In the early 1900s, a Japanese woman named Masako Katsura dominated the world of billiards. She was considered the best player in the world and was even given the nickname “The First Lady of Billiards.” Katsura is still remembered today as one of the most talented players in history. In this article, we will look at her life and career.
Masako Katsura was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1913. There is very little known about what life was like for young Katsura, but we do know that she lived with her brother and three sisters.
This title was one of six U.S. championships that Katsura would go on to win in her career.
However, this isn’t to say that Katsura was unstoppable. As her career progressed, especially to the 1954 World Three-Cushion Tournament, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, some of the world’s best players were on the scoreboard, many of whom came out of retirement.
The line-up was;
- Ray Miller
- Harold Worst
- Juan and Ezequiel Navarra
- Welker Cochran
- and the defending champion, Kilgore
Katsura was, as always, the only female competitor in the competition. The matches started off well as Katsura won over Miller (60-47) and continued on a winning streak against various other opponents.
However, she started to lose games against players like Ezequiel Navarra (60-28), but won against his brother and came in fourth place. Worst, who had come out of retirement for the tournament, won on 25th October 1954.
Taking a Step back from Billiards
In 1958, she reappeared and made 30 appearances in exhibitions, but had also released two instructional books on how to play billiards that were launched in Japan.
However, the billiards world stirred in 1959 when word broke that Katsura would be playing an exhibition against Harold Worst in a one-week match up to 1,200 points, hosted by the Randolph Recreations venue in Chicago.
The show was then moved to Philadelphia, where they played six matches to 50 points (three cushions) and then exhibited in New York. This didn’t come without rustling a few media feathers.
In March 1959, Katsura appeared on CBS’s popular guess game show, What’s My Line?, where she funnily wrote and signed her name on the name card using Japanese characters.
She also appeared on You Asked For It, the ABC show where she went backstage on western movie sets to show how they were set up and recorded, and again in 1960, where she showcased some of her trickshot performances for the cameras.
By 1961, there had reached a point in the billiards world where such three-cushion world championship competitions had not been organized nor happened. This meant that Harold Worst had remained the champion for over seven years and, in doing so, issued Katsura a competitive match offer for $2,000.
Worst was actually so committed to these events that he tried to take legal action against the Argentinian three-cushion tournament that was billing itself as the world championship tournament for overlapping the dates of the event.
Katsura accepted but was beaten by Worst by 350 to 276.
After this 1961 world championship era, Katsura went quiet, and the world found her living relatively off the grid. Professionally and in the billiards world, it was reported that she had gone into retirement, and there were rumors that her husband had tried to keep her from playing billiards any longer. He passed away in 1967.
Come 1976, Katsura did appear at Palace Billiards in San Francisco, where she borrowed a cue from a random player and proceeded to sink 100 points at the straight rail with no errors, nearly 20 years after she had last performed in the public eye.
Reportedly from the scene, it was stated that ‘without a miss, she smiled and bowed to an applauding crowd, stepping away from the spotlight and disappearing forever from the American billiard stage. (Robert Byrne, a prolific pool and billiard author at the time.
And that’s what happened.
Katsura returned to Japan to live with her sister in 1990, where she spent the rest of her days before passing away in 1995.
In September 2002, a memorial tournament was organized in Katsura’s name, dubbed the Katsura Memorial: The First Ladies Three Cushion Grand Prix, which was hosted in Japan and aired on SkyTV around the world.
To this day, Katsura is still considered to be one of the greatest billiards players in history.
She was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America’s Hall of Fame in 1966, and in 2003, she was awarded the U.S. Billiard Media Association’s Player of the Century award. In March 2021, she was featured in the GoogleDoodle artwork celebrating International Women’s Day.
Katsura’s impact on the sport of billiards cannot be understated, and she will always be remembered as one of the all-time greats.