Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Efren Bata Reyes: The Magician. A Great Read!

Efren Bata Reyes Graphic Truth be told, any read on Filipino pool player Efren Bata Reyes is a great read! And I kid you not! In light of this, I browsed the Internet computer network for such using my ever reliable online search tools. My search results brought back a ton of good pages, including this one - an article written by Ronnie Nathanielsz, one of the Philippines' premier sports journalists!

Without further ado, here is the great read in is entirety! Enjoy!

The Magician By Ronnie Nathanielsz

WHEN Efren ”Bata” Reyes, carried on the wings of prayer of a nation and his own innate skill, won the International Pool Tour World Open 8-Ball Championship, beating American Rodney “The Rocket” Morris, 8-6, in a fabulous setting before a jam-packed audience at the plush Sierra Grande Hotel and Casino in Reno. Nevada, he pocketed the biggest prize in the history of pool—a cool $500,000.

Converted to the strengthening local currency, it still amounted to P25 million. But more than the money and the moment, Efren Reyes cemented his place in the hearts and homes of millions of Filipinos.

The triumph came barely two weeks after Reyes and his bosom buddy Francisco “Django” Bustamante won the inaugural World Cup of Pool at the Newport Center in South Wales, where scores of flag-waving Filipinos, most of them overseas workers, who had come from all across Britain, lifted the spirits of the Philippines’ deadly duo and carried them to a scintillating victory.

Reyes and Bustamante have long been embraced by Filipinos abroad. In Newport, the fans, who gathered for the tournament, cooked Filipino food for the two and ate with them morning noon and night in a touching show of genuine affection.

The Magician’s triumph in the IPT World Open, where he had to contend with 200 of the finest pool players in the world over seven days of long hours and late nights in a grueling format particularly for a man of 52 was, by the very nature of the challenge, spectacular. Ranged against much younger men of consummate and varied talent, Reyes proved that he had the will to win and the skill with which to achieve it.

Prior to the finals, Morris, who beat Reyes, 8-7, in a pulsating preview of the finals, paid tribute to Reyes as “the greatest that ever lived as far as pool, in my opinion. It just feels great to be playing Efren. He was my idol growing up and he’s the greatest. I got to watch him a lot of years.”

Morris remembered that he had beaten Reyes in the US Open finals. “So I’m excited about that and I’m excited doing it again,”

Then the clincher. “He’s 52 years old and I’m in my prime.”

Nobody among the Filipinos took offense or dared question that. It was the truth. But Reyes was no ordinary pool player. He was The Magician. In the end, according to Rolly Vicente, long-time manager of the players of Puyat Sports, supported for decades by the acknowledged godfather of Philippine pool, Aristeo “Putch” Puyat, Morris was awed by Reyes and the thought of the money… a whopping $350,000 difference between winning and losing.

Reyes showed his class and his sportsmanship, which endeared him even more to lovers of the game and indeed his opponents. During a crucial stage of the finals with Reyes leading, 6-5, and at the table after Morris played a smart safety, leaving the cue ball near the top rail with the 8-ball sandwiched between the 10 and 15. Reyes shot directly at the 8-ball which dropped. The throng of Filipino supporters and American fans cheered lustily only to agonize when referee Ken Schuman called a foul that had Morris’ supporters on the opposite side of the room erupting into cheers. The call enabled Morris to clear the table and tie the count at 6-6.

Reyes never for a moment questioned the referee’s decision. He said the referee made the correct call. “It was really a foul. My cue ball touched the two other balls before I pocketed the eight.”

Last December, in the inaugural IPT King of the Hill finals, Reyes routed American legend Mike Sigel in straight sets, 8-0, 8-5, to win the biggest prize in pool at that time—$200,000 which, at the exchange rate prevalent then amounted to over P10.5 million.

But Reyes isn’t new to daunting challenges. He thrives on them just like the $100,000 winner-take-all Color of Money classics against Earl Strickland. It was a three-day marathon, Race-to-120 racks at a Hong Kong bar in 1997. Strickland was the favorite and lived up to his billing over the first two days, leading Reyes by 17 racks going into the final 50 racks on the third day. But Reyes was not to be denied. In an incredible comeback that saw the fans quickly switch sides, awed by the wizardry of Reyes as much as being turned off by the behavior of Strickland, who bitched about everything from the movement of the Vintage Sports cameramen, the voices of the commentators, including anchorman Ed Picson and the scantily clad bar girls who moved around serving customers, Reyes won, 120-117. Beyond the material loss, Strickland also lost a number of fans, who deserted him in the end game.

Asked about Strickland’s penchant to talk to the crowd and sometimes get into arguments with them, Reyes said he was never distracted by the American’s antics because “when he talks, it’s the people watching who get irked, not me. I just concentrate on the game.”

That probably upsets Strickland even more.

Reyes praises Strickland for his great ball placements and pocketing and conceded, in a sort of left-handed compliment, that he beats Strickland “not because of my skills, but because people are usually rooting for me and that distracts him so much and he loses concentration.”

One year earlier at the Sands Regency Open in Reno, Nevada, Reyes and Strickland clashed in a match that was memorable for one incredible shot that Reyes made. As tournament director Jay Helfert recalled in a Time Asia magazine article, “Earl left him with the cue ball on the end rail totally tied up behind the nine ball. It looked like there was no possible way for him to hit the object ball, which I think was the eight. Efren looked at it for a while, then he kicked the cue ball two rails back and forth across the table, hit the edge of the eight, made the eight, got position on the nine, ran out and won the match. It’s by far the most amazing win I’ve ever seen. Very few players could have hit the ball.”

Reyes, who was born in Mexico, Pampanga in August 1954, recalled that when he was a five-year-old kid, his father, who was a barber, decided to bring him to Manila to live with an uncle, who owned the Lucky 13 pool hall in downtown Manila that was frequented by movie stars, showbiz personalities and a roster of regular hustlers. After school, Reyes watched a number of good players play for money while a number of famous actors soaked in the action.

He was inspired by the game of his uncle and noticed that when he won, “people gave him money.” That motivated Reyes to watch and learn from them.

He watched the good players and the weak players and learned from both. He picked up the simple shots from the good players and realized that the weak players sometimes made impossible shots. This is where he focused his attention. Today, it is the shots that other players don’t even dream of that Reyes dares to play, mesmerizing his opponents and captivating the spectators.

Quickly fascinated by the game even though his uncle didn’t want him to play pool, Reyes tried practicing when there was nobody around. In an interview for Viva Sports and the IPT with director/producer Dong Capinpuyan, Reyes revealed: “I was small and tried practicing by standing on biscuit cans just so I could reach the table.”

Reyes practiced at night when the pool hall was closed. Reyes remembered that “After practice, I slept on the table with the table cover as my blanket.” When morning came and people started coming in to play, Reyes moved under the table to get more sleep.

He was soon showing an amazing understanding of the game and began playing for money. By the time he was 12, a group of financiers began taking him on tours and like a regular “hit man,” Reyes eliminated one opponent after another. His backers made a killing and he earned his share of the take. Not much. But for a poor kid, it was most welcome because he was able to support his parents.

“These provincial sorties really honed my game and made me a great pool player. That was the time I played against the best.”

After a quick trip to Japan where he won some money, Reyes decided it was time to try his luck in America, which always held a fascination for Filipinos. A journalist named John Grissim, who Reyes remembers merely as “Jack,” came to Manila after trips to Japan and Taiwan because he was writing a book on pool. He saw Reyes and “that’s how the name Efren Reyes got included in his book” recalled Reyes.

Grissim returned to America and warned about a kid from the Philippines, who was a great pool player they had to watch out for because he could beat anyone, anywhere. But the Americans figured pool was their game and nobody could beat them at it.

When he left for the United States to compete in the Red’s Open in Houston, Texas, Reyes used the name of a friend Cesar Morales. It worked to his advantage because while the Americans had heard of him, they hadn’t seen him. “Morales” took on the best in money games in the smoke-filled backrooms and on the main competition tables. Publisher Mike Panozzo of Billiards Digest said the venue was typically Texan.

He wrote: “It was a raucous circus staged inside a sprawling bi-level sports bar. The music was loud. The people were loud. For the first few days, little attention was paid to the thin, square-shouldered shooter with the roller-coaster stroke, playing under the name of Cesar Morales.”

“Morales” soon began to dispose of players in the extremely talented field of 108, one by one. Heads began to turn and people began to take notice especially when nobody won seven racks in the Race-to-10 matches.

Panozzo noted that after each win, Reyes would leave the arena “flanked by a Filipino entourage that gambled, giggled and taunted their unsuspecting hosts with the only words they seemed to know: “Where’s the beef!” To be continued

*The article was published in the September 16, 2006 issue of the Manila Standard. Credits for the great read go to Ronnie Nathanielsz and the Manila Standard.

"The magic of billiards - The AnitoKid."

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