Pool is now the single most popular sport among young women; greyhound racing is
There are very few places on a balmy bank holiday evening to which your female friends will not willingly tag along. After a long afternoon's drinking in May Day sunshine, these most suggestible of companions should be game for anything. Anything, it transpires, bar one humble suggestion: a quick game of pool in the local snooker hall.

"What? You must be joking. With a load of fat old smoky men? Forget it." Coaxing such companions into the local brothel could scarcely have demanded greater guile. Prising them back out of the snooker club some hours later, however, proved practically impossible. Cue sports, as this brief experiment bore out, are one of the fastest-growing interests among women today; a recent survey found that, remarkably, the single most popular sport among young women is now pool. The surly, smoky snooker hall, image of a thousand gangster films, is suddenly undergoing a radical overhaul as women take over the tables.

"I really, really hate it when you see girls in the pub get all giggly and girlie, and acting like they couldn't hit a barn from the inside." Felix Priestly, 23, is a fashion designer. She has no time for old images of pool as a man's game which girls can only play at playing. Over a game at Rileys snooker club, in city centre Manchester, Felix, along with her companions on the other all-girl and mixed tables, bears testimony to the changes taking place in cue sports.

"It's bollocks - if they just stopped teetering around on their heels for two seconds they could hit a ball as well as any man. I don't play seriously, but I'll always be up for a game, and to be honest, it just makes me laugh if men think I'll be no use because I'm a girl. They get what's coming to them."

Nearby, two young women and a man are engrossed in a marathon session. "I think pool halls always have a reputation for being seedy places full of smoke and rough guys, but it was nothing like that when I actually came for the first time - there were a lot of young people and women." Nusrat Arshad, 23, a marketing assistant from Manchester, became a member here a couple of months ago and plays at least twice a week. But, she adds: "I don't really go around advertising the fact. People would probably raise a few eyebrows. It's not a very ladylike thing to do, is it? Goodness, if my mum saw a picture of me here she'd be very shocked. She's quite traditional, I suppose, and she certainly wouldn't like to think of her daughter hanging around in pool halls."

Nusrat's friend, a 20-year-old student, is very anxious not to give her name. "I was expecting it to be sleazy, and it's not at all, but I'd rather it not be known that I had been here. It's not really the place for a girl to be."

It's precisely this sort of image problem which prompted Rileys, the largest chain of traditional snooker halls in the country, with more than 60 venues, to radically rethink its market strategy two years ago. With membership at best stagnant, and practically non-existent among women, the company took the decision to convert one of its clubs into an American- style pool hall. Membership soared, but the most startling growth was among female players; where female membership had struggled to make 5 per cent, it was now comfortably 20 per cent. The chain is now well on the way to transforming half of its halls, and offers a reduced membership fee for women.

"The halls had a very cloth-cap, macho image - it was a real man's domain. American pool is a totally different game - big balls, big holes and big sticks, and it's not complicated to learn. It's a much more social game, more forgiving," explains regional director Conrad Palmer. "To be honest, we're working on the old disco principle - get the girls in, and the boys will follow."

The atmosphere in Rileys is more akin to an upmarket burger bar than any gaming room; it is extremely hard to imagine any mother objecting. Converted earlier this year, the hall is adorned with all the typical trappings of a slick, American-inspired bar - baseball bric-a-brac, US number plates and neon beer signs adorn the walls, while TV screens and music lighten the tone, diverting attention from that heavy, dull tension which builds over the tables of a traditional snooker hall.

Reinventing cue sports as a social rather than competitive activity has been the key to the rise in female popularity. When Alex Thompson, a young entrepreneur, co-founded The Elbow Room in fashionable west London nine months ago, experience of pool bars in America had convinced him that high-quality service and classy design were crucial to commercial success.

"Here, you've got somebody coming to your table, taking your food and drinks orders, serving you nicely, and it works. People love it. We get a huge cross-section of people coming in, people who've never even played before, and they have a brilliant time." Unlike clubs, which require membership, or pub tables where a winner-stays-on system usually operates, at The Elbow Room customers hire tables by the hour.

"There's none of that putting 50p on the table, hanging around going, 'Crap shot, crap shot, come on, this is going to take all night' - you know, all that intimidating stuff you get blokes doing. It's a very female- friendly place, we play great music, it's pretty hip, it's pretty funky. There's no aggro."

Professional female players are still few and far between on the snooker and pool circuits in this country, though. Of the 500 or so players ranked in the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, just three are women. One, Karen Fisher, has recently departed for the pool circuit of North America. "She just wasn't making ends meet," says Mandy Fisher, chairman of the ladies' World Association. When Stephen Hendry won the World Championships last month, he walked away with pounds 200,000. Last year's winner of the ladies' world championships collected pounds 5,000.

That kind of discrepancy doesn't trouble the women in Rileys, though. "I'm happy playing for pints," Felix laughs.

"And if men think I'm going to be useless, well that's all the better."