THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Cue From God : At rock bottom of a troubled, drug-addicted life, Robin Bell found divine inspiration. That’s how she became a world pool champion.
It’s probably safe to say that of all the suburban moms in Southern California, Robin Bell is the only one who carries three custom-made pool cues in her Honda Accord.
It’s a sure bet that she’s the only woman on her quiet Garden Grove street who works with guys named Slippery and Snake.
And it’s a cinch that none of the women Bell passes in the supermarket can say she was state pool champion before even getting her driver’s license. Or that she nearly destroyed her life with heroin. Or that she found God, staged a comeback and became world champion of women’s pool.
Firmly entrenched for a decade among the nation’s Top 5 players, sober and churchgoing, Bell, 39, now has success well in hand. But only a gambler irresistibly drawn to long shots would have put money on her.
Again and again her life was hobbled, by a broken home, unfinished schooling, teen motherhood, destructive relationships.
Bell overcame it all.
Her pool game, like her life, is untutored and odds-defying. She is a legendary shot-maker; when it seems certain no one could pocket the nine from that impossibly difficult spot, Bell walks up, leans over and sinks it.
“When I’m clean and my mind’s clear and all the good stuff can come out, then I’m dangerous,” she says. “When I’m not, I’m dangerous to myself.”
When she opens the front door, Bell’s warmth and beauty--shiny hair, radiant smile, model’s cheekbones--jump across the threshold. In jeans, sweat shirt and sneakers, she’s every mom waiting for her three sons--20, 15 and 9--to return from school.
Except for the dozen or so out-of-town trips she takes yearly on the pro tour and the couple of hours a day she practices pool in her converted garage, Bell’s home life is pretty regular stuff. There’s a quick coffee-and-English-muffin breakfast, driving her two younger sons to Christian schools, maybe a load of laundry, some house cleaning.
Her childhood was less predictable. Bell’s father, a commercial baker, was also a pool player and gambler. Tired of a husband who gambled away paychecks, Helen Hansen packed up 3-year-old Robin and her two sisters and left Nebraska. They eventually settled in Westminster. Helen Hansen often worked two factory jobs back to back, coming home only long enough to prepare dinner. Raised in an orphanage, she was not given to shows of emotion, but the girls knew they had their mother’s unconditional love.
Soon, Robin was crossing boundaries. At 12, longing for boys to notice her, she discovered pinball. A year later, she was sneaking out her bedroom window to hitchhike to pool halls, a girl with a swagger and a scared heart, the street lights shining on her hair.
By the time she was booted out of Westminster High School in her freshman year, Robin had begun smoking marijuana and winning $50 to $100 a night at pool halls from flabbergasted men. The skinny hotshot with a killer instinct, as she describes herself in those days, also adopted a cocky attitude to mask an achingly shy core.
Robin stayed in a continuation school only long enough to win a free lunch from a counselor who bet her that she couldn’t attend classes continuously for a month. Then, at 14, she walked out of school forever.
Gradually, Robin began taking downers, PCP and acid, but never when playing pool. Her natural athletic gifts had come into full bloom--deadly hand-eye coordination and a dancer’s strength and agility that helped her lean low over the table. She needed no high school textbooks; she instinctively knew the geometry and physics that govern the game. By 16, she had won the California women’s pool championship.
She wrote to her father, whom she hadn’t seen in many years, enclosing a newspaper clipping about her title. When he finally wrote back, it was to tease that he could beat her. It stung that he never said he was proud.
Robin found herself a stake horse. A man she called Swimming Pool Jack, because of his day job cleaning pools, would drive her to such halls as Billiard Palace in Bellflower and Bob’s Billiards in Fullerton, putting up her bets and taking half her winnings. She played only to win the money to get high. Almost imperceptibly, drugs had begun to control her life.
One rainy night, high on PCP with another $100 worth of the drug stashed in her bra, Robin and two friends were staring out the windows of a Volkswagen bug idling, its headlights off, in the middle of a busy intersection. She had been lost in thoughts of her mother when a passerby rapped on the car, warning them to get out of there before they got killed.
It scared her into vowing to never do PCP again. But within hours, she and her friends were inhaling it in her bedroom as her mother slept in a nearby room.
Things got worse. With her infant son by a drug-dealer boyfriend, she moved into her older sister’s place, a “hard-core heroin environment,” she says, where police raids created a revolving door of arrests and releases. She was arrested twice but never served time in jail.
Pool gave her a way out; she used her winnings to get her own apartment. But fleeing the drug scene left her alone, on welfare, with a toddler and a drug habit. She had no phone and she’d sold her car for a jar of amphetamines. One summer afternoon, overcome with despair, she fell on her knees by her bed and said aloud, “God, if you’re really real, help me.”
Looking back, it’s no coincidence to Bell that, soon after, a stranger told her about Harvest House, a Christian home for troubled women with children. Helen Warn, the former director of the now-closed Santa Ana facility, remembers Bell being stoned and talking tough at the 1977 admission interview.
Bell and her son moved in. At first, she would sneak out and get loaded whenever she could. But slowly, she learned to comfort herself in other ways, attending church daily and turning to ice cream instead of heroin.
Bell says she had been attracted as a child to Jesus and the promise of eternal life. Now, at 20, she wanted more than anything to understand who her God was. She studied the Bible with an addict’s fervor. She fell in love and got married, taking her husband’s name--Bell--and had a second son. After five years, she found herself thinking about playing pool again.
A passage from Ezekiel, as interpreted in the Living Bible, stuck with her: “I’m not sending you to some far-off land where you can’t understand the language. . . . I am sending you to the people of Israel.”
Was God telling her to work among the people she knew best?
It didn’t seem right for a Christian to hang around pool halls. “Nothing personal,” she said aloud to God, “but I have to get a second opinion on this.”
Her pastor took God’s side. If pool players don’t go to church, he said, God would want to bring church to them.
Bell soon found herself in a major pool tournament. Her first opponent was a young woman addicted to heroin. Looking across the table, Bell saw herself and knew she had to beat that woman.
Today, she is the only woman to have won back-to-back world championships, in 1990 and 1991. They call her “Bankroll” because she has a knack for claiming the biggest purses on the pro tour.
Two Paul Newman films, “The Hustler” in 1961 and “The Color of Money” in 1986, sparked surges in pool’s popularity and prompted the opening of upscale halls across the country. Although most of these serious halls are now alcohol- and smoke-free, the game still struggles for respectability, trying to shake its history as a magnet for con artists.
Pool insiders and outsiders point to Robin Bell as a welcome and exemplary stereotype-buster.
“Her life shows that you can play pool and still live a clean life, still be a Christian,” says Warn, the former Harvest House director. “She’s an example that all pool players don’t have to be creeps.”
Women’s pool has come into its own in the last several years, offering 14 or more events annually on the pro tour--more than twice the number on the men’s tour--with purses averaging $25,000, says Shari Stauch, secretary of the Women’s Professional Billiard Assn. Women’s matches occasionally get out-of-town coverage on the sports pages. And the tour boasts an outside-the-industry sponsor: Gordon’s Gin.
A showcase for competition, the tour also resembles a sorority, with Bell acting as something of a house mother. The women dress up to play, sometimes in floor-length gowns. Back in their rooms, they eat junk food, sip Diet Coke, talk and watch TV. While a few of the other pro players came up tough, hustling the halls, most now lead mainstream lives, driving car pools or singing in church choirs.
Bell never brings up religion. But if someone asks, she is happy to show the way to Jesus, and has shepherded about 10 of the players. But she is hardly saintly. This is a woman so competitive that she has to force herself not to beat her 9-year-old at checkers. On a recent triple date to a bowling alley, she spent only a moment feeling bad about acing everyone.
“It doesn’t matter what I do, I want to win,” Bell says with a slightly embarrassed smile. “I get so involved in strategizing, planning how to win, I can’t stop myself.”
Bell guns her red Honda Accord to make the yellow traffic lights. Before hotfooting across a four-lane highway to reach a Bellflower pool hall called Hard Times, she stops and politely asks a companion: “Do you jaywalk?” But within minutes of entering, she is all business, sizing up every opponent, calculating her chances.
On this day, she is not optimistic. She’s the only woman in a field of 25 male amateurs who have entered a tournament at Hard Times. The only difference between these players and the pros, Bell says, is that these guys haven’t quit their day jobs.
The ones who have day jobs, anyway. The competitors here, ranging in age from 20s to 50s, include a welder, a Disneyland plumber, a rock band guitarist, a drug addict and an unemployed guy who lives with his mother.
Against the brown carpeting and the drab blues and browns of the men’s clothing, Bell stands out in belted, white jeans, white-and-blue shirt neatly tucked in, tiny earrings glinting. She settles in for her first match, resting her three cues--one for routine play, one for the break and one for making the ball jump--against a chair. She is relaxed, inclined to chat.
In nine-ball, the game of the pro circuit, players try to pocket any ball on the break, then pocket the others in sequence, from one to nine. The pressure is acute, since one missed shot gives an opponent the chance to clear the table. This two-day tournament is a race to seven, double-elimination format--whoever wins seven games first takes the match.
Other players casually saunter up to break, but Bell coils, ready to spring. The instant the rack is lifted, her cue cracks the balls, her eyes tracking all of them. Under the overhead light, her beautiful face shows weary lines, a road map of emotional travel. The slender, arched brows furrow into a fearsome bunch.
Playing position is not Bell’s strength. She plays completely in the moment, concentrating on the shot at hand, rather than on setting up balls for the shots to come. She compensates by being a formidable shot-maker, something that “says more about my talent than about my skill,” she says.
The pounding music at Hard Times--Melissa Etheridge, Marvin Gaye, Aerosmith--is certainly not the kind Bell would listen to at home, packed as it is with unsanctioned sex. But that’s OK, because she hears none of it. She sings contemporary Christian music to herself, lips moving.
She loses only one match, graciously shaking the hand of the winner. Later, on a roll, she leans over the rail to whisper to a spectator “I’m so comfortable in a man’s world! Rack ‘em up!”
Bell is elated when she wins the tournament. But it’s not the $500 purse that makes her so happy. It’s being taken seriously by her male opponents. It’s about her father teasing that he could beat her, the smug boys who snubbed her in pool halls. And the satisfaction she took in whipping them.
When Bell looks at her life now, it’s with a traveler’s eyes. She is the first to say she’s far from perfect, citing three sons by three different men and a marriage that ended in divorce. Newly remarried, she believes that’s all behind her. She still loves pool, but puts her family and her Lord first. Painfully, she remembers how her life felt before she came to Jesus.
“Even in the midst of all those people, I was so lonely inside,” Bell says. “I never knew where I was going. Now I know exactly where I’m going. I’m going to heaven. And this life is preparing me for that.
“Pool is the talent God gave me, and the people, God has put [them] in my life to reach for Him.”
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Robin Bell Age: 39
Background: Born in Lincoln, Neb.; lives in Garden Grove.
Family: Married. Three sons from previous relationships.
Passions: Spending time with family. Reading the Bible. Playing pool.
On playing pool: “It’s the only area of my life I’m intellectual about. The rest of my life I go on emotions and gut feelings.”
On religion and pool: “I pray to God I have the right attitude, that I use my talent correctly, to bring good feelings to the people watching.”
On dropping out of high school: “I’m street smart, not book smart. I still feel inadequate because of my lack of education.”
On abusing drugs: “I never took enough just to get high. I always took enough to get wasted.”