Beyond The Magician's Veil: Who Is Efren 'Bata' Reyes?
In 2017, Efren “Bata” Reyes tugged on our heartstrings when he confessed that he was no longer the great “Magician” that the world of billiards came to know. "Akala nila magaling pa ako,” he said in a report by ABS-CBN. “May partida na nga ako sa kanila. Marami nang magaling ngayon. Ako na pinapatok ng mga kalaban.” (“They think I still play great. I already have a disadvantage over others. There are many good players now. They’re making a meal out of me.”)
Nothing is more heartbreaking than your hero saying these words of resignation with a hint of bitterness for the sport he dominated for decades. But, true to his character, he offers a disarming smile—his other weapon—to dispel our bitterness about his confession. It’s as if he was saying, “That’s life.”
Reyes earned his nickname “The Magician” because of the seemingly impossible pool tricks he played on his opponents. Legend has it that he is always eight moves ahead of his opponents. He studies the pool and predicts the shots. But now, he faces his toughest opponent yet, which is time.
"Itong laro ko, marami pa akong nakakalaban. Pero pag di ko na kaya, kamukha nito, masakit na ang kamay ko, medyo mahina na rin ang mata ko, hindi natin alam kung hihinto na ako pagtapos nito o next year. O baka pwede pa ako next year, sa susunod. Nagkaka-edad na eh,” said Reyes in an interview with Spin.ph.
("In this sport, I have played many opponents. But when I can no longer play, like now when my hands hurt, and my eyesight is already poor, we don't know whether I'll retire right after this or maybe next year. Or I might still be able to play next year, or the year after. I'm getting old.")
Reyes is easily in league with the world’s top athletes, with many sports analysts considering him as the greatest billiards player of all time. Many people might think that, considering Reyes’ 70 international titles, including his four-time World Eight-Ball Championship titles, he is up there rolling in cash with the likes of other all-time greats such as Manny Pacquiao, Tiger Woods, and Michael Phelps. In truth, billiards champions get paid a pittance compared with top athletes from more popular sports.
In 2017, Reyes lamented the rising cost of participating in a tournament, which usually cost $5,000 for airfare and accommodation. The prize for third placers at the time was only $5,000, meaning you’d breakeven if you had no sponsors. At the height of billiards’ popularity, the top prize at tournaments was usually $100,000. These days, that’s down to $30,000 at most. In 2011, he pocketed a winning purse of $8,000 when he won the U.S. Open One Pocket Championship.
Efren 'Bata' Reyes is every Filipino who pulled themselves out of poverty.
Reyes was born to a poor family in a small town in Pampanga. He is the fifth in nine children. They lived in a small house without electricity and running water. When Reyes turned five years old, his parents decided to send him to his uncle in Manila. That’s when Reyes’s fate changed.
His uncle owned a billiards hall, where Reyes helped out by cleaning pool tables. He naturally became obsessed with billiards and spent many hours watching players make mistakes. It was these mistakes that he studied closely. He was also thrilled to see players make balls move around obstacles and into pockets. By age eight, Reyes tried his hand at billiards. He stood on crates of Coca-Cola to reach the table, and by age nine, he played his first-ever match with a money bet. When he was 12, he was already one of Manila’s best pool players. He participated in a tournament and won a cool $100 prize money. He kept $10 and sent the rest to his family in Pampanga.
This became his routine: After school, he would run back to his uncle’s billiards hall and play endless billiards, at times sacrificing homework for pool. Three years later, he would drop out of high school and pursue billiards. At 15, Reyes was already the most notorious billiards player of the Philippines, reports The Atlantic.
His moniker “Bata” was given to him not because he was such a good pool player at such a young age, but because there was another person named Efren who also played pool.
It came to a point that Reyes’ notoriety for billiards became so widespread in the Philippines that no one played him anymore. In his 20s, Reyes decided that the Philippines was a small pond and wanted to go out into the ocean, so he joined tournaments in Asia.
According to The Atlantic, Reyes kept a notebook, which was a hit list of sorts. Here, he wrote the names of the world’s best pool players, and crossed them out when he beat them. One by one, the world’s greatest pool shooters fell to this unknown kid from the Philippines, whom they described as the greatest pool shooter who ever lived. Soon, Reyes’s name earned mythical status worldwide, such that even the best shooters avoided him. This led to a mischievous trick he played on the billiards world in 1985.
He used a different name to confuse players in 1985.
Knowing that he was already famous worldwide for his ungodly skills in pool, Reyes decided to use an alias in 1985 to throw off players from avoiding him. Instead of going by his real name, he used the name of his best friend, Cesar Morales, and surprised players at the Red's Open 9-Ball Tournament in Houston, Texas. For 21 days, he beat every unsuspecting challenger who did not know they were actually playing the legendary shooter from the Philippines. The unbeaten Reyes ended up hauling $81,000 back home to the Philippines.
When he got home, it was only then that the Americans discovered that Cesar Morales and Efren Reyes were the same person!
Where is Efren 'Bata' Reyes now?
These days, in his twilight years, the legendary Reyes no longer plays pool. In the world of billiards, Reyes is held in such reverence and worship that he still gets invited to tournaments, even if he does not play. The games have changed, and the champion admits that his signature 9-ball is no longer as popular as before, replaced with one-pocket, which disregards the safety and defense aspect of 9-ball.
At 63, he has given much, carving the country's reputation as a billiards powerhouse.
At present, Reyes lives in his home in Angeles, Pampanga, where he likes to spend time with his family and grandchildren. He was reported to have gifted a pool table to his grandchild Nichole, who he described as having potential at pool for her good form and aim.
As for the future of billiards, Reyes humbly looks to the younger generation to keep the Philippines’ torch alight. "Maraming mga bata na magdadala at itutuloy ang billiards para sa amin at para sa akin. Siguro ako, tapos na ako sa billiards, dapat gampanan nila at asikasuhin nila ang paglalaro. Kailangan gawin nila yung nangyari at ginawa ko,” he said in an interview with Spin.ph.
("There are many kids who will carry on and continue playing billiards for us at for me. As for me, I guess I'm done with billiards, they should step up and keep playing. They need to do what I did and accomplished.")
Reyes’ star may be fading as the dominant player in the world of pool, but his legacy as the humblest, simplest, and unassuming world champion, with his ever-disarming toothless smile, will always be the face of Filipino sportsmanship amid the aggressiveness and abrasiveness of most sports legends.