Damaging gender dynamics in the sport of pool

Amani Ali
11 min readMar 5, 2023

Introduction: I am a woman in the male dominated world of competitive pool. I stepped away from bar pool to play more prestigiously a few years ago but the pandemic left me with no other competitive outlets in my city, so in addition to traveling for competition, I play in a bar league once a week. Coming back to the scene, I began to see toxic behaviors of bar patrons through a new lens and noticed the subtle ways toxic elements are also present in higher levels of play.

This essay is a quest for answers and a true labor of love. Gender dynamics in the sport of pool has never been written from a social psychology perspective before. The conversations and research that contribute to this essay have been in motion for over a year. It has been revelatory for me and I hope that others take something from this as well.

“Let’s put it this way, 98 percent of [men] don’t think a woman can beat them doing anything. And the other two percent are just so stunned that they’d want to pay and watch you play.” — Mary Kenniston

Many people have tried to explain the gender gap in pool and billiards. The fact that it continues to come up suggests that most people, 1. are aware that a gap in performance exists and, 2. assume that there shouldn’t be one. Fargo Rate has a great video diving into the statistics of it and the short answer is, there is no difference between men and women in pool, there are simply less women playing. Statistically, this makes a lot of sense — a smaller field (women) will produce less top players than a larger field of players (men), but disadvantages begin long before a woman picks up a pool cue.

Socialization is the real enemy when it comes to the gender performance gap. Socialization is the process, beginning in childhood, of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. Upholding traditional perspectives of masculinity and femininity can cause damaging behaviors in the pool world. Bar pool, while being the lowest level of pool competition, is incredibly toxic and the roots of the toxicity perpetuate gender segregation at higher levels of play. In order to mitigate the performance gap, we must be aware of the role that socialization plays on all genders and integrate junior girls and boys.

Damaging Behaviors

“Once upon a time, when pool was strictly a male province, prowess at pool seemed somehow related to virility. That myth surely no longer makes sense. Proving your manhood is a bad motivation to bring to the table. Similarly, pool is a game of finesse, so concerns to prove your physical power have little place.” Bob Fancher (70)

There are a number of damaging behaviors that women can experience when playing pool. They can be categorized as violent (posturing, bullying, anger, and aggression) or patronizing (sexualizing, underestimating, discouraging, unsolicited instructing, and gawking).

Except for underestimating female players, these damaging behaviors are less common in serious pool spaces, but they happen in bars constantly. Bar pool and bar leagues are worth mentioning here because in the US, a lot of new players start playing in bars. While researching, I learned that it’s not just in the US that pool halls have seedy reputations and restrictions on women. Here is an opinion piece from Kuwait posted in 2019 and a blog about a mother who moved to Mexico whose own family told her “good girls don’t play pool.” In Europe and in Asia, pool is treated like a sport and playing drunkenly in bars is not a thing, which is why they have us outnumbered in top players, male and female.

Despite the low level of competition that bar pool and bar leagues breed, they are deceptively toxic. The presence of alcohol is obvious, which can inflate egos and make spectators who touch a table once a year think they can outshoot any woman. Men, even those who don’t shoot, can feel threatened when they see women shooting well. This sentiment is echoed in the following quote, which is from a feature on Bay Area women pool players, “Every serious female player has an arsenal of stories about less-skilled men disrespecting them, harassing them, and mansplaining the game. Mata says she won’t play in bars anymore because it’s not worth dealing with comparatively low-skilled men who suddenly think they’re sharks once they start drinking.”

There is a group of women and nonbinary people who shoot on Tuesdays in my area. New players from that group have told me that they thought the game itself was toxic and avoided it until they found a safe and supportive place to play. Women’s groups, leagues, and tournaments are great for building a sense of safety but this is not a permanent solution. Aggression in bars literally stops new and less dedicated players from playing, and even some strong players avoid them.

While violence is mostly relegated to bars, you will find patronization often occurs in pool tournaments. For example, women will rarely be considered a favorite to win in a male-dominated field and some men will say things like “go easy on me” when they play women. It is a tactic to subconsciously bring out people-pleasing or to act as if he is not giving his all in case he loses. Any combination of the damaging behaviors can lead to voluntary or forced segregation of the sexes.

Gender Segregation in Professional and Junior Tours

“In the social hierarchy of the pool hall, a winning male represents the king of the castle, while a winning female represents a threat that must be eliminated.” — Dana Aft

Below are some examples of tour organizers barring women from competition in the 80s and 90s. Despite the age of these stories, they play an important role in the narrative because these actions affected an entire generation of women, at one of pool’s peaks. More opportunities exist for women to play professionally today but I can only imagine how much further along the sport would be if as recently as the 90s women were encouraged to play professionally in women’s and mixed divisions.

These are two written accounts of BCA Hall of Famer, Jean Balukus, not being allowed to play in men’s divisions:

‘’After last year when Jeannie finished 22d, ahead of 42 men, we heard from a lot of the men players who said playing against her put undue pressure on them…She came to one of our meetings and was very strong about competing against the men. So we reversed ourselves and said it was O.K. But she chose to stay out.’’ A quote from Peter Balner, 1981, featured in The New York Times.

“Some felt that they should be allowed to play with the women if Jean could play with the men. I think the reality was that they were afraid of getting beat by her,” Jay Helfert, similarly to Balner, reminisces about Balukus in 1987 in Pool Wars (96), a memoir about his days as a player, stakehorse, and tournament promoter.

Later in the book, Helfert describes the inaugural Los Angeles 9-ball open in 1992 (128). The organizers held a men’s division with a prize purse of $100k and a smaller women’s division with a prize purse of $40k. The event was positively received by the media and by the players as well. Despite it being highly successful, Jay was told by the tour commissioner and the men’s association president that he could not hold another women’s division because the men deserved the spotlight as they were the better players. Jay says this wasn’t the first or the last time professional pool associations made a poor choice for the sport. Segregation is not limited to the pro level — the same thing also happens on the junior level.

There is a pool hall in my area that hosts an annual juniors event, one tournament for girls and one for boys. Both brackets drew small fields 2 years in a row. Last year there were 7 girls and 17 boys. I was venting to the streamer that juniors should play together especially when the fields are small. He said he agreed but it was a hard problem to fix in the short term and the girls would probably not place in the money (the highest rated girl was 520 while there were some 600s and one 700 in the boys division).

I strongly believe juniors should be integrated because there is no way for a person to get to 700 without playing someone at that level. Junior tours that segregate by gender rather than age or Fargo Rate continue to reinforce gender stereotypes and stagnate the girl’s game. With the smaller fields and lower Fargo Rates of girls divisions, their Fargos will never climb the way you see in the boys divisions.

Visual of a brick wall between a female silhouette and a pool table. The brick wall names societal expectations of women such as put family first, be meek, threats of violence and be a lady.
Visual by Amani Ali

Confidence

“A female can beat a man, but not as often” — …

A young female pro told me that women can beat men but not as often. I pondered on that for a while and realized that it is an issue of confidence. She confirmed that my interpretation was right on the nose. Because of all the societal conditions put on girls and women, we generally grow up to be less confident unless caregivers are actively instilling confidence by affirming the young girl’s free will and confirming that she is allowed to take up space. Without this, we learn to put others before ourselves and deny or delay our own goals and happiness, leaving us unsure about who we really are and of what we’re capable. Of course this shifts with each generation, but this is embedded in our culture and cultural shifts take time.

In all my reading about gender differences in pool, confidence has never been mentioned, but considering all the damaging behaviors that a woman encounters in her pool journey, I’d be surprised if confidence didn’t take a hit every once in a while. From my observations, women seem to peak in this sport at a later age than men and I speculate that an increase in confidence with age could be a factor.

Socialization is Bigger than Pool

“I get a big kick out of beating men because they always seem so anxious to show their superiority,” McGinnis said in 1940. “Most of them play as though it were a matter of life or death. If I played that way I’d be a case for an institution in a few weeks.” — Ruth McGinnis

Despite all the advancements that women have made over the last 80+ years, this 1940 quote from McGinnis still holds a lot of weight. I have no doubt that patronizing and violent behaviors hurt the growth of the sport but socialization is larger than pool itself. We are all socialized to uphold the status quo, whether we realize it or not. Consider this quote from a 2023 vice.com article about a woman’s first experience playing,

“The last time I tossed off this little bon mot I was standing with my arms crossed in an Atlanta dive bar full of pool tables and my boyfriend’s oldest friends. His best friend’s wife, Anna, asked if I played pool. I gave her my canned response. ‘Of course, you don’t,’ she said, smiling. ‘Girls don’t get to play games.’ I thought about the last time my boyfriend, who adores pool, tried to teach me to play pool back in New York. After a few minutes of him patiently readjusting my hands and my swing, a strange man walked by and openly laughed at how shitty my shot was, and I got pissed and gave up. The broad, ugly dynamic, Anna explained, was that we stay ‘bad’ while men use our continued lack of skill as an excuse to exclude us. I found her insight so moving and revelatory that it made me want to cry.”

I interpret this short story to mean that the status quo says women should play just enough so men will think we’re cool but not threatening and the man that laughed at her was doing his part in keeping her small. In sports of strength, male dominance is more easily explainable but we still find ourselves being belittled in games of strategy — take coining the term “Botez Gambit” in chess as an example. The way we speak to and about players of all genders matters.

Diving Deeper into Masculinity

“Masculinity must be redefined in a positive way, but not in any way that’s superior to femininity, or through the lens of patriarchy. That’s unfair, corrosive, and it’s now largely been swept away in our society.” Richard V. Reeves

To better understand why some men behave the way they do, I discovered the work of Richard V. Reeves, a British American scholar of inequality and social mobility. Through gender equality policies over the last few decades, women are now surpassing men in education and meeting them in an evolving workforce, one that is better suited to college degrees and interpersonal strengths rather than vocations. Additionally, men generally have less social connections and are dying younger by overdose, overdrinking or even suicide. “Suddenly, working for gender equality means focusing on boys rather than girls,” Reeves shared with The New Yorker.

Men find themselves in an existential crisis where they are not connected to family or society and less connected to work. This article names a “masculinity crisis.” The masculinity crisis is having an identity rooted in male as the breadwinner and dominant sex which is now being challenged.

“He [Reeves] is very clear that the problem isn’t female success, but some men’s inability to adjust to a world where they can no longer dominate simply as a right,” author Hinslaf summarizes for The Guardian. Reeves, as written by MacKay, believes that encouraging men to be more active in family life, going into women-led professions, as well as some changes to the education system can begin healing the masculinity crisis. We must teach our boys that emotions are normal and healthy and should be expressed. Teach them all genders are equal (and that gender exists on a spectrum, while we’re at it). Just as women have learned to possess more masculine qualities, men must embrace feminine qualities for a healthy balance in a changing world.

The world isn’t out to get men or destroy masculinity, but expanding the lens of acceptable masculinity is better for everyone. No one could have predicted that advancing women would leave men in such a tender position but it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed because the men that have trouble facing a changing society will only continue to hurt themselves and others in bars, on the pool table, and any other social situation.

Visual of a brick wall between a male silhouette and a group of friends. The brick wall names toxic masculine traits such as limited emotionality, women = threat, be the breadwinner and prove manhood.
Visual by Amani Ali

Books

Fancher, R. (2002). Pleasures of small motions: mastering the mental game of pocket billiards. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., p. 70.

Helfert, J. (2009, 2012). Pool wars: on the road to hell and back with the world’s greatest money players. iUniverse, pp. 96, 128.

Articles

Fattahova, N. (2019, May 30). https://www.kuwaittimes.com/discrimination-against-women-in-billiard-halls/

Ferretti, F. (1981, August 16). https://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/16/style/women-who-play-pool-ponder-their-place-in-the-game.html

Greenwell, M. (2018, March 6). https://www.topic.com/ball-breakers

Hinslaff, G. (2022, September 20). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/sep/20/modern-male-problems-men-face

Kahloon, I. (2023, January 23). https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/01/30/whats-the-matter-with-men

MacKay, N. (2022, October 8). https://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/23033837.trouble-men-modern-male-reached-crisis-point-can/

McGraw, E. (2018, March, 22). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ruth-mcginnis-queen-billiards-180968563/

Way, K. (2023, February 16). https://www.vice.com/en/article/93ae55/how-i-learned-to-love-pool-from-lessons-with-thorsten-hohmann

Blogs

Aft, D. (2013, December 15). https://danaaft.com/blog/billiards-thoughts/the-gender-gap-in-pool

Harris, L. (2011, March 29). https://www.lacasadeleslie.com/2011/03/good-girls-don-play-pool_29.html

Video

Fargo Rate. (2016, December 20). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3ShoYIyqAY

--

--

Amani Ali

I'm blogging about my experiences as a competitive pool player. When I write, I transmute pain into power and shame into radical self love.