Billiards Star Reyes Gets Everyone into the Pool
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You may know that some of the best pro basketball and baseball players come from overseas. Now that is apparently true in another game that Americans once regarded as their own: pool, or pocket billiards.
Today, we have a profile of the man that many say is the best pool player alive. Maybe the best ever.
NPR's Michael Sullivan found him in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Man #1: Like this!
Unidentified Man #2: One table, one title, one place.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Unidentified Man #1: More to pocket.
(Soundbite of cue ball)
Unidentified Man #2: One of the world's best.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: One hundred and twenty eight of the world's best gathered in Manila a few weeks back for the 2006 World Pool Championships, carried live on ESPN. The top prize was $100,000, and the man many picked to win it was hometown favorite Efren Reyes.
A few days before the tournament started though, Reyes was about as far away from a pool hall as he could be - in a museum shooting a beer commercial. A skinny 52-year-old with a slight paunch and a wispy moustache looking a little uncomfortable at his dressing table next to a bevy of Filipina soap and film stars waiting for the shoot to begin.
Mr. EFREN REYES (Pool Player, Philippines): The shooting is kind of we finished like about 8:00 after the…
SULLIVAN: The shoot last until 8 tonight, Reyes said. I got here at 8:30 in the morning and we haven't even started. I need to practice, he said, because the tournament is less than a week away.
(Soundbite of billiard balls)
He made it to the pool hall about 12 hours later, looking a whole lot happier than he did at the museum; intent but at ease and at home. And in a very real sense, he was home because Efren Reyes grew up in a pool hall, literally, making his bed in his uncle's pool hall in Metro Manila.
Mr. REYES: After the pool hall is closed, and then I sleep on the top of the table. And then in the morning, I wake up if I want to sleep more, then I sleep under the table, yeah.
SULLIVAN: Reyes started playing pool when he was eight. He could barely see over the table, he says, so he got a couple of empty Coke cases and stood on those to practice. And it didn't take long for him to decide to make a career of it.
Mr. REYES: I saw a lot of pool player, and if they win, they making money. That's why I have to learn too because I want to make money too. I practice by myself like six in the morning until nine in the morning. And then after closing time, I start again practicing before I sleep.
SULLIVAN: By high school, Reyes was a serious money player. He had a backer who would pick him up after school at three. And then, Reyes says, they'd go looking for a game. Sometimes he'd play all night long and get dropped off back at school just before the bell. When he finally ran out of Filipinos willing to play him, Reyes decided to try his luck in the U.S.
And in 1985 entered Red's Nine-ball Open in Houston, Texas, entering under a phony name, Cesar Morales, in case they'd already heard of Efren Reyes. Fellow foe, Rodney "The Rocket" Morris.
Mr. RODNEY MORRIS (Pool Player): In Texas, they had all the, you know, Spanish guys, so he just blended in and he just never said a word. You know, he pretended, and he let other people do the talking for him and nobody ever knew he spoke a word of English. And he just beat everybody. They're like, who's this Mexican guy beating everybody? So he was just going around the country and robbing everybody.
SULLIVAN: Reyes was dominant in the late '80s and '90s, winning dozens of tournaments in the U.S. where people were still getting their heads around the idea of a foreigner - from the Philippines, no less - beating them in what was considered an American game. And it was in the U.S. that Reyes was dubbed the Magician, an acknowledgment of his unparalleled shot-making skills.
Mr. RALF SOUQUET (Pool Player): He's a genius when it comes to this. He knows shots and he plays shots that nobody else does.
SULLIVAN: German player and former world champion, Ralf "The Kaiser" Souquet.
Mr. SOUQUET: He can see shots in his mind and his brain, three or four shots ahead. I mean, we all try to do it, but he sees different shots. He sees different patterns and different paths than we do. And he's by far the best cue ball control; the cue ball seems to be his.
SULLIVAN: Souquet says it's no accident that Reyes also enjoys and excels at playing chess. The American player Rodney "The Rocket" Morris says Reyes has helped change the way pool is played.
Mr. MORRIS: He's just got so much more knowledge than everybody. A lot of the stuff you see players do know is a lot of stuff they've seen him do. People do amazing things all the time, but he seems to always do it at the magical moment when you really need it, you know, in the last game of the final match. You know, it's the timing of everything is what makes it magic.
Unidentified Man#3: Ladies and gentlemen, a very warm welcome to the 2006 Philippines World Pool Championship.
SULLIVAN: Filipinos take their pool seriously, and for many Efren Reyes is a god. A poor boy who's made it big with a big heart, not a big head and the man many came to see at the year-ending tournament in Manila.
Unidentified Man#3: It's now time to meet our players. In fact, it's time to meet a legend. Ladies and gentlemen, from Angeles City in the beautiful Philippines, (speaking foreign language), numero uno - ladies and gentlemen, it's the Magician, Efren "Bata" Reyes.
(Soundbite of applause)
SULLIVAN: But even the Magician admits that at 52 his powers are beginning to fade. His body is failing; his hands shake. But he still managed to take home pool's biggest paycheck ever last September, when he beat Rodney "The Rocket" Morris of the world eight ball championships in Reno and walked away with a $500,000 first prize.
(Soundbite of billiard balls)
In the tournament in Manila though, his magic failed him. The pockets were tight and Reyes even tighter. Nervous, he admitted later, about playing it home in front of so many fans. He lost in the quarterfinals. But there was a silver lining for the fans. The man who beat him was another Filipino, Ronnie Alcano, who went on to defeat German Ralf Souquet in the final.
Souquet still thinks Efren Reyes is the best he's ever seen. And so does Rodney "The Rocket" Morris.
Mr. MORRIS: He is the greatest player to ever play the game and he will go down as the greatest. And I'm glad that in my life I got to see three great players: Efren Reyes, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. And I can die happy, being a sports guy.
SULLIVAN: Tiger Woods, of course, isn't done and neither is the Magician, Efren Reyes. To prove it, he was in Louisville, Kentucky, two weeks ago for the Derby City Classic and walked away with a title he's already won there three times before, a title that's also an apt description of him - master of the table.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: And this MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renée Montagne.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.