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Living Her Life Has Made Bell Realize That Pool Is Just a Game

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robin Bell of Garden Grove has overcome so many of life’s challenges that the fear of failure rarely enters her mind when she is playing pool.

Bell, ranked third on the Women’s Professional Billiards tour, reflected about her life while her opponent Ewa Mataya cleared the table in the first game of the $50,000 Gordon’s 9-Ball Championship Saturday in Santa Monica.

Mataya, the tour’s eighth-ranked player, sank the one-ball, then the two and three with the accuracy of a marksman. As the balls traveled across the green felt table and disappeared in the pockets, Mataya presented an obstacle that would overwhelm most opponents.

But not Bell.

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Bell, 38, the mother of three, overcame a three-year heroin addiction and has maintained 18 years of sobriety. She has remained one of billiard’s top players despite mourning the loss of her mother, who died of cancer in March.

At Gotham Hall on the Third Street Promenade, Mataya offered Bell a challenge, but nothing compared to life itself.

“I did a check of my heart and my motives,” Bell said. “Am I here to use my God-given talents or am I here for the money?”

Money certainly was an issue. First prize was $20,000, the most ever offered for a women’s professional billiards tournament. A cardboard replica of the $20,000 check stood near the main table and served as reminder to contestants who are starved for financial rewards and recognition.

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Nine-ball is played with a cue ball and nine object balls, which are racked in a diamond configuration. After the break, players must hit the lowest numbered ball on the table first during each shot. The object is to knock in the nine-ball as a result of a combination, carom, or in a sequence after the other balls have been pocketed in the rotation. The championship match concludes when a player wins seven games.

During the final, Mataya cleared the table a second time to take a commanding two-game lead before Bell took her first shot.

“I didn’t get out of my seat,” Bell said.

As an impressionable teen-ager, Bell rarely remained seated. Raised by her mother, a 12-year-old Bell was boy crazy and used to play pinball at Westminster Family Billiards, down the street from her house. When her older male friends changed hobbies to pool, Bell took her cue and followed them.

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She quickly discovered she had a natural talent and became addicted. She was California women’s champion in 1972, 1973, and 1974.

Her addiction, however, was not limited to pool. Trying to impress her other friends--the ones who didn’t hang out at the pool hall--Bell started using pot when she was 14. Soon, pills replaced pot and heroin replaced pills as her drug of choice.

By the time she was 20, Bell had a three-year addiction to heroin. She also was an unwed mother of an infant son.

“I used and abused every drug I could get my hands on,” Bell said. “Once I got to heroin, it was my drug of choice. I played pool and gambled to support my habit.”

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In 1977, Bell sought guidance in a church-sponsored home called Harvest House in Santa Ana. It became her home for a 1 1/2 years.

“I felt empty and miserable,” she said. “I cried out, ‘God, if you’re real, help me!’ ”

A born-again Christian, Bell has remained sober for 18 years. After a five-year break, Bell returned to playing pool and won her first professional title--The Miller Lite Championships in Las Vegas--in 1984. She’s also a two-time Women’s Pool and Billiards Assn. world champion, winning consecutive titles in 1990 and 1991.

In 1993, Bell had a banner year, winning tournaments in Tucson, Boston and Riverside. She won more than $48,000.

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Bell’s professional career continued uninterrupted until 1994. While competing in the 1993 World Championships in Germany last December, Bell was informed that her mother had vaginal cancer and was undergoing surgery.

“I couldn’t talk to my mom so I called my sister,” Bell said. “She told me that mom was going to be OK and not to worry. She lied to avoid distracting me.”

Bell missed the first two stops of the 1994 tour to remain with her mother until she passed away on March 10.

“I didn’t understand what dying meant,” she said. “Her body just shut down. It was a very emotional time for me, but I felt I had to be strong for her.”

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Three weeks after her mother’s death, Bell returned to the tour to escape her emotional loss. She won the St. Croix Press San Diego Classic in her 1994 debut. It was a tearful victory.

“Reality hit me because she wasn’t there,” Bell said. “Every time I would win, I used to call her. I miss her very much.”

It was an emotional time not only for Bell, but for her opponents who shared her grieving. As she approached the victory stand, Bell’s friends and fans began to cry.

“I got up there and I started crying,” she said. “ ‘Mom this one is for you. I really love you.”

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While waiting her turn to shoot, Bell’s memories of her mother were interrupted by a gasp from the audience at Gotham.

Mataya made a bad shot trying to position the cue ball away from the two. Bell was given an opening to start playing and she eventually won her first game.

Bell, however, did not have her rhythm and game four proved to be pivotal. The two women each made their share of shots until three balls were left. Bell sank the seven and eight, but left herself in poor position to make the nine. She tried to leave the cue ball as far away from the nine as possible, but was short with her shot.

Mataya had a chance to sink the nine, but accidentally touched the cue ball while lining up her shot. That mistake cost Mataya the game.

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Bell won five of the next six games and the championship.

When she is not competing on the tour, Bell spends time at her Garden Grove home with her children. She also runs a pro shop at Danny K’s Cafe and Billiards in Orange where she gives private one-hour lessons.

“I think pool is beginning to take off because people think it’s fun and a great way to socialize,” Bell said. “Pool halls are one of the few places where you can take a date and talk. You can’t talk at the movies.

“And there are so many rooms opening up. Some really nice ones.”

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