Snake Bite

Melissa Little plays a deadly game of pool.

By 1997, she'd made the pro tour, and she's continued to rack up titles ever since. But the enterprising Little has several other projects launching her on various trajectories. She has a patent pending on Viperstats, a statistical value system for pool that she says ESPN is interested in, and she's writing a booklet with a mathematician from Metro State designed to teach kids geometry, physics and calculus through hands-on pool playing. She has her own line of pool cues that she designed with her sponsor, Jacoby Custom Cues; inlaid with mother of pearl, lapis and ebony, they cost up to $1,500. And she has raised tens of thousands of dollars for a number of charities, particularly those that fight cystic fibrosis and help fund junior pool players.

Cobbling together a living from pool-related projects demands the same focus and drive as improving play. After all, despite the WPBA's having been around since 1976, last year's top-grossing male pool player pulled in $124,150, while the top woman received just $83,300.

"I'm hyper, I talk a lot, and that's the way I would play pool, too," Little says. "I've had to learn to really slow everything down and be able to focus on one thing at a time. I have a lot going on. Maybe too much. Sometimes it really gets to me. But when that happens, pool is my sanctuary. I turn the phone off and go practice. It takes so much concentration, you just can't think of anything else. Nothing can bother me. I go pocket balls."

On cue: Melissa Little, aka The Viper.
Eric Magnussen
On cue: Melissa Little, aka The Viper.

Which is what she does, late into the night, often at Shakespeare's Pub & Billiard Room.

As she walks into the cloud of smoke hovering over the green felt tables, the Bard stares down at her from his perch on the wall. A sign above the front door proclaims "'Let us to billiards!' -- Act II, Scene V, Antony and Cleopatra."

Tonight, The Viper is casual. She wears Nikes and Levi's. Sneakers are not permitted on the WPBA tour. Players must wear dress flats, a requirement that does not thrill The Viper's physician, who treats her various pool-related injuries, including three stress fractures on her left foot.

"I've got a bone spur on my right shoulder from swinging back 50,000 times and breaking balls. Then there's the lower back pain from leaning over," she says. "People get pinched nerves and carpal tunnel -- it's brutal. Before a tournament, I can practice eight hours a day. Physically, it takes a toll."

But the true challenge, she says, is not physical.

"I can make any shot on the table. All pros can," she says. "The real challenge is mental. It becomes about elevating pressure to see who buckles first. My ultimate goal is to break my opponent down mentally."

With that, The Viper smiles and prepares to strike.

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