Filipino Wizards Of The Pool Table
To the pantheon of pop diversions present-day Filipinos revere, the Three “B”s of Boxing, Basketball and Beauty Pageants, a fourth B should be added: Billiards. Overshadowed by the megaprizes and sheer brutality of Vegas/Macau-set boxing matches and the glitz of “voguing” catwalks of the various Misses So-and-So pageants is the more compact and quiet world of the billiards table.
A lot occurs quietly in that 48’ x 96’ swath of baize where feats of cue stick and balls sorcery happen, guided by hidden, almost impossible bending of geometric laws. It’s also in that felt-like field where the hard-scrabble stories of the extremely talented but less educated Filipino pool champions are told, where Pinoy billiards legends like Efren Reyes, Francisco Bustamante, Jose Parica, Dennis Orcullo, to name a few, have bared their souls and left their marks.
Unseen laws of geometry and physics are at play in world-class billiards marksmanship.
Interchangeable Use Of “Billiards” And “Pool”
Billiards and pool are terms that can be used interchangeably and fall under the cue sports category. “Billiards” is the overall term for games played with cue sticks and spherical, resin-baked balls on a flat, felt surface. There are various kinds of billiards games (the traditional 15-ball; the sequential 8-, 9- or 10-ball games; Russian pyramid, snooker, carom (pocketless pool), one-pocket, etc. The table itself is the “pool,” i.e., as in a “swimming pool.”
Among the less popular pool variants are carom and snooker—the former originated and is popular in France wherein just three balls are used; however, you must hit at least three rails (the sides) in the execution, on a heated table no less. The latter, snooker, is the Anglo-Saxon reply to carom. Devised by British army officers on their tour of duty in India during the Raj, it is an even more devilishly complicated version and would take a whole afternoon to explain. Pinoys, on the other hand, ex-stepchildren of America, generally stick to the 8-, 9-, 10- to 15-ball billiards, which are more popular in the USA.
The traditional 6-pocketed pool table, ready for the traditional 15-ball games.
The pocketless version, used for the 3-ball type of pool game.
Lower Class Undertones Of Pool
Looking at it from, say, the “proper” world of Manila’s high society or traditional de buena familias’ perspective, pool used to be viewed as a lower-class diversion, often associated with the kanto boy (literally, “corner kid”/wastrel) trope. Boxing was judged only a little better since, at least in its earlier days, it was more schematically organized and offered some chance of monetary remuneration in lieu of a regular livelihood for practitioners who could not pursue a traditional route via college. Other than small bets with the dodgiest sectors of society, how could one feed oneself, let alone a family, by being a full-time pool/billiards hustler?
On the opposite side of the dim view of pool/billiards as a loser’s vocation, a luxurious pool room was often a nice accoutrement in the mansions of the super-rich. In that world, the gents would retire after dinner to play a few rounds of pool, with cigars and brandy, in the billiards den while the servants brought in freshly brewed coffee. It was socially acceptable in that setting because you had arrived. One didn’t have to depend on hustling for a few pesos in dens of iniquity; and indulging in billiards was in this setting “pa-pogi” (ultra-suave pose), shared with quality people of equal, social standing and means.
Unfortunately, for masses of young Filipino men, pool, like boxing, is another alternative to surviving in a dog-eat-dog world. If you don’t want your face banged up or your teeth knocked out for a few bucks, hustling at pool tables was a less brutal alternative. This was the world in which Reyes and many of the current crop of Pinoy billiards champs grew up.
A Class Unto Himself
The foremost Pinoy exponent or “senior statesman” in world billiards is a very unassuming man, Efren Reyes. Not to be mistaken for the Filipino action movie star of the 1950s and ‘60s with the same name, pool player Reyes, in the two decades or so of playing professionally, has become a legend in the annals of billiards—comparably even more than Manny Pacquiao in boxing--and all without bruising an eye or busting a gut.
Efren Reyes, the Filipino Billiards world champ.
Born in 1954 in Mexico, Pampanga, Reyes was the fifth of nine children. Due to poverty, the Reyes family moved to Manila when Efren was five years old. The young Efren eventually worked as an attendant at his uncle’s Lucky-13 Billiards Hall. But he also started learning the various cue sports although he had to stand on three Coca-Cola cases to play because he was not tall enough to reach the pool table. At night, he dreamed of playing pool as he slept on the pool tables.
As an adult, when times were lean and no big-money tournaments were available, Reyes worked at a comic book printer. But still playing pool on the side, he was discovered by pool promoters who brought him to big-time tournaments, including in his home province. Hustling games for cash in Angeles City with US servicemen from the nearby Clark Air Base gave Reyes his first taste of winning the almighty US dollar.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he got invited to play in the US. Those early successes made him a folk hero back home. His ever-increasing reputation as a billiards wiz began to precede him, however. So, being known as a sharp player could get him excluded even from big money tournaments. To get around this, Reyes resorted to using aliases (“Caesar Morales” for one) to hide his true identity.
An early news story about the young Reyes competing under a pseudonym, “Caesar Morales.”
In the 1990s, Reyes, back to using his real name, started winning a few major international tournaments; he was the first non-American to win the 1994 US Open Nine Ball Championship in Chesapeake, Virginia.
But it was not until 1999 that Reyes made his international mark by winning the WPA (World Pool Association) World 9-Ball Championship in Cardiff, Wales. That was also the first time that this tournament was broadcast live to a worldwide television audience. It made Reyes, at age 45, (1) a household name in the Philippines; (2) a global brand in the billiards world to be reckoned with and (3) it set the game on fire in the Philippines, causing new billiard halls to sprout overnight all over the archipelago.
Even though there were times when he seemed to be slipping and losing his touch, Reyes still won just about every major pool tournament of note there was (one stops counting his titles at three dozen), making him a legend in this realm. He has been dubbed “the Magician” or the odd acronym, GOAT, “greatest (pool player) of all time,” without exaggeration. Reyes was also the first Filipino/non-American to be named to the prestigious Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame in 2003.
But perhaps the most striking feature of Reyes’ persona as a legend is his demeanor. When colleagues and rivals speak of Reyes away from the pool table, they invariably speak of his very quiet, humble, self-effacing ways; he’s a very soft-spoken man who makes no big emotional, grandstanding displays of victory a la Muhammed Ali or Usain Bolt. He has always been the quiet, wallflower-type Filipino champion, who just makes plays nobody ever imagined possible.
Enjoy some of the exploits of Efren Reyes via YouTube:
From the 7th Annual Derby Classic (Louisville, Kentucky), 2009
30 TOP Shots Forever With Magician Efren Reyes
The latest on Reyes, April 2019
The Rest Of The Pack
For every Sigmund Freud, there is a Carl Jung. For every Jose Rizal, there is an Andres Bonifacio; for every Miss Universe, there is the First Runner-Up ready to do standby duty. Similarly, to Efren Reyes’ top slot, there is Francisco Bustamante as his best man.
Francisco “Django” Bustamante, born 1955
Only one year younger than Reyes, Bustamante grew up and followed a trajectory very similar to Reyes’. He hails from Aquino-Cojuangco country, neighboring Tarlac, and also picked up his cue stick at a very young age. But where Reyes duked it out with American GIs and hustled in the US, Bustamante set out and sharpened his pool skills in Germany. He and Reyes have also teamed up in major international team-tournaments. In 2010, Bustamante became the second Filipino to be named to the prestigious Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame in 2003.
Dennis Orcullo, born 1979
Jose Parica, b. 1949
Ronato Alcano, b. 1972
Probably third in line is Dennis Orcullo, who comes from Mindanao. Orcullo came upon pool like Reyes and Bustamante did. Rendered fatherless at a very young age and facing subsequent financial problems, Orcullo gave up school in the third grade and picked up pool at eight years of age. He then started playing outside the Philippines in 2002 and began his campaign in the US in 2006. To date, Orcullo has at least three dozen world and major tournament titles to his credit.
The third man of Filipino descent to be named to the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame in 2014 is Jose Parica, and that is for winning over one hundred tournaments in the US, Japan and the Philippines over four decades. Although born in California, Parica commuted to the Philippines and organized the Philippine Pocket Billiards Association in 1976 there, becoming its first president. In 1979, he was the Philippines’ National 3-Cushion Champion, Rotation Champion, and Snooker Champion. Although he retired in 1994, he has returned to the competitive scene but plays on a more selective basis.
The present crop of Pinoy pool champions have won more world tournament titles collectively than Manny Pacquaio and the various Binibining Pilipinas final winners combined. Just as an example, following are results of the Annual Derby City Classic tournament—a staple in the competitive billiards competition calendar—held every January in Elizabeth, Indiana, to which the top names in billiards, return to year in and year out. These are results of the last 20 years.
Note the winners and see how the top slots are shared almost equally between the Filipino and American players. Take special note of the fifth column, OVERALL, i.e., the Champion of the tournament, and see how Parica (2002), Reyes (1999, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010), Bustamante (2008, 2013 and 2018), and Orcullo (2014 and 2017) have dominated the Overall crown. Note also Alex Pagulayan who competes as a Canadian in this tournament. (Source: Wikipedia)
Then there is Renato Alcano born in 1972 in Calamba, Laguna. Alcano had to quit schooling at the elementary level for financial reasons, forcing him into billiards. And like the others, he did a good job of it. Among Alcano’s claims to fame are the 2006 WPA 9-Ball Billiards Championship, followed by the 2007 WPA Eight-Ball Billiards Championship. Alcano and Orcullo teamed up as the Philippine B team for the 9-Ball WPA World Championships held in Manila in 2009 and ended up as the 4th semi-finalist team. Alcano carries the nickname “The Volcano” per billiards-pool naming custom.
Alex Pagulayan, b. 1978
Marlon Manalo, b. 1975
Rubilen Amit, b. 1981
Another top player is Alex Pagulayan, a Fil-Canadian. Born in Isabela, Alex and his family immigrated to Canada in 1991 when he was 13. There, his father ended up managing (what else) a pool hall; so naturally, Alex took to the milieu like a duck to water. The young Pagulayan played for many years under the Canadian Maple Leaf until 2004 when he relocated to the old country and regained his Philippine citizenship. Aside from winning numerous commercial tournaments, Pagulayan was a triple gold medal threat in the 2005 Southeast Asian Games held in Manila, winning the Men’s Eight-Ball Singles, the Nine-Ball Doubles and the Men’s Snooker team titles. Nicknamed “The Lion” Pagulayan is still playing, sometimes using his Canadian passport for certain tournaments.
A rare player is one who came from a solid, entrepreneurial middle-class family background that enabled him to obtain a degree in Economics from Jose Rizal University: Marlon Manalo. Unlike almost all the other Pinoy names, Manalo concentrated on the snooker game, which is not popular in the Philippines. Manalo has won a few tournaments including winning a silver medal in snooker in the 2001 World Games. Recently, Manalo became more involved in local government—in the League of Barangays of the Philippines.
Not to forget the distaff side, there is Rubilen Amit, from Mandaue, Cebu. Not only is she the rare Filipina in the ranks of the pool wizzes, but like Manalo, Amit holds an Accounting degree from the University of Santo Tomas to fall back on should a lucrative billiards career not pan out. Amit is also one of the few Filipinas to have been mentored by Efren Reyes. She teamed up with him in Mixed-Doubles tournaments, successfully, of course.
(Time and space preclude featuring so many players in detail, so let’s just mention a few more names, in no particular order: Lee Van Corteza; Carlo Biado; Johann Chua; Jeff de Luna; Antonio Gabica; Warren Kiamco; Roberto Gomez; Jharome Peña. None of them seems to have earned his special nickname yet, but if you’ve got a name like newcomer Demosthenes Pulpul, you’re surely on your way to the big time.
The “Golden Age” Of Pinoy Pool Power
The years 2008-11 have sometimes been called the Golden Age of Filipino Professional Pool. These years saw Manila as Ground-Zero for various pool world championships. First, there was the inaugural WPA 10-Ball World Championships held at the Philippine International Convention Center, in 2008. The 10-Ball variant game is often called the Philippines’ contribution to the world of competitive billiards. It was developed and popularized in the smoky pool halls of Manila. The 10-Ball is not so popular worldwide because having two more balls than the basic 8-Ball, or just one more than the 9-Ball game, changes the dynamics of play radically, making the game exponentially more difficult. But Pinoys seem to love it and this may inadvertently have contributed to the excellent gamesmanship of the top Filipino pool players. The initial 10-Ball world championship, played individually, offered a record-setting purse of $400,000.
Promo plug for the 2008 10-Ball Championship
The next year, 2009, the more globally popular 9-Ball Team World Championships moved from the Netherlands to pitch camp in Manila for four years (2009-2012). Not since 1975’s Thrilla in Manila or the World Chess Championships in Baguio in 1978 or the 30th World Chess Olympiad in 1992 had Manila seen giddy, sport-organizing days for another international championship. So, for 2009, 2010 and 2011, the Philippines was host to the double set of world championships (for both the 9- and 10-Ball versions) sponsored by rival organizations.
Results, however, of world championships held on Filipino soil were decidedly mixed. Even though Pinoys claim the 10-Ball as their own “home-grown” variant, the inaugural 10-Ball championship was won by an Englishman, Darren Appleton. (Could it have been payback time for Efren Reyes winning the first globally televised 9-Ball World Championship held on British/Welsh soil in 1999?)
In the 9-Ball version, contested by teams of two players representing their national flag, 32 nations entered, shooting for a smaller $60,000 prize to be split just between the winning team.The Philippine A duo saw the re-teaming of the two undisputed top Filipino players Efren Reyes and Francisco Bustamante, who had previously won this tournament’s initial appearance in Wales (again!) in 2006.
When the tournament transferred to Manila in 2009, Reyes and Bustamante re-teamed to win it on home soil. In the 2010 tournament, also in Manila, however, that powerhouse team was shockingly eliminated after only the second round. But the Philippine Team B of Roberto Gomez and Dennis Orcullo got all the way to the finals and came in second.
(Manny Pacquiao tried to muscle in on the billiards scene, as he had also indulged in the game in his youth. With his financial power, Pacquaio staged the WPA 10-Ball World Championship in 2015 for his home city of General Santos in Mindanao. He got it going with a purse of five million pesos and drew top players from 30 countries. Strangely, Ko Pin-yi of Taiwan took the trophy home over Pinoy Carlos Biado. The tournament was supposed to return in 2018 but was canceled and postponed for various, unexplained reasons.)
Results of the first ten years (2006-2015) of the World Cup of 9-Ball Pool
Note Philippine team placements and the years (2009-2012) it was played in Manila. (Source: Wikipedia)
By 2010-11, the Golden Age of Filipino Billiards started to wane. The Pinoy juggernaut was slowing down. A foreign billiards aficionado and expert observed that despite the proliferation of big-money tournaments, many being played in Manila, the big Pinoy names were not showing up. What was behind it? That dirty five-letter word: greed. Each star player had his own manager, and each manager wanted a bigger slice of the pie. The best way to do that, they figured, was to set up independent tournaments where their own players would be the only ones to make a star turn. So, manager-promoters restrained their wards and severely limited their availability.
And this dirty underside underlined the fact that, except for a handful, the majority of the Pinoy wizzes are undereducated. Some never even finished their elementary education, and thus are poorly equipped to handle the later challenges of more complex and complicated lives. Sure, practice makes perfect, and perhaps for a great many of them, just winning a few titles might suffice. But without the safety net of a good education, control of one’s destiny often can’t be obtained from the school of hard knocks. It’s someone else who fronts the initial outlay and expenses and therefore determines where and when one must play. In the process, those backers make on average, according to one source, as much as 50 percent of the rising player’s winnings.
What I’ve featured above are the handful of success stories. I’ve guesstimated that in his 30+ year career, Reyes has probably earned over $10 million in gross earnings. But that is one exceptional case. What about the thousands of broken and dashed dreams of Reyes-wannabees?
In the meantime, some of the pros make extra income teaching pool; mostly in private lessons. Who knows? Fortunately, much of the Golden Age of Pinoy billiards brilliance has been captured for posterity. There are videos galore on YouTube which show off the virtuosic and unique skills of the Pinoy champs. Some videos are almost like master classes in the sport.
Billiards are not an Olympic sport yet. For now, it is played in the Asian Games and the smaller Southeast Asian Games where the Philippines has done exceedingly well. Those ASEAN Games will be returning to Manila for its 30thion this year and “home court advantage” is something a competitive player doesn’t just scoff at.
Myles A. Garciais a Correspondent and regular contributor to www.positivelyfilipino.com.His newest book,“OfAdobe, Apple Pie, and Schnitzel With Noodles– An Anthology of Essays on the Filipino-American Experience and Some. . .”,features the best and brightest of the articles Myles has written thus far for this publication. The book is presently available onamazon.com(Australia, USA, Canada, Europe, and the UK).
Myles’ two other books are:Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies(latestion, 2016); andThirty Years Later. . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimespublished last year, also available fromamazon.com.
Myles is also a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) for whose Journal he has had two articles published; a third one on the story of the Rio 2016 cauldrons, will appear in this month’s issue --notavailableon amazon.
Finally, Myles has also completed his first full-length stage play, “23 Renoirs, 12 Picassos, . . . one Domenica”,which was givenits first successful fully Staged Reading by the Playwright Center of San Francisco.The play is now available for professional production, and hopefully, a world premiere on the SF Bay Area stages.
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