Karen Corr, one of the top pool players in the world, talks to Jill Fergus.
“So, should we play a game?”
It’s just a game of pool, after all, but when the words are spoken by Karen Corr, the number one female player in the world, it does give one cause for trepidation.
Nicknamed the “Irish Invader,” Corr, the Northern Irish-born player, was in New York last October to compete in the 2002 Cuetec Cues Fall Classic. She agreed to sit down with me before one of her early round matches at Amsterdam Billiards on East 86th Street.
We staked out a table a corner as I notes I got my together, noticed players sneaking glances at Corr. Middle-aged men drinking Heinekens, corporate types with loos ened ties, boys in baggy jeans and backward baseball hats, all were excited to have a pro in their midst. Eventually, two teenaged girls in platform shoes approached with tournament programs and asked for her autograph. Corr couldn’t have been more gracious. During our interview, she was open and engaging, funny and self-deprecating. Not at all what I would have expected from her television persona.”Karen has a fierce determination,” says fellow pro and friend Ewa Mataya Laurance. “She just hates to lose. She puts on that game face that would intimidate the devil, but off the table she is the sweetest person you will ever meet and, of course, she has that great Irish sense of humor.”
After our interview, I watched her practice — hitting shot after shot, effortlessly, gracefully; each time she sunk a ball it would be lined up perfectly for the next shot (at this point, nearby players dropped all pretenses and unabashedly stared). She handed me one of her sticks, a beauty with inlay designs made by Falcon cues (her sponsor). “Do you want to break?” Thankfully, I got a good crack at the balls — and even sunk one. Corr gave me some pointers, let me pocket a few, then proceeded to get down to business, clearing the remaining balls with ease, then the all-important nine ball. I could tell she was itching to practice, which meant no playing with amateurs and no more joking around. “What makes Karen such a phenomenal player is that she possesses the concentration, the technical know-how, the work ethic and the raw talent,” says Jan McWorter, pro player and president of the Women’s Professional Billiards Association (WPBA). “You might find a player with one or two of those qualities but it’s rare to find a player who has them all. Before she came over from Europe, the level of pool being played was extremely high. I didn’t think it could be raised any higher but Karen took it to a whole new level.”
Karen Corr, 33, was born in Ballymoney in County Antrim. She didn’t play pool or snooker as a child but one of her uncles likes to remind her that they did play in a pub once — and that he won. “Yeah, he always reminds me that he did beat me that day,” she says with a laugh. But she does have vivid memories of vacations spent in Malin Head on the rugged Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal with her brother Brian and parents, Andy, a dentist, and Diane, a homemaker. When she was eight years old the family moved to England, eventually settling in Bourne, Lincolnshire. Several years later her father and brother joined the local snooker club; she wafted to tag along but was told that it was “no place for a young lady.” This only made Corr more determined to play, and eventually her father relented.
It was clear from the very beginning that this 14-year-old lass had enormous natural talent. “A few of the older men who’d been playing for years saw me play and said `hey, she’s pretty good.’ They kind of took me under their wing, teaching me things, helping me improve.” In addition to her tender age, many of the leagues at that time did not allow women to play. “Most of the matches were in smoky pubs against older men who probably didn’t want me there. I guess you could say that was a bit of a motivating factor,” she says with a smile. “The few of us that were playing back then did break a lot of barriers.” And what did her mother think of her daughter hanging out in pubs? “She was worded about me being in that environment but once I started winning she was OK with it.”
When Corr was 15 she entered her first professional snooker tournament. She made it all the way to the final 16 but lost to a young English girl. Her name? Allison Fisher. Anyone who follows pool knows the name Allison Fisher (a.k.a. the Duchess of Doom). She is one of the sport’s best players and is Corr’s greatest rival on the WPBA circuit. She held the #1 ranking for five years until Corr recently snatched it away from her. “When I was young it was Allison who was winning everything and when I came over here it was Allison who was winning everything. So yeah, you could say that she is a rival and competitor, but she is also a friend.”
“Sure, there is a huge rivalry between Allison and Karen,” says Laurance. “I mean, they’ve been playing each other since they were teenagers. When Karen came over and started infringing on Allison’s turf you can bet that got to her, she’s gunning to get the top ranking back. It’s great to watch those two duke it out on the table.”
As Karen got older she started collecting more championship titles as she traveled throughout England, Scotland and Ireland. Around that time she met Julie Kelly, a snooker player from Wexford, Ireland who had won the Irish Ladies Snooker Championship a record seven times. “We hit it off fight away,” Corr says. “My parents had retired to Wexford by that time so we had an instant connection. It was nice to have a friend on the tour.” At 21 she won the prestigious Ladies World Snooker Championship and won additional titles in `91, `95 and `97. “That first World title was very exciting because my parents were able to watch me on television. They were very proud, especially my father.” But towards the end of the 90s, interest in snooker was waning in the U.K. and there was very little prize money. Kelly had heard good things about the WPBA tour in America and that the purses were much higher. While Corr had never played nine-ball (the main game played by the WPBA) she was keen to take on a new challenge and so in 1998 she decided to give it a shot (pun intended). Of course, it couldn’t be lost on Corr that Allison Fisher had been on the tour full-time since 1996.
When Karen Corr hung up her snooker cue she had amassed 30 major titles.
Other than a week-long vacation in Florida, Corr had never been to the United States. “I didn’t realize how big the country was until I started traveling around to the qualifying events,” she admits. She won an astonishing ten tournaments in a row, which earned her a spot on the professional tour. “We were awestruck at what Karen was doing, especially since she never played nine-ball before,” says McWorter. “She just took the pool world by storm. All the women on the tour have a nickname, someone suggested `Irish Invader’ and we thought that was perfect. All the pros — men and women — were wondering, who is this Karen Corr?” They soon found out. By the end of the year she was ranked #24 in the world, at the end of `99 she was #4. She had a spectacular 2001 season, sweeping all six Classic tour events, an astonishing feat that will likely never be repeated. It was midway through the year that she secured the #1 ranking. “2001 was a dream year. I don’t think I could ever top that. When I won the Nationals [the last Classic event of the year] I was so happy that I jumped on top of the pool table and did an Irish jig!”
Corr, who is single, lives in northeastern Pennsylvania as does Julie Kelly (who won the 2000 Women’s World Championship and is currently ranked #10). They both train with Peter Fusco, a former pro. In her free time Karen visits her parents in Ireland and her brother and his family in England. “I am traveling so much now, it’s really hard to get back as much as I would like,” she says. “I send them videos so they can see my matches.” But most days, she can be found at the pool table, meticulously practicing her craft. “I’ve only been playing nine-ball for four years. I really feel like I can improve in all areas,” she says with complete seriousness. She likes the quickness and creativity of pool, so different from the precision game of snooker, and the trick shots like the Massey and the jump shot. But her favorite shot? “The hanging nine ball,” she says with a sly grin.
While her playful side is never far from the surface, her style at the table is intense and reserved, quite different from some of the other top-ranked women on the tour including the outspoken and vivacious “Texas Tornado” Vivian Villarreal, the Swedish-born “Striking Viking” Ewa Mataya Laurence, and fan favorite Jeanette Lee (“The Black Widow). “Jeanette is very glamorous and creates a lot of interest in the game, and I think it’s great that Vivian can laugh and be jovial and still concentrate,” Karen says. “Snooker is so serious and quiet and that’s the way it’s always been, so it’s hard to change that. Each player has their own style and their own fan following, which is great for the tour.” I ask if there is pressure to “dress up” for the cameras; Corr says no but does concede that she’s been told to “get rid of the frown.” She also says that at some point she might lose her trademark glasses in favor of contacts, but at the moment she’s content. As they say, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
On the final evening of the 2002 Cuetec Cues Fall Classic, the excitement was palpable as the packed house anticipated a hotly contested showdown. Under the glare of the television lights, stood the two final competitors — Karen Corr and Allison Fisher. Alas, the night belonged to Fisher who got off to an early lead. The Irish Invader suffered a rare loss. But no doubt it will just fuel her desire to get back to the practice table and on to the next victory! ♦