Dubai: The greatest pool player of all time is sitting at a corner, eyes shut. It’s 11am and we’re at Impulse Billiards Café by Knight Shot in Dubai where Efren Bata Reyes was a guest at a recent 10 Ball Championship.
His manager apologetically tells us Reyes was up all night, playing a friendly game of pool with local players. “He can’t help it. That’s how much he loves the game,” the manager tells me.
I sit next to Reyes, trying to sense the 63-year-old master pool player’s mood. “What’s this interview all about?” Reyes tells me in a sleepy voice, eyes still shut and arms crossed across his chest. “I just want to know what’s new with you, and perhaps you can show us a trick shot or two for the camera,” I say.
“Trick shots? Oh no, I don’t think I can do that,” he says. I glance a worried look at his manager. I am already thinking of Plan B for my #Pinoy feature.
The receptionists brings us our coffee. None for Reyes, though. He gets up instead and grabs a cold bottle from the refrigerator and takes a few gulps. Then he strolls to the pool table and picks up a cue stick. He literally springs to life.This is undoubtedly his game.
“Let’s start,” he says, suddenly cracking a big, infectious smile. He is jolly and animated now, almost dancing his way around the pool table. He is also game for my questions as he plays a friendly against one of the guests at the café.
We get a glimpse of the easy going Reyes who remains playful even if he has big shot awards to his name: four-time World Eight-ball champion, 1999 WPA World Nine-ball champion, three-time US Open winner, two-time World Pool League winner and 14-time Derby City Classic winner.
The UAE pool scene
Reyes is no stranger to the UAE pool scene, and had been coming here since 2004 at the peak of his career. “I was invited to demonstrate the game of Nine Ball because that time it was a completely new concept here,” he says, adding that the game has attracted both local and expatriate players here, particularly Filipinos who grew up watching him take pool, or billiards as it is popularly known in the Philippines, to an international level.
The first World Eight Ball Tournament in the UAE was held in Fujairah, he says, admitting he can’t remember the year but remembers how all the world’s best players gathered in the emirate. After guesting in Dubai and watching the championship in Fujairah, he came back to compete that next year, he says.
Reyes rose to celebrity status in the pool scene by winning more than 70 international championships. Numerous professional players have credited Reyes with being the greatest living pool player in the world. But it was his trick shots during crucial games that made him extra famous.
“My trick shots just come out naturally during the game,” he says, adding that he learned them from studying how beginners play. “They don’t know what they’re doing, so they do all kinds of shots,” he says.
Reyes says he was introduced to the game of pool at the age of 5. “I watched my neighbours play and I just loved the friendly vibe of the sport,” he says. Unfortunately, he was too short to reach the pool table. “At one point, I had to climb up a soft drink container to reach the table,” he says.
When he was 8 years old and taller, that was when he started regularly playing in their neighbourhood, he says. He played in the local billiards circuit from the 60s to the 70s until he was discovered by promoters and played in big-time tournaments.
Speak softly and carry a big stick
Danilo Cruz, a pool enthusiast and Reyes’ friend, says the champion player still makes time for anyone who wants to learn the sport.
Cruz says Reyes travels to parts of the Philippines when fans come calling. “Whoever approaches him to play billiards with him, even in remote towns in the Philippines, he always make time to play with them,” he says, describing Reyes as a “humble, very friendly and happy guy”.
“We’re so proud of him. In 1995, he went to America just to prove to everyone in the world that a Filipino player is better. And he has proven himself with more than 70 championships to his name,” Cruz says, “a lot of billiard enthusiasts will still see him for 10 years more.”
Not ready to retire
Reyes echoed the same sentiment, saying he is not yet ready to retire. “I am not retired yet because I can still play. When my hands start shaking and my eyesight isn’t as sharp, then that is when I’ll stop playing professional pool,” the 63-year-old says.
Is there anyone out there who might be the next Efren Bata Reyes?
“I don’t really know because there are a lot of really good young players now. Perhaps the next one should also be named Efren!” he quips.