Sport March 2005

The Magician

The world's best pool player sees shots no one else can

At midnight on a bitterly cold January 15 the lobby of the Executive West Hotel near the Louisville, Kentucky, airport was crowded with men and a few women, all waiting anxiously for the guest of honor.

A man in a yellow windbreaker came through the front door and walked toward the registration desk. A murmur rose from the crowd. Everyone stared at him, a small brown man with slitlike eyes, a wispy Fu Manchu moustache, and no front teeth. He wore a soiled T-shirt and wrinkled, baggy jeans. He moved hunched over, his eyes lowered.

People clustered around him. Men flipped open their cell phones and called their friends to say "He's here!" They introduced him to their girlfriends. The man looked embarrassed. Another man thrust his cell phone at him and said, "Please say hello to my son; he's been waiting up all night." The small man mumbled a few words in broken English. Then the hotel clerk asked him his name. He said, "Reyes." Someone called out, "Just put down 'the Magician.'"

Efren Reyes, fifty, was born in poverty, the fifth of nine children, in a dusty little town in the Philippines without electricity or running water. When he was five, his parents sent him to live with his uncle, who owned a pool hall in Manila. Efren cleaned up the pool hall and watched. He was fascinated by the way the players made the balls move around the table and fall into pockets—and by the way money changed hands after a game. At night he slept on a pool table and dreamed of combinations. He had mastered the game in his head before he finally picked up a pool cue, at the age of eight. He stood on a pile of Coke crates to shoot, two hours in the morning and two hours at night. At nine he played his first money game, and at twelve he won $100; he sent $90 home to his family. Soon he was the best pool shooter in Manila. His friends would wait for him in the pool hall after school, hand him his cue when he walked in the door, and back him in gambling games. He was the best pool shooter in the Philippines when he quit school, at fifteen. By the time he was in his twenties, no one in the Philippines would play him any longer, so he toured Asia. He wrote down in a notebook the names of the best pool shooters in the world, and proceeded to beat them one by one. He became a legend. People who had seen him play recounted the impossible shots he had made. They called him a genius, the greatest pool shooter who had ever lived. Even people who had never seen him play, including many in the United States, soon heard the legend of Efren Reyes, "the Magician."

In 1985 a small brown man, a stranger, entered Red's pool hall and nightclub, in Houston, Texas. He said he was Cezar Morales, and he offered to play all comers. Over the next twenty-one days he played the best pool shooters in the Southwest, and won $81,000. The players he beat argued among themselves about who was the better pool shooter, Cezar Morales or the legendary Efren Reyes. Shortly before he returned to the Philippines, they learned that Morales and Reyes were one and the same.

Over the next eighteen years Reyes won every major pool tournament and title in the world: the U.S. Open, the Challenge of Champions, the World Pool League Championship. He was named Player of the Year in 1995, and World Champion in 1999. He won the biggest prize in all of pool—$160,000—in Japan, $100,000 in Hong Kong, and around $50,000 in a number of other tournaments. The Philippines Jaycees named him an "outstanding Filipino," and the government awarded him the Philippines Legion of Honor. He endorsed McDonald's, and Puyat sporting goods, and San Miguel beer. One of the first things visitors see when they enter the Manila airport is the image of Efren Reyes. His closest friend was Fernando Poe Jr., who campaigned for the presidency of the Philippines before his recent death.

Reyes and about 600 other pool shooters, mostly men, had come to the Executive West in Louisville to compete in the Derby City Classic pool tournament, three events over nine days, for prize money totaling more than $180,000. They warmed up on seven practice tables off the Boozeseller Lounge, and played their games on twenty-eight tournament tables in a huge conference room down a long hallway. The first event consisted of nine-ball bank games, in which the object ball must hit at least one cushion before being pocketed; the second of one-pocket games, in which each player picks a corner pocket and must deposit all his balls in that pocket; and the third of nine-ball games, in which the balls must be shot in order, 1 to 9, with the last being the money ball. The winners and high finishers in each event were eligible for the overall best-in-tourney prize of $20,000.

The Derby City Classic is not like most other tournaments—or even matches seen on ESPN, with the referees in black tuxedos, and a ring of polite, hushed fans. The DCC is a gambler's event; the players are less interested in the tournament matches that end at midnight than in the gambling games that run from midnight until 7:00 a.m., or the craps games and Texas Hold 'Em poker that run twenty-four hours a day in the hotel rooms.

The DCC is nine days of hustling pool, cards, and dice for men with such nicknames as Shannon the Cannon, the Scorpion, Scott the Shot, Kid Delicious, Spanish Mike, Goose, the Hurricane, Kid Confidence, the Killer Pixie, and Piggy Banks, and a few women—called, say, the Black Widow or Ming.

I found Spanish Mike, Reyes's trusted adviser, having breakfast in the hotel restaurant. He is a big-bellied man of seventy, from Philadelphia by way of Puerto Rico. "Efren is a poor loser," he told me. "When he plays for money, his eyes get like a snake's. That's his strength, the money. And his knowledge. Sometimes I don't see a shot, but I see his eyes going fast and I know he sees one. Efren is a genius."

Tournament action was in full sway on all twenty-eight tables in the conference room. Spectators drifted from table to table, watching the action, or sat on folding chairs against the walls. On a raised platform at one side of the room Scott the Shot, the tourney emcee, spoke into his microphone: "All starting times are approximate. If the schedules on the wall read ten a.m., the match could start at five p.m. 'Approximate' means within twenty-four hours." Scott the Shot—Scott Smith—is fifty-seven, with a spiky gray crew cut; he wore a shiny gray suit and a tie showing Bugs Bunny playing pool.

Ming, in black silk pants, flounced around coquettishly at Table 13. The Black Widow, Jeanette Lee, was practicing with her husband, George Breedlove, on Table 25. She wore a tight black sweater with a rhinestone black widow spider on it. Earl "the Pearl" Strickland played on Table 4. A long, lean North Carolinian who was considered the best nine-ball player of the 1990s, he had hit a dry spell that made him touchy and suspicious. He has a reputation for arguing with referees and fans, who, he claims, "laugh at me." At Table 10 was Johnny Archer, the Scorpion, a hunched, sinister-looking man with a black pirate's goatee who was voted Player of the Decade for the 1990s. Ralf Souquet, a trim, bald little man who resembles Tweety Bird, was playing on Table 9. A thirty-five-year-old from Germany, he was the 1996 World Pool Association world nine-ball champion. Reyes played a twenty-one-year-old from Ohio on Table 8. This was the young Ohioan's first tournament—"and I drew the number-one player in the world," he said, trying not to hyperventilate. It didn't help that Reyes had drawn a small crowd, which applauded his masterly shots and laughed at his self-deprecation. Reyes smiled when he missed a shot, scratched his scalp, slumped down in his chair between shots, and hung his head as if he were the most pitiful pool shooter in the world. But his disconsolation was not an act; his Filipino friends say he's a simple, humble guy who's astonished by his fame.

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