Oh, This Shark Has Missing Teeth, Dear
ANGELES CITY, the Philippines, Feb 16, 2002 : In the back of a dim two-table pool hall behind the bus station, a funny-looking man with no front teeth is practicing trick shots with his cronies. The yellow one-ball flies through the air and bounces along the concrete floor: a miss. ”Wow!” the man cries, and he throws back his head and laughs.
People are billiards-crazy here in Nita’s snack shop and pool hall, with its plates of cold fried fish and shelves of cigarettes, beer and canned mackerel. There is billiards on television, too, a replay of a championship match last November. ”The Maestro,” announces the commentator. ”He is showing in the final just why he is one of the sport’s greatest players. Truly, he is a magician.”
Wait! It’s the same funny-looking man on television — the same mussed-up hair, the same hopeless little mustache, the same goofy grin: Efren Reyes, maybe the world’s best pool player at the moment and the biggest money winner in the sport.
Men in T-shirts stare up at his image on the television screen, but Mr. Reyes is unimpressed. ”Well, I know already what will happen,” he says.
O.K., but still, how does it feel to be the Maestro, to be at the top of the world? How does it feel to be so good that nobody in the Philippines will play against you?
MR. REYES leans his cue against the dirty green wall and looks around at his friends and their squat brown bottles of San Miguel beer. ”I feel,” he says, ”oh, like a big man!” He raises both fists into the air. ”Yee-hee!”
In the space of eight days last November, Mr. Reyes, 47, won two of the biggest billiards championships in the world, in Warsaw and Tokyo, taking home from the second match the richest prize in the sport: $160,000.
On television he looks cold and dangerous, his eyes narrowed as he calculates his shots. He has the eerie genius of a chess player, visualizing the lay of the balls not just two or three shots ahead but 10 or 15.
But here in his sister’s shop, in his denim shorts and slippers, he looks like just another loafer, tucking the front of his dirty T-shirt under his belt as he begins to play.
”You want to have a contest eating hot soup with him?” asks a friend, Rico Bautista. ”He’ll beat you. Nobody can beat him.”
Mr. Reyes is proud of that championship, too. But it’s the silvery fried fish he likes best. ”Boy, you eat this one, you play pool good,” he says, dipping a morsel into vinegar and chili, then wiping his hands on his pants.
He has another formula for winning. ”If I’m playing tomorrow,” he says, ”I don’t drink for one day.” Also, for the length of a tournament — his private superstition — he stays away from the shower.
It is not the first time Mr. Reyes has seemed to be two different people.
In 1985, when nobody outside the Philippines knew him, he went to the United States to hustle money in betting games. In Houston he played under the name of a friend, Cesar Morales. In Las Vegas he was Efren Reyes again. When he went home 21 days later, he said, he and his backers had earned $81,000 and everybody in America knew who he was.
Or they thought they knew. Some said Cesar Morales was the hot new player. Some said Efren Reyes. The disputes became fierce, he said, until people realized they had been snookered by the same fellow.
It was on another trip to the United States that he finally rid himself of those awful nuisances, his false front teeth. He had lost the real ones, one by one, when dentists decided it was easier to pull than drill.
”Used to be I got teeth,” said Mr. Reyes, explaining the gap beneath his upper lip. ”In June 1995, when I’m going to the United States for a tournament, the stewardess brings me beef. When I eat the beef, my teeth go out and the people around me, everyone is laughing.” So he went to the toilet and flushed them down the drain, a great relief.
Mr. Reyes was 8 years old when he discovered the wonders of the game in the Manila pool hall owned by his uncle, the most prosperous member of a rural family that had never had the luxury of an extra peso.
”I watched my uncle play, and I saw people giving him money,” Mr. Reyes said. ”I liked that.” He climbed onto a drink carton and started learning shots. No one taught him; he watched, he imitated, he began to win.
TO hear him tell his tales, it is hustling that has given him his greatest pleasures, a skill he began to perfect as a boy, beating all comers at his uncle’s tables.
He says he loves that slow, dawning moment when people realize that they have been had and that their money is in his pocket.
”Sometimes I meet a good player and he’s hustling me, too,” Mr. Reyes said with a grin. ”He’s stalling. I’m stalling. I don’t want to show my speed.”
He spent his best pool years — between 18 and 24 — in lucrative obscurity. Then he suffered the worst fate the game can deliver to a hustler: he became famous.
”There’s this guy coming down from the mountains in Asia who can beat any American player,” he heard them saying. ”What’s the name? The name is Efren Reyes.”
So he quit billiards and took up a pool hall variation called carom ball until he became too good at that to find any takers. ”No more way to hustle,” he said. ”They all know me. Even in the mountains with no electricity.”
Almost as a last resort, he turned to international tournament play in 1985, at the age of 30. Even though his best years were behind him, he rose to the top.
This was a boon to his family, friends and hangers-on. In the Philippine tradition, Mr. Reyes said, he is now supporting more than 40 people — and still living among the chickens and fighting cocks at his family’s rural home.
In the limelight now, he earned a new nickname, the Magician, for his ability to visualize and execute extraordinary shots that took spectators by surprise. ”With my experience I can see every shot,” he said. ”If I’m in good condition, I can make it.”
He is also a disciplined player. Always take the easy shot, he said. ”I can make the hard shots, but not every time. Better to take the top shot.”
Like other great champions, he has another driving quality: he hates to lose.
It can be a little irritating to his friends. ”When we are playing mah-jongg, you will notice that if he is losing he will be in a bad mood,” said Lito Sagmit, a driver at a local casino. ”He will throw the bricks. He’ll say, ‘Here, take my seat.’ ”
Sometimes, before a big match, Mr. Reyes has a horrible dream. He dreams that he is losing. ”So the next day at the tournament I concentrate so that will not happen,” he said. ”I concentrate because I’m scared to lose.”
And if his awful dream comes true and he does lose, he said, ”I feel ashamed.”
”I get mad at myself,” he said. ”Gee, what went wrong with me? How could I lose? I don’t really accept that I lose. I am thinking, ‘Next time, next time I got you.’ ‘
Copyright The New York Times