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FHM Longform: Whatever Happened To The Billiards Scene?

Efren 'Bata' Reyes is old and his eyesight is failing. The pool halls aren't as cool to hang out in. We're still looking for the new cue king. What happened?
by John Paulo Aguilera | Sep 12, 2016
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The big three of basketball, boxing, and billiard have always lorded over the local sports scene. Save the cult favorites sabong and horseracing for the old manongs, these three taken together amount to every street nook and cranny of this country turning into a sporting venue.

Basketball is basketball. It is our national obsession. What we lack in height, we make up for with puso.

Boxing is boxing because, well, we have Manny Pacquiao. But he's a Philippine senator now. He has just unretired to fight WBO welterweight champion Jessie Vargas on November 5. Make no mistake, though: His days as the best fighter of this generation will soon be over—and the ending is not as sweet as we would like it to be—but he will leave the arena assured of his place in the pantheon of boxing champions.

Pinoy boxing will not die with him, of course. Somewhere right now, another kid is wearing his training gloves, dreaming to fight his way out of poverty, just like Manny.

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Billiards is...whatever the hell happened to billiards.

Efren "Bata" Reyes used to be a sports/rock star. His international victories a decade or so ago spawned countless pool halls across the country, sparking a new trend in weekend youth nights out.

Now billiards has sort of lost its pop appeal, trudging back to its hustling roots. Bata Reyes's days may now be over as he ages and his eyesight slowly fades. Now we're left looking for a new star.

The Filipino talent pool (pun intended) isn’t the problem. In fact, through the years, it has been nothing short of brimming. These days, kids as young as seven are taught how to wield cue sticks even as they learn the school basics. But at the end of the day, a lot of questions remain.

How would these talented newcomers break into the pro scene without the much-needed mileage? Will we ever see the heir to Efren?

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FHM delves into the current state of the billiards scene, from the varied perspectives of a sports pundit and an actual pool superstar, while examining how hard it is for the obscure but better local billiard players—let’s call them “lost souls”—to attain the level of success of their predecessors.

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A sport at par with every PBA game in terms of popularity, and as celebrated as each of Pacquiao’s championship belts, billiards has steadily been off the radar in recent years—except for Pinay pro Rubilen Amit making history as the first two-time World Champion in the world of women’s billiards, coming out on top of the Women’s World 10-ball Championship in 2009 and in 2013.

“It’s not as vibrant as before, kasi we don’t have the big tournaments that we used to have,” admits sports journalist TJ Manotoc, who once covered the billiards beat. “There was a time almost every year nasa atin ’yung World Pool Championships. Then I hear there were some tournaments na kahit papa’no well-sponsored naman, but even a year later, hindi pa nababayaran ’yung mga winners! These are international names who were just patient enough to try and wait, and wait it out. It's embarrassing. It's a chicken and egg scenario now—if there's no tournament, there's no sponsor, and vice versa.”

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Roberto “Superman” Gomez, 2007 WPA World Nine-ball Championship runner-up, seconds Manotoc’s claim.

“Sumusugal sila (sponsors) pag may makikita silang maganda. Siguro nakikita nila na hindi ganun ka-boom kung ii-sponsor-an nila yung sa bilyar kesa sa ibang sports tulad ng basketball o boxing,” Gomez says.

For what we call lost souls, on the other hand, “sponsors” refer to individuals who essentially place bets on these players and bankroll their competitions and tours.

Take for example Michael Baoanan, fondly known as “Mokong” in the billiards circle. A 24-year-old little-known bilyarista from San Pedro, Laguna, Mokong once defeated former Nine-ball (2006) and Eight-ball (2007) World Champion Ronnie "Volcano" Alcano in his first match against a pro. Michael was supposed to compete in a recent tournament organized by Pacquiao in General Santos City when his sponsor backed out three days before he was scheduled to fly out.

“Tulad namin na wala naman pang-pocket money sa sarili, lilipad papuntang GenSan, siyempre kailangan may magluwal ng pera. Kung wala ka namang sponsor, pa’no mo mapapasikat ’yung sarili mo kung (in the first place) hindi ka makakasali? Kung mga a week before niya ko sinabihan, nakakuha sana ako ng ibang sponsor.”

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Goes to show that sponsors—whether in a macro or micro sense—are the lifeblood of the sport.

“Wala tayong magawa. Hangga’t hindi tayo hahawakan ng sponsor, patay ’yung (bilyar), Sponsor ang bubuhay sa bilyar, hindi ang players,” Gomez asserts.

Like most youngsters new to the sport, Baoanan started out at eight years old with the Pinoy version of billiards, colloquially known as “pul,” which involved plastic puck-like disks—an oversized one serves as the cue puck—and a ton of cornstarch to make the table smooth for the pucks. He transitioned to regular tables when he turned 12, devoting all his adolescent years to billiard halls in the vicinity.

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While most students cut classes to play, “ako hindi na talaga napasok para magbilyar, ha ha!” Baoanan shares. He wasn’t able to finish high school but still managed to graduate from TESDA with a certificate in welding.

In billiards though, Baoanan didn’t need any schooling, as he was purely self-taught. He admitted that he once shunned someone who was trying to lecture him on the game’s rudiments. “Parang ayoko naman nang tinuturuan ako, parang medyo ma-pride kasi ako.”

Still, he was still able to hone his skills with constant playing, making a name for least in the amateurs. Baoanan fully embraced billiards as his livelihood when managers (in billiards, one could have as many) supported him in regular matches and out-of-town engagements.

While the thought of getting acquainted with other pool aces from all over the country and earning more cash could easily strike the fancy of someone who wishes to establish a reputation in the scene and have billiards as his bread and butter, cross-country trips aren’t always the thing. Michael recalls one particular billiards tour in Mindanao a couple of years ago that put him on edge. “Para kang ano eh… Maiisip mo na ’pag nanalo ka kung pwede ka pa bang makauwi? Lalo na ’pag ’di mo kabisado ’yung lugar!”

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The other side of the coin, though, is getting the chance to go up against the best, like that one time in 2013, wherein he finished as one of the Top 16 at a Philippine Open-type of tournament held in Cebu, which was participated in by 40 of the country's best and no-name billiards players.

Although that wasn’t the closest Michael came face-to-face with the sports’ big boys...



Those were Baoanan and Alcano’s scores, respectively, when they squared off against each other in a money game in the former’s hometown of Laguna a few years back.

Baoanan recalls his first match against a World Champion: “Yung laban namin, ayos lang, siyempre baluarte ko, kabisado ko yung mesa, ha ha!”

Perhaps having gotten used to being pitted against all sorts of pool players, versus the man known internationally as “The Volcano” didn’t come off as any different from all his previous games.

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“May mararamdaman kang ganun (starstruck) lalo na't first time mong makalaban, (tapos) professional di ba? Parang maninibago ka. Pero sa una lang. Pag pangalawang laban mo na, normal na lang,” he recalls. “Pero may makikita ka talaga sa kanya na galing na hindi mo pa nalalaman.”

Their money game ran like a normal 10-ball game, with the player to take 22 rounds winning. Matchups are usually based on skill level, with seasoned pros usually given handicap against unproven players. What made Baoanan’s victory over Ronnie more remarkable was that no handicaps were given during the game, except maybe home-court advantage.

As the name suggests, money games involve considerable amounts of cash. A player’s pay depends on his arrangement with his manager—most of the time a 70/30 manager/player split. Michael took home P6,000–side bets not included–from the game’s P22,000 pot.

You may wonder: Why do billiard hotshots the caliber of Alcano and even Reyes—as seen in the YouTube channel 69billiard—still go out of their way to swing by far-flung corners for something that has essentially no bearing for them, if they could just prepare for bigger competitions that entail bigger bucks?

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Other than of course the easy money, Baoanan believes, “Hilig nila eh. Tulad ko, hilig ko yung bilyar, kahit saan pwedeng pumunta (pag may laban).”

Manotoc found out a rather interesting rationale for this very much welcomed practice in his previous interviews.

“They were saying, ‘How can you train a player and put pressure on him, without a money game?’ Parang, sige train ka nang train for a big tournament, for example a World Championship, but how can you simulate the pressure that’s going to really put you to the test and see how good your nerves can be?” Manotoc says.

Manotoc feels that the money games represent the irony of billiards as a legitimate sport. Entrenched in the world of vices, most pool players couldn’t even be considered athletes, he opines.

“When the bright lights are on, it’s the prestige of these big-name tournaments, and yet, the big elephant in the room, everyone knows that after the official games are over, it’s back to money games.”

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He even goes as far as referring to legit tournaments as only the “sideline” in this competitive circle, with money games ending up as the real center of attraction.

Some pool vets, though, see the money game as an up-and-comer’s gateway to prominence.

A money game player himself, Gomez lays out this simple logic on why the popular match type is ideal for rising stars: “Habang nanalo ako, mas madali akong makahanap ng laban dahil yung sponsor nananalo sa’kin, pupustahan at pupustahan ako. Hanggang natatalo ako, nawawalan ako ng sponsor. So ang gagawin ko, magpa-practice ako nang magpa-practice.”

Gomez knows that every bilyarista aspires to become a World Champion one day. Yet he feels that lost souls nowadays like Mokong would rather focus on earning and bettering their lives first, instead of straightaway chasing that World Championship dream, given the current local billiard landscape.

“Gaya nilang walang experience sa mga nangyari sa amin, kuntento na sila sa mga money games, kuntento silang kumita sa mga maliliit na tournaments, na 40k ang premyo ng champion—masaya na sila. (Parang) yun na ang peak nila,” Gomez says, describing players nowadays as more “practical,” with fame the least of their concerns.

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With billiards success and recognition in the country either sporadic or elusive, the next step to financial prosperity according to him would most likely be to hustle outside the country, which almost all of our ’90s pool legends have already resorted to. Echoing OFWs, Gomez insists, “Hindi na kami dito (Philippines) umaasa.”

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Manotoc believes a renaissance is still possible. And the only way is to start these future billiard heroes young, under a solid National Sports Association grassroots program.

“These young guys strive and work hard, starting as the setter, the ball boy, and then they work their way up. I wish that these kids would realize that it’s a legit sport, they can play in the SEA Games, they can go to other countries to compete and represent the Philippines. So why not develop them? I think we need new billiards heroes to rise again, from the days o Efren, Django (Bustamante), and Alcano. I think we need new guys out there.”

Baoanan still plays in his hometown, on the exact pool tables he grew up with, from time to time. “Lalo pag may magandang laban, naiimbitahan pa rin kami sa exhibition game, ganun.”

With hopes of making it and being identified with the sport’s big leaguers, Mokong knows the fastest way to penetrate that illustrious posse is to consistently come out on top of tournaments, which he has yet to achieve.

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As cliché as it sounds, that means going back to the daily grind for him.

“Laban lang nang laban.

We asked Michael where does he think his career stands right now.

“Parating pa lang.”

Photography Paul Mondok

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