On the long weekend of Sept. 21-25 in Battle Creek, MI, Caroline Pao became the top-ranked USA player on the WPBA, moving ahead of Jennifer Baretta into fourth place behind the UK’s Kelly and Allison Fisher and Canada’s Brittany Bryant. She did this after finishing in the eight-way tie for 9th place at the Predator US Pro Billiard Series at the Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek. Her rise to this pinnacle in her career, her best-recorded earnings year since she began appearing on our payout lists over 20 years ago, has been the result of hard work, dedication, practice-practice-practice, and the assistance of a number of sponsors. Not to mention a little bit of luck related to recent WPBA history, which saw the number of yearly events diminish over the past few years and gradually, over the past year or so, saw the event-numbers go up, dramatically, in part due to the tour’s ongoing association with the Predator US Pro Billiard Series.
The WPBA ranking system doesn’t work the way many regional-tour ranking systems do, confining its rankings to a single season and starting over when a new season begins. The WPBA allots points to its members over a series of associated events, and as the points associated with a recent event are recorded, the oldest event on the ongoing list drops off the ranking radar. The ranking list that was updated after the Michigan event listed 10 events, dating back to Wisconsin’s Aramith/Doctor Pool Classic in November, 2019, at which Pao finished in the tie for 17th place. The next event, moving forward in time occurred in 2020 and the next in 2021. The next seven have occurred in this calendar year; three of them (so far) associated with the Predator US Pro Billiard Series. The number of offered events had a way of drawing more foreign competition back to the North American WPBA Tour, which accounts for some of Pao’s surprise that in the midst of this rejuvenation of the tour and the return of many competitors, she has somehow managed to move from 11th place on the ranking list when the year started, to 4th on that list, and as it turned out, the top American on it.
She wasn’t surprised because she had any doubts about her skills or dedication to the task(s), but because of this particular year’s worth of challenges. It is, she’ll tell you, something that she loves to do and given the fact that she also holds down a full-time job as a representative for Mezz Cues here in the US, her status as a member of the pool community is 24/7.
“I feel really lucky to have this ranking as the top USA player on the WPBA,” she said, “However, I want to say that the competition has been a lot more stern than it has been over the last few years because of all of the international players who’ve come back to play.”
Along with the top three on the WPBA ranking list (the Fishers and Brittany Bryant) who’ve been here right through the tour’s ‘lean’ years, are (among others) such players as Taipei’s Tzu-Chien Wei (runner-up to Kelly Fisher in Michigan), Spain’s Amalia Matas and Indonesia’s Angeline Ticoalu (tied for 4th in Michigan), and in a welcome return that could signal more events to come for her, Ireland’s Karen Corr.
According to Pao, coming to terms with playing that level of player requires a kind of mental adjustment that is not easy to accomplish. As standard as the ‘play the table, not the opponent,’ may be, it is definitely easier said than done.
“I think that whenever you do play big-time players, (the Fishers, Tzu-Chien Wei, Barretta and others), their presence is known,” she said. “Whether you like it or not, or try not to focus on it, they’re there and you know it. For you to forget about that and focus on you is harder with them, just because of who they are.”
It’s a strange human trait to note the presence of a particular human being across the table from you and allow that to affect the skills, concentration and focus that as a player, you’ve put in so much time to accomplish.
“It really is and no matter how hard you try to fight it and tell yourself (not to be influenced), this game is about 80% mental,” she said. “There’s skill involved, but overall the mental process overtakes it all and while you might make a certain shot nine out of 10 times, in one moment, your percentage might fall.”
“I’ve seen so many countless players miss a key shot like that, but it’s not the same scenario,” she added. “This one moment might be the shot that can make or break you and you might have made it a thousand times, but this one time, you twisted your wrist, or your timing’s a little off, or you shanked it a little bit or held your cue too tight. It could be any of those reasons to throw that one shot off, at that particular time.”
Though she has yet to win a WPBA event, she is a regular competitor on them and is regularly among the top players at the end.
“I think it’s just that my play has been consistent and I tend to come into the top 16,” she said of her advancement to the top US spot in the rankings. “That’s how the points add up to do it.”
She is already looking ahead, not only to specific events in the future, but to ways that she can improve her skill set and approach to the game. And though “grateful and excited” with her recent results, she’s not quite where she wants to be. Yet.
“My dream, and it’s a long shot, is to win a WPBA event,” she said. “It is so hard with (the likes of) Kelly, Allison and Kristina (Tkach). It’s great to come out on top with one of these players in a match or event, but to do it consecutively is Hard!!”
“I think I still need to fine-tune some things in my game,” she added, “things that they’ve already taken care of. For me to beat them consistently, aside from confidence and a strong mentality, I still need to work on a lot of aspects of my game.”
“Pocketing the balls and running out, for example, is one big part of the game, but defense, safety play, kick safes, kicking balls in, all of that also is a big part of the game. The (higher-level players) are better in that part of the game. Even if I play a decent safe, their chances of kicking it in or kick-safing it back to me are a little higher in percentage than me.”
She’s also looking ahead to some events that will not offer her WPBA opportunities in pursuit of the dream, like an upcoming stop on the Joss NE 9-Ball Tour and continuing to compete on the J. Pechauer Northeast Women’s Tour, at which she has had considerable success over these past couple of years. She’ll also continue her dream quest at the WPBA’s Sledgehammer Open, a Helena Thornfeldt Memorial event at Janet Atwell’s room (Borderline Billiards in Bristol, TN; Oct. 19-23), could compete in another of the Predator US Pro Billiard Series event in Puerto Rico (Nov. 15-19) and travel to Rothchild, WI to compete in the Dr. Pool Classic (Dec. 7-11).
She is immensely grateful to her sponsors – Mezz Cues, Sugartree Cues, Raxx Pool Room (West Hempstead, NY), Kurweil’s Country Meats, Three-Second Cases.
“Without them,” she said, “honestly, it would have been pretty rough to attend all the events.”