The Viper stands perfectly still, her coiled body poised over a corner of table 1 at the Wynkoop Brewing Company. Her right arm is tucked back, her hand holding the cue by her waist. Her left arm extends over the faded green felt, fingers threaded around the cue tip. Brown eyes riveted on the purple ball across the table, The Viper leans so far over that her chin nearly rests on the cue and the ends of her straight brown hair puddle on the felt. Pat Benatar's "Invincible" pumps over the bar's speakers. The place smells like searing meat.
Suddenly, The Viper strikes. In one fluid movement, she slices the cue, and the white ball cracks into the purple. The purple ball thumps into the corner pocket as the cue ball stops dead. The Viper remains in shooting position for a moment, then looks over her shoulder at her student, Jamie Jalazo.
"You must control the cue ball on every shot," she instructs.
"Easy for you to say," he replies.
Melissa Little, aka The Viper, is currently ranked the twelfth-best female pool player on the planet. She has made a living by playing pool for the past two years, and she's constantly in demand. Her black day planner, which bears her trademark fang logo along with a smattering of shiny heart stickers, already contains notations for approximately seventeen pool-related trips in 2005. When she's in town, she pours in hours as the house pro at the Denver Athletic Club and at the Wynkoop, a place that feels more like home to the 34-year-old than her own house in Westminster. "I really need to get a bunk bed in my office here," she says.
A few nights ago, Little was in Rankweil, Austria, at the opening ceremonies of the Women's World 9-Ball Championships, where six local lads in lederhosen presented a traditional welcome dance to a crowd of women with names like ŒThe Black Widow' and 'The Assassin.' But tonight she's back on home turf, giving one of her many private lessons and clinics.
"Why'd you miss that?" she asks Jalazo, after he sends the cue ball rolling past his target.
"You've gotta stay down," Little says. "Stay...down...until...the...balls...quit...rolling. Didn't we go over this last time?"
Jalazo nods bashfully.
"Try it again," she says.
Jalazo sets up the same shot, squats into position, shoots and remains still. Only his eyes move as he looks over at Little.
"You can move now," she says.
"See what that showed you?" she asks, pointing to the pocket where he sank the ball.
"The table is always offering you something. Whether you take it is up to you," she adds with a wisp of Obi-Wan.
Little is not usually so opaque. She's direct. Very direct. Particularly with a pool cue. This gentle side isn't one the rest of the billiards world is used to seeing. Each woman on the pro tour is baptized by Women's Professional Billiards Association officials, and they nicknamed her The Viper. "I was surprised. Then I saw some photos of myself at the table, and I looked very wicked," Little says, her dimples popping up as she smiles. "Vipers are deadly snakes, and when I'm at the table, I'm deadly, aggressive."
"I didn't really like 'The Viper' at first," she says. "I mean, there aren't any vipers in Colorado. But it's definitely better than ŒThe Duchess of Doom' or 'The Striking Viking.'"
Little was first captivated by the game at seventeen, after two teenagers came into the Mexican restaurant her mother managed and challenged the owner to a game. They left with dollar bills shoved into their pockets -- and Little was hooked. Her mom let her play at the restaurant in exchange for vacuuming floors, and she soon befriended the two teenage players, Dave Evans and Kevin Satterfield. Over the next few years, she watched and learned, particularly from Satterfield, who went on to become one of the top-ranked players in the state. The trio played in pool halls up and down the Front Range, searching not for suckers to hustle, but for increasingly skilled players from whom they could learn.
"For us, it was never about hustling," Little says. "It was about mastering the game, the skills, the art of pocketing balls.... It's the hardest game I've ever played. No other game has as many possibilities. I'm constantly learning. You're always thinking three balls ahead."
After graduating from Boulder High School, she took a brief hiatus from pool and worked work her way through the University of Colorado, where she earned a degree in kinesiology. But as soon as she graduated, Little picked up the cue again. "We'd go to places like Tequila Jack's in Boulder, and my friends would go right to the dance floor," Little says. "I'd head to the pool table, put my fifty cents down and play all night on those fifty cents until my friends, who had been dancing and drinking all night, would tap me on the shoulder and tell me it was time to go. It always felt like I just got there."
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."
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."
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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.