THE STUFF OF DREAMS… AGAIN
15 Oct 2007
(Manila, Philippines) -- It was the stuff of wild and surreal dreams of every professional pool player. To play for their sport’s top honor in a colorful, exotic land where the game has roots stretching back over a century, and is firmly entrenched in the national psyche; where their typically anonymous careers were cast aside, and they were feted like Hollywood celebrities by a warm and hospitable people; where the high level of drama and competition brought on an atmosphere akin to what pool would look like if it were played in the Olympics.
Sure Cardiff, Wales got the job done for five years. And two years in Taiwan provided an exotic, if somewhat utilitarian, Asian flavor. But when the World Pool Championship finally made its first ever stop in the Philippines last November, the pool world had never seen anything like it. Barry Hearn, the flamboyant chairman of Matchroom Sport, and the promoter of the World Pool Championship, put it best when he said: “Having the World Pool Championship in the Philippines is like bringing the sport back to where it all began.”
Indeed. Although Filipinos didn’t invent pool, the sport has a long history in the Philippines, stretching all the way back to the 19th century and the Spanish era. Of course it was the American version of pool that caught on in this tropical archipelago, this land where America once tried to remake the populace in their red, white and blue image. Predictably, the Americans failed to turn Filipinos into Americans, but they left a taste in Filipinos for nearly all things American, including pool. As those newcomers to Manila quickly found out, the American game of pool is loved and played at all levels of Philippine society, and is firmly entrenched in the cultural fabric like no other place on earth.
How good was it last year? Ask Tony Crosby what it was like. During the group stages, the English-American battled Efren Reyes in a prime time televised pressure cooker that had more twists and turns than a Kevin Trudeau contract. After emerging with an improbable, heart stopping win over the Magician, Crosby became an instant celebrity throughout the nation. Yes, you heard that right. The personable Crosby couldn’t go anywhere, even in a shopping mall, for the next few days without being asked for his autograph.
But it wasn’t just the tournament and the rabid Philippine fans. The action on the side has already become the stuff of legend. In particular the One Side pool hall in the Malate section of Manila saw some of the greatest pool room action in the history of the sport. Anybody who could withstand the fog of cigarette smoke at the One Side was treated to every salivating match up they could ever dream of. Money was flying faster than a Tony Drago vs. Luke Salvas match after you push the fast forward button. Some people claim the action at One Side was better than the tournament itself.
For pool players and fans this is some heady stuff, something akin to a billiard fantasyland. Pool players as celebrities? Top notch action around the clock? ‘Pinch us,’ they say, ‘we must be dreaming.’
Well anyone who was there knows it was certainly no dream. It was as real and as palpable as Earl Strickland’s anger at the Taiwanese when they hogged the practice tables in Khaosiug in 2005.(He was seriously pissed.) And here’s something even better; it’s coming around the bend again in just three weeks time. And the event already promises to outdo last year’s version. How is this possible? Check this out.
The venue for the tournament has been changed from the intimate Philippine International Convention Center(PICC) to the legendary Araneta Coliseum, the very building where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier battled in their classic third encounter back in 1975. That fact alone should tell you that this year’s WPC is poised for fireworks. To this day, “The Thrilla in Manila” is still considered one of the greatest heavyweight fights in the history of the sweet science.
Actually, when I first heard about the plan to hold the WPC at the cavernous Araneta, I didn’t think it would work. The place holds over 20,000 people and seems more suited for basketball games and concerts, which are the usual fare there. But I’ve seen the engineering plans and I’m here to tell you that the pool world will have never seen anything like it. They’re going to build raised platforms in the stands for the six outside tables and put two TV tables on the floor. The configuration means they can accommodate upwards of 6000 people a day. Seeing as the Araneta sits right in the middle of one of the busiest sections of Manila, they all might very well show up. The last time pool saw many thousands show up for a tournament, America had just emerged from the Great War(that’s World War I.)
And for sure what the fans will see will be a much more pressure packed tournament. Promoter and organizer Matchroom Sport has finally acceded to the clamor of hard core pool fans and restored the winner breaks format for the entire tournament, including in the group stages. This is sure to elevate the drama and pressure. With winner breaks, expect a good old fashioned shootout this year.
The talent level is sure to rise this year as well. Apparently the word has spread far and wide about the fun everyone was having in Manila last year, how accommodating Filipinos were to the pool players, the surreal money game action, the beautiful women who seem to have a thing for famous pool players, the cheap living. Now everyone wants to be a part of the action. Taiwan is sending a contingent of over 40 players just to the qualifiers alone. Japan is said to be sending over 30 players to try and qualify. The Americans already have 15 confirmed for the field of 128, and others are supposedly coming to the qualifiers. You’ll even see players from remote pool countries like Nicaragua, Eritrea and Iran. (Yes, you’d be surprised at the rising quality of Islamic billiards.)
Of course the Philippine contingent will be a powerhouse and a heavy favorite. Forget for a moment about the dozen or so Filipino stars who are all a threat to take the title. The Philippines has legions of solid players, most of whom few outside the country have ever heard of. All of them are dreaming big too. With the holding of the WPC in Manila last year, a giant fuse was lit under the local pool scene. Tournaments big and small are being held weekly now and Filipino players can now earn their livings right here at home.
Having the World Pool Championship in their backyard offers the chance of a lifetime for these young unknowns. In the past, travel abroad for these invariably poor kids has been but a dream. Visas requests are usually rejected by foreign embassies and, even if they’re granted, the money for travel, hotels and food is impossible to cobble together. Now, however, a player just has to spend P7(.16 cents) for a passenger jeepney and he can claim glory for himself and his country.
And in what amounts to a sort of reverse exodus of the overseas contract worker phenomenon, dozens of Filipino pros who make their livings overseas teaching and playing pool in outposts like Dubai, Kuwait and Japan, will be returning home to try and qualify. Now there’s a twist for you. Pool has actually helped bring Filipino families back together and reversed the so-called “brain drain.”
As with last year’s tournament, a certain fascinating intangible this November will unquestionably be the metropolis known as Metro Manila. Sprawling, chaotic, steamy, teeming with life and hordes of unwashed, this sometimes hardcore Southeast Asian capital can seem altogether intimidating at first, even on the verge of careening out of control, especially to those used to more orderly environs. Furthermore the weather is humid and often stormy this time of year. Clearly Manila can take some getting used to.
Which is why if you’re thinking about coming over here, my recommendation is to get here well beforehand. Anyway, the action starts early this year. Filipino boxing great Manny Pacquiao is sponsoring a $50,000 open 9-ball tournament which begins October 24th in Manila. The One Side is already picking up and a new pool hall which is seeing action, Fusion, has opened up down the street with all Brunswick tables. (By the way, I’ll give you a little inside tip. Pacquiao just earned $7 million in his latest fight. He loves to play pool and bets heavily. Get to know him if you see him around. It could be very worth it.)
Yes, Manila is ready to once again welcome players and fans to this perfect pool players town; loose, inexpensive, with temptation popping its head up around every corner; from money games, to card games, to casinos, to cockfights, to all night parties and, yes, ladies who want nothing more than to meet a dashing pool star, it’s always a hoot to see who can handle this pool player’s paradise. Believe me, when it’s Christmas everyday, it takes a certain level of stamina to withstand it.
This is sure to be a fun few weeks.
Ted Lerner is the author of the books “Hey, Joe-- a slice of the city, an American in Manila,” and “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers—sex, death life…on the road in Asia.” He has lived in the Philippines since 1995 and has covered pool as a writer and TV commentator for many years. He will be reporting several times weekly from Manila up to and through this year’s Philippines World Pool Championship which runs from November 3rd-11th.
Aside from covering pool, Ted also regularly writes for The Ring Magazine, the bible of boxing, and is a familiar figure in boxing bouts held in the Philippines as a ring announcer.
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