(J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — For JoAnn Mason Parker, playing pool is as natural as handling a knife and fork.
“You don’t drop it because you know what you’re doing,” said the former child prodigy, explaining the analogy during a recent video chat from Westchester, New York. Her mini Labradoodle, Rivkah, sat nearby. “It’s not difficult.”
The former US Open 9-Ball champion describes her style as “aggressive” – both defensively and offensively. (In billiards, attacking is when you pick up balls, and defending is when you position the cue ball in such a way as to put your opponent at a disadvantage.) Her motto, she said, is to “make the game easy for me. And difficult for you.”
On October 24, Parker became the first billiards player to be inducted into Northern California’s Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, a nonprofit that recognizes excellence in sports and also awards scholarships to deserving student athletes each year.
“When I saw what they stand for, I felt like I wanted to be a part of it,” Parker said.
Today, 26 years after retiring from the professional circuit, Parker, 53, is looking to make a comeback. She plays (and wins) amateur tournaments in New York, and is working towards a return to top-level competition.
“I’m itchy,” she said.
A natural athlete (Parker ran track and played volleyball, softball and, later in her life, golf), she was drawn to billiards from a very young age. She followed and learned from her father, Harvey Mason, a professional player and coach who trained Tony Robles (“The Silent Assassin”) and Sammy Guzman, among others.
“When I was 4 years old, I always copied what my father did,” she said. “I was a daddy’s girl from the start.”
While watching him play, she would get some early coaching. Harvey often told her, “Don’t look at the balls, JoAnn, look at me,” Parker said. “Look at the machine. Then one day you’ll know how to do this.”
And she clearly had natural gifts. At age 5, she said, she ran her first rack of balls (meaning she bagged them all without missing out).
It was on a bar-sized table in a pool hall in Amsterdam, New York. Parker’s parents, both from the Bronx, at the time, he ventured into the state every summer with the family for fishing, horse racing, and billiards. She and her older sister, Nancy, were given shelter to keep them occupied.
She could barely get to the table, so she fired a pistol.
When the girls kept coming to their parents for more quarters, their father asked what was going on: “JoAnn just keeps putting all the balls in the hole!” said Nancy to his surprise.
Parker, who later became known as the “Battling Beauty” in professional billiards, earned her reputation as a child prodigy around the time she sank all those balls in Amsterdam. She started playing on the amateur circuit as a child and won her first major tournament, the “Big Apple” Amateur 8-Ball title, at the age of 13.
While still a teenager, Parker turned pro and competed in the Women’s Professional Billiards Tour after high school. She won the McDermott Masters in 1988; and two years later, in 1990, the US Open, the most competitive event in the country, beating the No. 1 ranked player in the world. She was the New York state billiard champion six years in a row.
And all that was just her first career. Less well-known was her second calling: For 12 years, Parker taught kindergarten at Katz Hillel Day School in Boca Raton, Florida, where her son William attended. The motto of the Modern Orthodox School: “Where excellence in the Torah and general studies is our passion.”
Parker went from “Battling Beauty” to “Morah JoAnn,” Hebrew for teacher.
“My billiards background and my competitiveness have made me a much better teacher,” said Parker. “Much better.”
Parker grew up in a secular Jewish family and moved to Monticello, New York at age 13. Today, she speaks with a distinct New York accent that is as reminiscent of baked ziti as it is bagels and lox.
Parker’s maternal grandparents immigrated from Lithuania and Austria, and her paternal grandparents were from the Bronx. Her grandmother Gertrude worked in a Jewish bakery called Sherblooms.
Parker is proudly “99.9 percent Ashkenazi,” she said, citing a recent DNA test. She punctuates her speech with Yiddish phrases like ‘Yiddish head’ or a Jewish way of thinking or behaving.
Her husband, Robert Parker, is from the hotelier Parker family that owned the Concord Resort Hotel, the famed Borscht Belt resort in the Catskills, until its closure amid considerable controversy in 1998.
At age 14, Parker took part in a tournament called the World Straight Pool Championship, held in 1981 at the swanky Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, where she would compete against the best amateur player in the world, Swedish-born Ewa. Mataya, who was four years older. The event was a kind of rude awakening.
‘I walk in there – I look like an angel. I’m wearing a very pretty ivory dress,” Parker said. But “there is one” world of difference” between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old, she said. “I am a girl and she is a woman.”
“I went into the lion’s den,” Parker added, laughing. “Lamb to the slaughterhouse.”
She held on, but lost the match.
Today, Parker’s confidence can be described as total, and her competitiveness – despite billiards’ reputation as a brain activity – is reminiscent of a heavyweight boxer.
“I want to wear them out,” she says of her opponents. “I keep them on the long rail, that’s a really hard place to be. I keep making them bridge over balls. Keep making them kick backwards at balls. Make it difficult.”
Then, “if you’re exhausted and exhausted, I’ll go for the kill,” she added. “With a smile!”
Unlike athletes in major sports, professional pool players, even some of the best, need audacity and a little creativity to earn a living. They collect revenue from tournament winnings, endorsements, tuition, and other fees for performing at trick shows and corporate events.
After high school, Parker skipped college in favor of what she called “pool school” (she would later return for a degree in early childhood education). To support herself, she worked part-time at a local Italian restaurant.
With her sociable personality, she was known for charming her clients. She got her first big break from a Greek client named Archie Papacaralumbus. He had a small business in town – 3D Block Co., which produced cement blocks – and saw promise in Parker. He volunteered to be her first pro sponsor.
“He was the nicest man, him and his wife,” Parker said. “They were not born in America. And someone had given him a big break when he came to this country. So he wanted to give me a break.”
In a short professional career, she not only took victories at the McDermott Masters and the US Open in 9-Ball, but also at half a dozen state championships in New York and many other tournaments from New England to China. She retired at age 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.
As a Jew on the professional billiard circuit, Parker pointed out some of the heroes of the American game, role models such as Mike Sigel and Barry Behrman.
Still, there were times, especially in the American South, when she was uncomfortable hearing the chatter in the room, probably the only Jew there. She almost always wore her chai necklace during competitions.
“As soon as you hear comments about black people, you know you’re on the radar to be next,” she said. “When these people talk like that, you just know.”
The most pivotal moment of her career came at the 1990 US Open 9-Ball tournament in Norfolk, Virginia. She was also wearing her chai necklace at the time. The country’s most prestigious professional tournament that year had 42 participants, the largest field in its history.
In her first five games, Parker tore through the field, winning every game. But in the finals, she was considered a serious underdog when she faced the world’s number 1.
At nearly 6 feet, her competitor towered over Parker, who is 5 feet-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 full focus.
She opened the first game with a powerful break and sent a ball into the corner. She took her second shot, covered the table, and devised a strategy.
Parker didn’t have a clear shot, so she played defense. She barely kissed the cue ball and pushed it into a position that would make it nearly impossible for Mataya to get her first shot. It worked – and then Parker went on the attack. She ran across the table, pocketing every ball in sequence and winning the crucial first game of the match. She would go on to win 11 games to 8.
When an interviewer then asked her how she was feeling, she got choked up. “I have waited a very long time for this moment. It has been my dream to win this tournament,” she said.
More than 30 years later, after raising a son (now 27) and a 12-year detour in Jewish education, Parker looks back on billiards.
She trained and recorded demonstration videos, some of which can be viewed here. While she cared little about fitness when she was touring in her 20s (“we’d go to Denny’s and eat all kinds of garbage”), she’s been getting up around 4:30 for early-morning cardio since the summer — sprinting up a steep incline. on. hill, then runs down and gets into the mindset to compete again.
‘Nobody does what I do. I’m not afraid to feel that pain running up that hill,” she said. “I look at my opponents and I say to myself, they have no right to beat me.”
In her fifties, she’s a different player. But pool is not like other sports. She believes she can still be as good as she was 30 years ago and win another US Open or similar tournament.
“You can’t possibly expect to be a better shotmaker than you were when you were 23. Maybe you could be just as good,” she said. “But you can certainly be smarter. And you can play the game with intellect. To make the game easy for me. And difficult for you.”
This story was originally published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California and is reprinted with permission.