Filipinos take on world in billiard battle
By JAMES HOOKWAY
The Associated Press
The Wall Street Journal
MANILA, Philippines -- Michaela Tabb, a referee for nine-ball pool, had no inkling how much of a celebrity she is before she came to the Philippines.
But when the 35-year-old Scot arrived in Manila recently to officiate a "Philippines vs. the Rest of the World" tournament, she was besieged by fans who had seen her on television and wanted her to sign their pool cues.
"I knew pool was popular here, but I didn't expect anything like this," Ms. Tabb said while taking refuge in the players' lounge.
In the Philippines, the game introduced by U.S. soldiers before World War II has evolved into a national obsession. The sport attracts bigger audiences than boxing and basketball do. World championship games are often projected onto the walls of grimy warehouses so hundreds of people in the slums below can follow the action.
The country's fascination with pool is now creating stars with a global following. The biggest draw is Efren "The Magician" Reyes, a chubby, gaptoothed 49-year-old former world champion who trains on a diet of chicken, rice and beer.
"The Filipino players are exceedingly popular. Everybody tunes in when Efren Reyes or Francisco Bustamante are playing," says Luke Riches of Matchroom Sport, the London promoter of the annual nine-ball world championships.
Pool is ideally suited to the Philippines. It doesn't require much space, a significant consideration in a crowded country. It's also a cheap evening's entertainment and perfect for casual gambling, which is widespread here.
The object of nine-ball pool is to sink nine balls in sequence, with the player who pockets the No. 9 ball at the right time winning the rack. Games are fast and unpredictable. Thanks to pool's appeal in Asia, top U.S. pros such as Earl "The Pearl" Strickland are as likely to be found playing in tournaments in Tokyo or Manila as in Las Vegas. ESPN-STAR Sports will hold next year's championship in conjunction with Matchroom in either Taipei or Manila to take advantage of huge TV audiences not just in the Philippines but also in Taiwan, Japan and Singapore.
Filipinos will inevitably be among the winners. Each year the country unleashes more and more professionals on the international circuit. Runner-up in the 2003 world championships: Alex "The Lion" Pagulayan, 25, a skinny Filipino with spiky hair who resides in Canada and also goes by the name "Killer Pixie."
Americans may have introduced the game here, but Filipinos perfected it. Pool tables can be found everywhere from rickety barrio grocery stalls to cavernous pool halls in Manila. In shantytowns lining a railway track bisecting Manila, residents play on flimsy plywood tables, pushing little discs of wood around instead of billiard balls.
Mika Immonen, a former world champion from Finland who played recently on the "Rest of the World" team, believes there are some parallels between pool players in the Philippines and soccer players in the favelas of Brazil. Filipinos often have little choice but to play on uneven, battered tables with warped cues, just as Brazilian slum dwellers play on potholed streets with soccer balls fashioned out of rags.
"If they can play well under those conditions, then imagine how well they can do with the proper equipment," Mr. Immonen says. "Controlling the cue ball becomes easier if you have to play under extreme conditions."
Mr. Reyes, widely recognized as among the best players the sport has ever seen, travels the world with his $10 pool stick, sending home winnings to support his family and friends. He has won as much as $160,000 in one tournament. His overseas following includes hundreds of Filipinos working as nurses, engineers or domestic servants. The current world champion, Thorsten Hohmann of Germany, estimates that more than 90 percent of the crowd at a recent tournament in Dubai was Filipino.
Mr. Reyes relishes his role as the champion of the Philippine diaspora. Earlier this year, he starred in an action movie, "Pakners," in which he got to beat up gangsters with his pool stick.
What Mr. Reyes likes most of all is the food his fans bring him in Tupperware containers when he plays overseas. "They're Filipino: They cook for me and take care of me until the early morning," he says. "They're not professional chefs, but it's fried fish or chicken, the food I like."
Sid Waddell, an English pool commentator known for his offbeat similes ("He's as twitchy as a frog in a blender"), says Mr. Reyes's fans frequently take their hero out singing after his matches. After Mr. Reyes made a seemingly impossible shot at a recent tournament in Holland, Mr. Waddell remarked on the air: "There'll be karaoke and chicken curry tonight then!"
Mr. Reyes's specialty is banking the cue ball off multiple cushions to hit his target ball, often sinking it. It's a skill he learned as a child in his uncle's Manila pool hall. He used to sleep on the table at night.
He made his first overseas trip, to Japan, in 1979 when it became clear nobody in the Philippines was reckless enough to play him. In 1985, Mr. Reyes went to the U.S. for the first time to play pool for money. He bagged the world championship in 1999.
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