognizing this, the BCA, an organization of billiard equipment manufacturers that hopes to promote pool as a pursuit as healthy as swimming, only less dangerous, increased the 1972 women's field from eight to 16 players and their prize money from $2,000 to $5,000. The organization also promoted the anticipated showdown between the old and the Dew, East and West, defense and offense and any other disparate terms they could find to describe the battle between Mrs. Wise of San Francisco and the challenger-prodigy, Miss Balukas of Brooklyn.
A pleasant, matronly woman given to wearing i limestone brooches, earrings and silver-rimmed glasses while she plays, Mrs. Wise came to the tournament having lost only one other major event, the National Pro-Am in 1970. There she had been upset by Mrs. Gerry Titcomb, who was also in the Open field. Mrs. Wise, a widow since 1968, took up the game at the aye of 30 after her husband brought her to an exhibition between Willie Hoppe and Welker Cochran. Instant addiction. From then on she helped her husband operate billiards parlors in the San Francisco area and began to perfect her own game.
Miss Balukas was no neophyte, having made her first pool shot at the age of four. She played in the U.S. Open when she was nine, winning two games, and last week came to Chicago with a string of 46 straight tournament games without a defeat.
Besides their skill with a cue, the women players had other qualities evident to the galleries that filled the Crystal Room of the Sheraton-Chicago Hotel for the five-day, double-elimination tournament. For beauty, there were Sandra Peters, an attractive blonde; Palmer Byrd, whose striking looks well might help land her the job she seeks in billiards public relations; and Jean Tomasello, who looked as if she belonged on a California beach. For brains, there was the thoughtful Miss Balukas, a straight-A student. For beauty and brains there was Donna Ries, a 24-year-old brunette who has a master's degree in clinical psychology and a swimsuit figure.
But the galleries had a certain style, too. The betting action was vigorous, which is not unusual for a pool setting. "It's no big thing getting a bet down in a poolroom," explained a leggy young blonde galleryite in hot pants and granny glasses. "You just ask the person next to you." To elaborate, she told how she had recently returned from a trip to the West Coast financed entirely by what she had called "farmers"—a breed of unwary competitors who mistook her gender for an indicator of her pool-playing skill. In "a cow town in Wyoming," she said, one of her victims threatened her with a pair of six-guns. A couple of nearby gallants jumped the troublemaker and took him outside for a thrashing, but the twice-beaten opponent came up for the third time, putting a few slugs through the poolroom door. "I threw down my stick and quit," she recalled disgustedly. "The rest of them went outside and beat on him some more."
Many of the women professionals are reputed as good gamblers. One who does not gamble is Mrs. Wise. She thinks that betting, along with smoking and drinking and not smiling at people, is evil. "So many of them try it and they wind up broke," says Dorothy. "You just take stock of these fellows, and then take a look at them 10 years from now and see where they are."