There was reportedly very little trouble finding members of the Women’s Professional Billiards Association (WPBA) who were anxious to play some competitive pool with each other, albeit from the comfort of their own home and/or pool room. Based on an idea brought up by Dawn Hopkins, Angela Janic, a relatively new member of the WPBA, volunteered to organize and coordinate the organization’s first (and definitely not the last) Virtual 9-Ball Ghost Challenge during the week of May 10-16. While so-called ‘ghost’ matches and isolated streaming events have been cropping up on the Internet since the restrictions brought on by the pandemic began, this was something relatively new; a 16-entrant, double elimination tournament with prize money that pitted players from around the globe against each other, playing against the ‘ghost,’ a ‘player’ normally only encountered in practice, when a player is alone.
From her home pool room in Dumfries, Scotland, Kelly Fisher went undefeated through the field and downed Jennifer Baretta, playing from her pool room in Brooklyn, NY (Skyline Billiards), twice; once, battling for the hot seat and again, in the finals. Talking to both players, it was apparent that winning or losing wasn’t among the things that resonated in their minds about playing in the tournament.
“It was really good fun,” said Fisher. “I really enjoyed it.”
Baretta had played some ‘ghost’ matches in a recent USA vs. Europe matchup and found the experience to be “kind of nerve wracking.”
“But now,” she said, “I want to play more of them.”
“In practice, I play the ghost all the time,” she added. “I play a race to 7, but I play so that if I miss, I have to kick and/or bank (subsequent balls).”
This WPBA event was based on playing 10 racks, per player, per match. Players were allowed to begin shooting after their break with ball-in-hand. Essentially, each ball was worth one point, though if you ran the rack, you’d get an extra point for 10 points total, available per rack. There were 15 points available for a rack if you chose not to take advantage of ball-in-hand after the break. A number of the 30 matches ended before one of the competitors had completed the 10 racks, because one player had scored enough points to make ‘catching’ that player impossible.
Fisher’s path to the winners’ circle ran through Lonnie Fox-Raymond and April Larson, before coming up against Monica Webb in one of the winners’ side semifinals. Baretta downed Eugenia Gyftopoulos and Canada’s Suzanne Peters to arrive at her winners’ side semifinal against Dawn Hopkins.
With Allison Fisher and LoreeJon Hasson commentating on the live stream, Kelly Fisher defeated Webb 104-70. Baretta sent Hopkins to the loss side 83-69. In the hot seat match that followed, Fisher chalked up the event’s highest score of 120, when she ran all 10 racks, four of them which she ran without benefit of ball-in-hand at the start.
Upon her arrival on the loss side of the bracket, Dawn Hopkins picked up an immediate rematch against Mary Rakin Tam, whom she’d defeated in the opening round and who was working on a three-match, loss-side winning streak during which she’d eliminated Cheryl Baglin, April Larson and one of the event’s significant organizers, Angela Janic. Webb drew Line Kjorsvik, who’d lost her opening round match to April Larson and was also working on a three-match, loss-side winning streak that had eliminated Lonnie Fox-Raymond, Ewa Mataya Laurance and Suzanne Peters.
Rakin Tam and Kjorsvik advanced to the first money round, the quarterfinals. Tam defeated Hopkins 74-60, as Kjorsvik downed Webb 79-58. Kjorsvik then eliminated Tam 90-75.
The semifinals of this event – Kjorsvik versus Baretta - had a way of demonstrating the best that this particular format had to offer viewers. At the end of their 9th rack, the two were separated by a single point; Baretta ahead by one at 74-73. Baretta refused the ball-in-hand option after her break of the final rack, looking to chalk up 15 points instead of just 10. Unfortunately, she only added three balls to her score; missing the fourth ball and finishing her 10 racks with a score of 77. All Kjorsvik had to do was sink five balls. With two of the five down, she found herself hooked and forced to make a jump shot, which she missed to finish at 74.
In the finals that followed, with the racks-necessary extended to 13, and Jeremy Jones in the streaming ‘booth,’ commentating, Baretta was ahead by seven points after four racks, 45-38. Though Baretta would extend her lead by opting out of ball-in-hand in the 5th rack and running the table to hit 60 points, while Fisher had her 5th rack stopped at 6 balls, the tables started to turn, as Fisher started to pick up speed, reminding everyone of her “KwikFire” nickname.
They would both run racks #6 & 7 without ball-in-hand, leaving Baretta out in front by 16 (80-64). Fisher would go on to opt out of ball-in-hand for racks # 8, 9, 10 & 11 and ran all four, leaving her at 124 when she was through. Baretta, now working two racks behind Fisher, picked up only three in rack #8, and though she ran racks #9 & 10, she was, for the first time since her fourth rack, no longer in the lead, but behind Fisher by six at 109-103.
Fisher closed out her run with two break and runs, opting for ball-in-hand in both to finish her 10 racks with 144 points. In order to defeat Fisher, Baretta, at the time, was preparing to break her 11th rack and would have had to play all three of her last racks without ball in hand. Two without and one with ball in hand (assuming she ran the table) would have left her one point shy of Fisher’s 144 total. Baretta missed a shot in the 11th rack and conceded the victory, punctuating the concession by going down on her knees and bowing. Fisher extended a hand to shake and all smiles, the two of them traded an across-the-ocean-via-Internet handshake.
In some ways, the entire event, to include how quickly it came together and successfully it occurred came as a bit of surprise. Angela Janic thanked particularly Jennifer Hamilton for her work on the live stream, noting that Hamilton had “kept us all organized and just did a fantastic job.”
“Thanks, too,” Janic added,” to everybody on the WPBA, the board and all the players. I had just sent messages out and asked people for help and everybody just jumped in and said yes. I’d read names but there are just too many of them.”
According to Janic, another edition of the WPBA’s Virtual 9-Ball Ghost Challenge will occur on Memorial Day weekend (May 31-June 6) and while no names have been confirmed for participation, she expects another field of 16.
“Nothing’s going to change much,” she said of the upcoming event. “It’ll probably get a little easier.”
After the imaginary handshake, and Janic thanking her for her participation, Fisher added her thanks to all those who’d been involved.
“It was such short notice and it happened so quickly,” said Fisher. “You did an absolute fantastic job putting it together and running it smoothly.”
“It was great for the sport and great for the WPBA,” she added. “Thank you very much for doing this for us.”
1st Kelly Fisher $655
2nd Jennifer Baretta $395
3rd Line Kjorsvik $240
4th Mary Rakin Tam $150