A BEER, A DATE, A BET, AND THE “AMERICAN” GAME OF POOL
18 Oct 2007
Angeles City, Philippines (Special to PhilBoxing.com) -- Last year’s World Pool Championship final in Manila featured two players, Ralf Souquet and Ronnie Alcano, who, on the surface, appeared to have little in common. In fact they and their respective countries, Germany and the Philippines, would appear to be polar opposites in just about everything. Except for one caveat that went largely unnoticed, however; both countries were introduced to the sport of pool through the long time presence of the American military in their respective nations. Indeed that’s what was so fascinating about last year’s final in Manila. Two great “American” pool playing countries doing battle for the world title.
It’s what happens when you have your military camped around the world. Your culture--the good, the bad and the ugly- goes with you. Imagine if peace miraculously ever does come to Iraq, 30 to 40 years from now you’ll probably see Iraqi pool players making big strides in the sport. Pool is one of the few American imports the fun-killing fundamentalists over there could probably tolerate. Chains of Hooters restaurants in Baghdad obviously won’t cut it.
In Germany most people could easily trace America’s version of pool back to 1945 and the end of World War II, when, after crushing the Germans, the Americans took up a prolonged residency. For the Philippines the beginnings are not so evident. Pool fans who have never been to the Philippines often wonder how it is that the sport became so vastly popular in this tropical Asian archipelago. Well, check your history folks. 99 out of 100 Americans probably have no clue that the Philippines was once an American colony.
Anyone seeking to unearth one of the reasons for the Filipinos' insatiable love of pool, need look no further than 80 kilometers north of Manila here to the former U.S. Clark Air Force Base, and the adjacent dusty, bustling, cow-town of Angeles City. You’ve heard of Angeles City right? Sure you have. That’s the hometown of the greatest player of all time; Efren “Bata” Reyes.
It all started way before Efren was even a gleam in his parents’ eyes. Way back in 1903, five years after the US had “bought” the Philippines from Spain, and just as the Americans were winding up a bloody war to suppress the Filipinos’ desire for nationhood, the US Calvalry came north from Manila looking for a wide open place to park their horses. They named this remote provincial outpost Ft. Stotsenburg.
Like everywhere else we go, we Americans say we’re only stopping in for a hello, a cold drink and a goodbye. Naturally we ended up staying for about 90 years, until we were forced out in 1991 by the Philippine Senate and the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo. In between these nine decades this horse park morphed into Clark Airbase, which eventually became the largest US Air force base outside the United States. Angeles City, which eventually developed to service the “needs” of the airmen, also became one of the great outposts of the “American” game of pool.
“Vegas” Dave Hamilton knows a few things about the history of pool in Angeles. Back in the early ‘70’s, he enlisted in the Air Force and first came to Clark in the mid 1970's. He describes himself then as a semi-pro pool player, winning championships on Air Force bases in Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, Texas, Germany and Clark in the Philippines. After the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 drove the Americans away, he stayed on and has made Angeles City his home. All in all, he’s been one of the top foreign pool players in Angeles for several decades.
Appropriately for this Sin City, we met up recently at a local girlie bar/ restaurant/pool room. Actually we sat in the restaurant/pool room while through the tinted glass we could watch several dozen bikini clad girls dance lazily to some disco music.
“Vegas” Dave carried with him a list he and some other retired military guys have been compiling of all the bars that were in existence back in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Vietnam was winding down, but the Cold War was still raging and the base was thriving. Outside the gates of the base in Angeles City, a raucous, low-rent, honky-tonk collection of nightclubs and girlie bars catered to GIs on what was publicly known as “R&R,”(Rest and Recreation) but more commonly and accurately known as “I &I”(Intercourse and Intoxication). While we talked Dave counted over 400 bars in existence back then, all of whom catered to testosterone raging GI's and a few wandering expats of varying nationalities. This was one of the greatest party towns in the history of the world with all the ingredients for the perfect night out; a cheap, ice cold beer; a game of pool; perhaps a little money action on the side; an easy date. Put them all together and you’ve summed up Angeles City in a proverbial nutshell.
Vegas Dave recalls that back when he first arrived in Clark, there were about a dozen pool tables in clubs on the Base, and a few more in the bars outside. However, the big game of recreation in the bars for the GI’s and expat civilians was darts. Sometime around 1978, however, the bars started taking out the darts and putting in pool tables. Within months nearly 100 bars had put in pool tables. Soon leagues started to spring up.
Interest in pool was so high that in 1982 Dave and a few other guys formed the Monday night Angeles City Pool League(ACPL). Soon other leagues followed; the Thursday night South Side Pool League, which, funnily enough, was played on the west side of town. Then there was the Wednesday afternoon Social Hotel League. All in all, these weekly pool leagues comprised well over 1500 guys, most of them US military personnel. No doubt it’s heartening to know for us Americans that our tax dollars at least weren’t going to waste.
“I've played pool in almost every part of the world,” Vegas Dave said, “and there's no place that could compare to Angeles in the 1980's.”
With nearly 800 weekly participants, the ACPL thought it would be a good idea to get sanctioned by the Billiard Congress of America(BCA). They wrote to the BCA informing them of their league and, as an afterthought, threw in a copy of their rules, which “Vegas” Dave and others on the committee had radically changed. The rules committee felt that the game of 8-ball, which was the one most widely played in Angeles City at the time, suffered from some serious shortcomings.
“There were no rules like ball in hand, or that a ball had to touch a rail after a shot,” Dave said. “And you had to call everything in those days. It was mostly the Aussies in the league. They would play dumb, petty shots and we had a lot of arguments and fights. We had to find a way to stop this chicken shit stuff.” And so the ACPL came up with some new rules, like ball in hand anywhere on the table after a foul, not having to call every shot, a ball having to hit a rail after making contact.
Eventually the BCA wrote back, informing them that they had been recognized, and that they also happened to be the largest known community pool league in the world. They didn’t hear any comments from the BCA regarding the league’s unique rule changes, but “Vegas” Dave insists that BCA adopted some of the ACPL’s rules.
“About a year later I walked into a bar in Angeles and noticed the updated BCA rules for 8-ball posted on the wall,” he said. “And wouldn’t you know it, a lot of the rules we had instituted were now part of the BCA rules.” Dave claims that 80% of the current rules of BCA 8-ball came from the ACPL back in the early 1980’s.
Tall stories being as common as the sunrise in these parts, I contacted rules guru Bob Jewitt in California for some insight on the matter. Offhand he had no direct knowledge of any of the rules of 8-ball coming from Angeles City at that time. However, he did note that the rules of the game have changed often over the years and that it was possible the Americans in the Philippines had some say in those changes.
Whatever the case, Angeles City was clearly one of the world’s strongholds for the “American” game of pool. Of course this reputation was helped along by a certain young gun named Efren Reyes, whose rising standing as a player of unequal anywhere was spread in the dingy girlie bars of Angeles, where he would help the military men part with those coveted greenbacks.
“He never missed,” said Dave, who also co-owned the Barbary Coast bar back then. “He was so laid back. He played in flip flops and cut off shorts. His quality was above anything I encountered anywhere. He was 25% higher level than anyone in the States. In those days Efren would come in to play and he'd charge $2.50 to play a match and a $20 appearance fee with free drinks for him and his entourage. Today he charges $1000 for an appearance fee.”
Yes, times have changed. But although the American Air Force has gone, Angeles' notoriety as a, raunchy, Wild West cowboy town lives on to this day. This is a town where you can still walk into a bar and instantly get a 75 cent beer, a con story from some hardscrabble, loudmouthed traveler, a game of pool with a bet, and, of course, an easy date. It certainly seems to make sense that the man many consider to be the greatest billiards money player of all time comes from a place such as this.
These days there are pool leagues running daily among the foreign crowd here, although according to “Vegas” Dave, the quality of the play is nothing compared to what it was back in the 1980’s. In the wider Philippines, however, Filipinos have taken the “American” game of pool and made it their own. When Americans like “Vegas” Dave see the unprecedented level pool has reached in this country, they take a little pride in knowing the game’s origins in this land where pool is king, and who helped nurture that love.
“I'd like to think we helped introduce pool in the Philippines,” he said, “and that we had a small contribution to helping make the sport popular.”
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.
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