By Gabe Stutman
For JoAnn Mason Parker, playing pool comes just as naturally as handling a knife and fork.
“You’re not going to drop it, because you know what you’re doing,” the former child prodigy said, explaining the analogy during a recent video chat from Westchester, N.Y. Her mini Labradoodle, Rivkah, sat nearby. “It’s not hard.”
The former U.S. Open 9-Ball champion describes her style as “aggressive” — both defensively and offensively. (In pool, offense is when you pocket balls, and defense is when you position the cue ball in such a way as to disadvantage your opponent.) Her motto, she said, is to “make the game easy for me. And hard for you.”
Today, 26 years after retiring from the pro circuit, Parker, 53, is eyeing a comeback. She’s been playing in (and winning) amateur tournaments in New York, working out and envisioning a return to competition at the highest level.
“I’ve got the itch,” she said.
A natural athlete (Parker ran track and played volleyball, softball and, later in life, golf), she gravitated toward billiards at a very early age. She emulated and learned from her father, Harvey Mason, a pro player and coach who trained the likes of Tony Robles (“The Silent Assassin”) and Sammy Guzman.
“When I was 4 years old I always copied whatever my dad was doing,” she said. “I was a daddy’s girl right from the start.”
While watching him play, she would get some early coaching. Harvey often told her, “Don’t watch the balls, JoAnn, watch me,” Parker said. “Look at the machine. Then you’ll know how to do this one day.”
And she had obvious natural gifts. At the age of 5, she said, she ran her first rack of balls (meaning, pocketed each one without missing).
It was on a bar-size table at a pool hall in Amsterdam, N.Y. Parker’s parents, both from the Bronx, in those days ventured upstate for fishing, horse racing and billiards each summer with the family. She and her older sister, Nancy, were given quarters to keep them occupied. She could barely reach the table, so she shot sidearm.
When the girls kept returning to their parents for more quarters, their father asked what was going on: “JoAnn just keeps making all the balls in the hole!” Nancy said to his astonishment.
She started playing on the amateur circuit as a kid and won her first major tournament, the “Big Apple” Amateur 8-Ball title, at 13.
While still a teenager, Parker went pro, joining the Women’s Professional Billiards Tour after high school. She won the McDermott Masters in 1988; and two years later, in 1990, the U.S. Open, the most competitive event in the country, beating the No. 1 ranked player in the world. She was the New York State billiards champion for six years running.
At age 14, Parker competed in a tournament called the World Straight Pool Championship, held in 1981 at the swanky Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, where she was going to face the top amateur player in the world, Swedish-born Ewa Mataya, who was four years older. The event was a rude awakening, of sorts.
“I’m walking in there — I look like an angel. I’m in a very pretty ivory-colored dress,” Parker said. But “there is a world of difference” between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old, she said. “I’m a girl, and she’s a woman.”
“I was going into the lion’s den,” Parker added with a laugh. “Lamb to the slaughter.”
She held her own, but lost the match.
Today Parker’s self-confidence could be described as total, and her competitiveness — notwithstanding billiards’ reputation as a cerebral pursuit — as reminiscent of a heavyweight boxer.
“I want to wear them down,” she says of her opponents. “I keep them on the long rail, which is a very difficult place to be. I keep making them bridge over balls. Keep making them kick backwards at balls. Make it hard.”
Then, “when you’re exhausted and worn out, I’m going for the kill,” she added. “With a smile!”
In a short professional career, she notched wins not only at the McDermott Masters and the U.S. Open in 9-Ball, but at a half-dozen New York state championships and many other tournaments from New England to China. She retired at 27 after giving birth to her son William, then returned briefly in 2010, competing in a 9-Ball tournament called the Tiger 9-Ball. And won.
The most pivotal moment of her career came at the 1990 U.S. Open 9-Ball tournament in Norfolk, Va. She wore her chai necklace. The most prestigious professional tournament in the country had 42 entrants that year, the largest field in its history.
In her first five competitions Parker tore through the field, winning each match. But in the final she was considered a serious underdog as she faced the No. 1–ranked player in the world.
At close to 6 feet, her competitor towered over Parker, who is 5-foot-4. And she was sponsored by Brunswick, the biggest name in pool.
It was Ewa Mataya, nine years after their first meeting.
In videos of the match, Parker’s face is relaxed, one of complete focus.
She opened the first game with a powerful break, sending a ball into the corner pocket. She took her time before her second shot, stalking the table, strategizing.
Parker didn’t have a clear shot, so she played defense. She kissed the cue ball just barely, nudging it into a position that would make it nearly impossible for Mataya to make her first shot. It worked — and then Parker went on offense. She ran the table, pocketing each ball in the correct order, winning the crucial first game of the match. She would go on to win, 11 games to 8.
Afterward when an interviewer asked her how she felt, she got choked up. “I’ve waited for this moment for a very long time. It’s been my dream to win this tournament.”
This story was originally published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California, and is reprinted with permission.