Sport: Lady with a Cue

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Let us to billiards: come, Charmian.

—Antony & Cleopatra (II, 5)

The game of billiards is older than Shakespeare—perhaps older, even, than Cleopatra. If Egypt's Queen (69-30 B.C.) indeed wielded a knowing cue, the world had to wait 20 centuries for another woman to challenge the male's domination of the sport. Last week, in a velour-lined, gold-chandeliered billiard club on San Francisco's Market Street, a woman was doing just that.

Japan's Masako Katsura, 38, is the first woman ever to try for the world three-cushion billiard title. Masako is cue-tall (5 ft.) and light as chalk (96 Ibs.). But her skill can make three ivory billiard balls do nearly everything but rattle Banzai! She will need all her wizardry for the next fortnight to beat out her nine topflight male opponents. The favored defending champion, 64-year-old Willie Hoppe, who was a billiard prodigy at seven, is still the greatest player of them all; he still practices five hours a day to keep the form that has topped the heap perennially since 1906 (when Willie won his first world billiard title). Dark Horse Katsura will also contend with such ranking precisionists as Mexican Champion Joe Chamaco, New York's hulking Art Rubin and Los Angeles' Joe Procita.

Astronomical Run. Billiards' elite have kept themselves exclusive by devising tougher games every time too many players mastered the sport's simpler forms. In elementary straight-rail billiards, the cue ball must merely hit the two object balls (a rule that experts exploit by "position play," i.e., keeping the balls clicking around in monotonous little triangles). In balkline billiards, the next step up, the table is marked off in areas from which, for a player to go on scoring, at least one object ball must be driven within one or two shots.

The spectacular three-cushion game is the toughest: the cue ball, to score a point, must touch the cushions at least three times before hitting the second object ball. This is so difficult that the record run (points scored in a row), a mere 25 reeled off by Hoppe in 1928,* is regarded by cue connoisseurs as astronomical.

Two years after Hoppe's feat, Masako Katsura, who grew up in a suburban Tokyo billiard parlor run by her brother-in-law, won the Japanese women's straight-rail championship. Then 16, she soon caught the eye of Kinrey Matsuyama, the Japanese Hoppe, who was runner-up, on his last U.S. visit in 1936, for the three-cushion title. Contrary to the slanderous old saw, Masako's proficiency at billiards seemed to Matsuyama a sign of anything but a misspent youth. Coached by him to perfection in the basic and fancy three-cushion shots (see cut), Masako fearlessly forged on into a man's world. She became a lionized exhibition player, put on one-woman shows for homeland Japanese troops in World War II, switched to entertaining U.S. servicemen soon after V-J day.

Green Felt World. When tidings of the female wonder reached six-time Three-Cushion Champion Welker Cochran in the U.S., he skeptically queried his old opponent, Matsuyama. The reply was enough for Cochran: "Sometimes I beat her; sometimes she beats me." Cochran, director of the championship tournament, had to see this.

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