Smithsonian Article

Back when pool was a serious sport that grabbed the attention of the nation, one woman smoked the competition.

One January day in 1938, a slight, wide-eyed woman named Ruth McGinnis walked into the Arcadia, a pool hall in Washington, D.C, where six of the district’s most accomplished players waited to play her. McGinnis powdered her hands. She picked up her cue. The men tried to act nonchalant, but as they watched McGinnis dispatch their friends one after another, they shifted nervously from foot to foot.

McGinnis played a straightforward game, not chatting or joking with anyone as she played, the balls clacking cleanly as she cleared the table. The manager teased that he should borrow a bowling ball from the alley next door and paint a big 8 on it, so the men stood a chance. But it was a weak joke. And she beat them all.

That was just an average day at the tables for McGinnis, who triumphed in the male enclave of the pool room, earning her the nickname “The Queen of Billiards.” Born in 1910, she started playing in her family’s Honesdale, Pennsylvania, barbershop at 7 years old: her father kept two pool tables for waiting customers, and a soapbox for tiny Ruth to stand on. She excelled.

Pool was a big deal in those days. “You have to understand that pool back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s was in a very different space in this country than it is now,” says pool historian and author R. A. Dyer. “Now the sport is relegated to bars and play in leagues, but most prominent pool players nowadays--their names are not household words. But during McGinnis’ age this was not the case. You could find plenty of stories about Ruth McGinnis and other pool players in the New York Times.”

McGinnis’ game, popular in the 1930s, was straight pool, which is what Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason play in the iconic film The Hustler. (Today, if you walk into an American bar with pool tables, patrons are likely playing 8-ball.) In straight pool, the player calls what ball she will try for—stripes or solids doesn’t matter. If she sinks 14 balls in a row or “runs a 14,” she can use the 15th to start into another rack and continue shooting. Read more:

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