A SLOG IN THE MUD
The World Pool Championship qualifiers are the toughest test in pool
02 Nov 2007
(Manila, Philippines)--It’s all about the grind, and who has the stamina, the will, and yes, it being professional 9-ball, the luck on their side to prevail. It’s a brutally difficult combination of factors to pull together, and it tests the inner and outer makeup of even the most seasoned professionals out there. Well, this is for the World Pool Championship, so why would you have it any other way?
The overriding emotions that keep coursing through my veins here at the World Pool Championship qualifiers in Manila are awe and respect. Simply put, these qualifiers are just plain difficult. You’ve got around 160 players from over 50 countries on hand vying for just 10 spots in the main tournament. 80 players start the day in the morning tournament, and about the same in the afternoon. Realistically only about 25 players in each session have a reasonable chance of getting through. But still, that in itself presents some very long, difficult odds. This event speaks volumes about how much top pool talent is out there in all corners of the globe, talent that you don’t always hear about.
“Dynamite” Darren Appleton at the World Pool Championship qualifiers.
On top of the deep talent pool, the event itself is a complete grind. The matches are race to 7, alternate break, single elimination. For a player to get through to the WPC, he has to win 7 matches in one session. This means you can play lights out the whole day, then get to the final match, get a few unlucky breaks, and you're gone. And this is a day that can last up to 14 hours. And then you have to come back the next day, summon up the same energy and mental clarity, and try all over again. It is a total slog through the mud, a brutal competition that requires not only tremendous skill and stamina, but a fair amount of luck and fortune as well.
That’s why Mika Immonen said the other night that he’s glad that his group in the World Pool Championship doesn’t include a player from the qualifiers. The qualifers, Mika said, are perhaps tougher than the main draw at the WPC. This is a sentiment echoed by countless players at the Star Paper complex, the venue for the qualifiers. Mika knows that if you come through the qualifiers, you're a damn solid player, you're loose and you’re probably in a groove. In pool terms that means you’re dangerous.
The fascinating part about watching what these guys have to go through is knowing that most of them are simply not going to make it to the World Pool Championship. They have come over here with no guarantees except that they are going to spend some money and, as the odds have it, they are probably not going to get into the World Pool Championship. It’s like that for pool players everywhere, of course, as the money in the sport is simply not like other sports. Pool’s a lonely endeavor, especially for the guys who come from abroad. You carry your stick on your back, and you play in silence with nobody or just a few people cheering you on. You're a long way from home, and a million miles away from getting that big prize.
Still, the dream of pool glory keeps them relentlessly plugging away, hoping for that hot streak and a few lucky rolls, and perhaps a chance at the ultimate prize.
Without a doubt these are the most unique World Pool Championship qualifiers ever held. Besides the sheer numbers of incredible pool talents on hand, the venue, the Star Paper compound, practically defies description.
First, though, you have to find the place and that’s like finding your special sewing needle in a mountain of garbage. Even many old time Manila taxi drivers have no idea where Star Paper is located. The complex actually sits in the back of some dank looking warehouse district on the border of Quezon City and Caloocan City, which are both part of greater Metro Manila. The area is an obvious industrial part of town, and that means there’s nothing pretty out here. Traveling to Star Paper can at times be a bit spooky, even for veterans like myself, as along the way you pass nothing but ramshackle squatter shacks along the sides of the road, and dirty old buildings sitting behind massive hollow block walls. Container trucks barrel down the road heading to the nearby North Harbor. I’ve always thought that this area of Manila seemed like the kind of place people come to perform their nefarious activities out of site of prying eyes.
Sebastian Chua, the owner of Star Paper Corporation.
Once you chance upon the Star Paper complex, however, and step inside the tall iron gates, it’s as if you’ve discovered a billiards fan’s oasis. Sebastian Chua could be the world's biggest pool fanatic. While he has made his fortune trading paper and art supplies, his true passion is pool. He's also the Philippines’ dealer of Brunswick billiard tables, Aramith pool balls, and Simonis Cloth.
“For me pool is not a business,” the friendly Chua likes to say, “ pool is my hobby.” And what a hobby it is. Just inside the compound you are greeted with a gleaming one story building, which serves as Chua’s personal play ground. Inside, the large brightly lit room is filled with 20 Brunswick Metro tables. Chua boasts the largest collection of Predator cues in the world, worth over $100,000, and all of them sit on display behind glass cases along the walls. The back walls are covered with giant tarpulin banners advertising Brunswick, Simonis, Aramyth and the 2007 World Pool Championship.
In essence the room serves as a showroom for Chua’s billiard products, but it's really a private pool hall for him and his large and ever expanding circle of friends. During the year he keeps the place open Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7:30 pm to 3:30 am. Basically anyone can show up and play, but, as Chua points out, “you must be an A, B, or C level player. Otherwise my boy will come over and tell you ‘Next time, don’t come back.’ Everything is free, including the pool, soft drinks and even the food.
All the food is free at the Star Paper Pool Hall.
Chua, who is also a board member of the Billiard and Snooker Congress of the Philippines, opened his doors for the five day World Pool Championship qualifiers, both last year and this year as well. It’s as if he has thrown himself and everyone involved in the event one big billiards party. Several giant hand painted banners greet guests as they step inside the compound. Dozens of colorful plastic streamers flutter in the air. In the driveway just across the pool room, Chua has set up an outdoor garden with huge umbrellas where players and fans can rest and enjoy a meal. All the food and drinks are absolutely free, even to fans.
A view of the scene at the world pool championship qualifiers.
The scene inside the pool hall for the qualifiers has been more like a Filipino fiesta. There seems to be little order as people walk care free among the tables where world class players vie for a spot in the biggest tournament in the world. Sexy models walk around offering everyone soft drinks, coffee and tea. (If you’re thinking they’re saying “Coffee, Tea or Me,” forget it. As Chua said with a laugh: “The girls are for your eyes only.”) Everyone who shows up is given a free WPC t-shirt, free Brunswick billiard chalk, a small bottle of Johnson's Baby powder, sand paper for your cue tip and your shaft. There’s even baskets full of free mints and candies on offer. As it gets late into the night and early morning, Chua has his helpers bring out big bowls of instant noodles. It's the greatest hangout for billiards you've ever seen. And it's all free.
They have a common saying in these parts and it seems apt to describe this year’s qualifiers. “Only in the Philippines.”
Another view inside.
The winners of the two qualifiers on day two were two of the hottest young players on the planet today,18 year olds Ko Pin Yi and Wu Yu Lin. Steven Lin, a national coach with the Chinese Taipei Billiard Association informed me that along with another 18 year old, the incredible Wu Chia Ching, the three make up the recognized trio of young phenoms out of Taiwan. Ko, who won qualifier three, and is a classmate of Wu Chia Ching in their first year of University, was the 2006 World Junior runner up. The winner of that event was Wu Yu Lin, who has won that event three times. Wu won qualifier four later on the same day. Wu is just a senior in high school.
The “in” look among Taiwanese teens these days is, obviously the shaggy, pixie look, popularized by Korean boy bands that have swept through Asia. The trend makes the young Taiwanese players all look effeminate and timid. Maybe they dress like this to disarm their opponents, because all of them shoot lights out on the felt pitch. Like all the Taiwanese players they play pool poker-faced, they have dead-eye potting skills and they seem to be able to do as they please with the white ball. When you watch the awesome skill Wu and Ko play the game with, you have to remind yourself that they are just 18 years old. How do they get so good at just a young age?
18 year old Taiwanese phenom Ko Pin Yi, right after he won qualifier number 3.
Of course the obvious answer to that is that in Taiwan, pool, like everything else, is highly organized. The Taiwanese government has put pool, along with sports like basketball, baseball and table tennis, in schools. And this isn’t just for the kids to blow off steam and get some recreation. Sports are part of the curriculum. They do this because pool is included in the Asian Games, and other international sporting competitions, and the game brings glory and positive notoriety to their country. Which means that if you’ve chosen pool as your sport in school, pool training is on your daily schedule and you might find yourself saying these words over lunch in the cafeteria: “Hey at 2pm, I gotta go to jump class. At three I’ve got potting class. Then tomorrow morning I’ve got an exam in breaking.”
“In Taiwan,” Lin said, “if you win a gold medal in the Asian games, you get more than $100,000 from the government and lots of endorsements.” That six figure number alone will tell you the Taiwanese take their pool very seriously.
This vaunted Taiwanese approach to the game was the buzz of Star Paper after two days of the qualifiers as these shaggy haired teenagers quietly, but forcefully, mowed down everyone in their path. Two days had gone by, four qualifying events had been completed and no Filipinos were among the winners. Instead it was three Taiwanese and one Japanese player. The Taiwanese were literally taking the Filipinos down. Locals here were starting to go around stating that this was a wake up call for Philippine pool, that it was time to get the sport organized in this country. Sure the loose money game culture produces great players, but it looked like the Taiwanese were more disciplined, better prepared for the long hauls and rigors of big time international events like the World Pool Championship.
But, then, just as dramatically, the tide turned. And amazingly, it wasn’t the vaunted young Filipino guns, like Roberto Gomez or Jherome Pena who quieted the Taiwanese for the moment. It was a few elder statesmen of Filipino pool who gave the Filipino fans two reasons to heave a big sigh of relief.
Indonesian player Alwi is all smiles after winning qualifier 5.
The first Pinoy qualifier was rather an Indonesian with one name; Alwi. Actually Alwi is a full blooded Filipino from the province of Surigao, on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines. Way back when he was a fairly well known pool shark on the local Pinoy circuit. This was back in 1970’s and early ‘80’s when there was lots of great pool talent in the Philippines, but only Efren Reyes and Jose Parica were on the pool world’s radar screens. In 1985 Alwi upped and moved to Indonesia, and continued to play and compete in pool. He’s a long time member of the Indonesian national team. He once played in the World Pool Championship back in 2001 in Cardiff, Wales and got knocked out in the round of 64.
The 48 year old Alwi played Taiwan’s Wang Hung Hsiang in the final race to 9 in the first session of day three. Alwi wore one of those colorful, flowing Indonesia shirts and wore a waste pouch underneath and looked more like an aging hippie professor than a pool player. At one point late in the match, the three ball married up against the 9-ball and it was difficult to tell if it passed. Alwi reached inside the pouch and took out his reading glasses, put them on and bent over and studied the balls to see if the three passed. This had the crowd laughing. He won the tense match 9-7 to move into the World Pool Championship for the second time in his long career.
It was approaching midnight when the final of the second session on day three got underway featuring one of the legends of the old guard of Philippine pool, Leonardo “Dodong” Andam vs. Jherome Pena, the young upstart who last year made it to the final 32. Pena had just steamrolled England’s Darren Appleton and looked unstoppable. Andam had just taken down another tough Filipino player Elvis Calasang. Calasang is part of an emerging force in Philippine pool of players, such as Joven Bustamante, who have spent considerable time working as house pros in the Middle East. The friendly Calasang spent the last seven years in Kuwait, but with the recent explosion of pool in the Philippines, he’s decided to move back home to ply his trade.
“Dynamite” Darren Appleton looking concerned.
Although everyone doubted that Andam had the stamina to stay with the younger Pena after a 14 hour day, the old dog showed he still had plenty of bite, smothering Pena with a 9-4 win that ended at 2am. Andam is part of the vaunted old guard of Filipino pool. Although he was mostly known for giant collapses in pressure situations, many long time fans feel that he has perhaps the purest stroke of any Filipino player of all time. He certainly displayed some of that old magic against Pena.
“He was superb,” gushed Yen Makabenta, the President of Raya Sports, the outfit that brought the World Pool Championship to the Philippines. “He won through superior position play and great safeties against Elvis Calasang and Pena. Effortless play all the way.”
No wonder Makabenta was ecstatic. Andam had crushed any talk of a whitewash by the young, shaggy haired pixies from Taiwan.
A diminutive, somewhat older Taiwanese player has had a few people doing double takes at this year’s qualifiers. Remember the guy who lost to Efren Reyes in the finals of the 1999 World Pool Championship? Only eight short years ago, Chang Hao Ping was considered one of Taiwan’s greats, alongside the legendary Chao Fong Pang. But after that near miss, the tiny and reed thin Chang disappeared from the international scene. He bought a billiard club on the outskirts of Taipei, started a family, and, it’s been reported, enjoyed imbibing just a little too much. Combine that with the onslaught of great young Taiwanese talent, and the pool world had passed him by. But friends convinced Chang that he still had something left in the tank, and so he’s back as part of the 40 man strong Taiwanese contingent that have bum rushed the qualifiers. Unfortunately he failed to make it after five tries.
Shane Van Boening’s recent ascent to the top of the pool world, especially his win in the US Open, has certainly been felt on this side of the world, as no American player in years, not even Earl Strickland, has generated this much anticipation before his arrival in Manila. Filipino fans are sure to welcome Van Boening with open arms and high expectations of great things from the 23 old South Dakota native.
That being said, it’s a sign of how far the ‘American’ game of pool has fallen in the land of its creation that not one single American has bothered to come to Manila to try and qualify for the World Pool Championship. Sure it takes over a day to fly here, and the costs can total in the several thousand dollars. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of solid European players, and Middle Eastern players as well, from making the trip and trying their luck. Some of the reasons being tossed around Manila for Americas complete absence at the qualifiers include: Americans have been listening too much to the news and are unjustifiably scared of traveling to Manila; it’s expensive and there are no guarantees; Americans are just too comfortable in their own world and don’t travel very well. Whatever the case, it’s a shame that so many great American players have missed this fiesta surrounding the very ‘American’ game of pool.
Those American players who decided to stay home might want to take a look at the example of England’s Darren “Dynamite” Appleton. “Daz,” as he’s known to his friends, has easily stamped his mark as the most impressive of the European contingent here at Star Paper. Although he failed in his five attempts to qualify, Daz’s hard core devotion to each shot—and the game in general—along with his solid playing skills, have won him many admirers among local pool fans.
The 31 year old native of West Yorkshire first came to the Philippines last year after gaining his spot in the World Pool Championship through the Euro Tour. Although he didn’t make it out of the group stages, Daz loved the scene and the action in Manila so much that he stayed on for six more weeks, playing high profile money games night after night and, in the process, becoming a well known face in the local pool scene. (His sponsor/manager Dave Wright loved the scene here so much that he actually went back to England, packed up his belongings and moved to the Philippines and has stayed here since.)
Appleton is a six time European Champion in English billiards and held the world number one spot for six years running. He only discovered 9-ball pool a year a half ago after doing well in several IPT events. He’s become addicted to the sport and the ups and downs that go with playing it professionally.
“The thing about 9-ball pool is that sometime the best man doesn’t win,” the friendly Daz said. “It’s a brutal game. Of course that’s what makes it so exciting. I just love it.”
Daz didn’t earn a spot through the Euro Tour to this year’s WPC because he failed to play in the prerequisite number of tournaments to earn a berth. Over the last year he’s traveled and played extensively in the States and even returned to Manila for an extended stay earlier in the year.
This time around he intends to hang around for another month. He’s been invited to play in a Team Philippines vs. Team International matchup scheduled for the week after the World Pool Championship in the province of Mindoro. Yen Makabenta has also invited Daz to compete in his weekly television show, ‘Pool Showdown.’ And, of course, there’s the action like no other place on earth.
As pool grows by leaps and bounds in the Philippines and Asia, Daz seems to be on the right track and in the right place.
Michael Savage playing a match at the world pool championship qualifiers.
“Hey, there’s a little kid messing around on the tables. Where’s his parents? Don’t they know this is qualifying for the World Pool Championships?”
This must have been the thought running through most people’s minds when they saw tiny little Michael Savage chalking his cue and shooting balls as the qualifiers were ongoing at Star Paper. But as it turns out that 9 year old Michael was actually entered in the qualifiers!
Standing only 4’3” tall, he hardly seemed nervous as he was paired up against some of the best players in the world. He had to reach to get to most shots and he relied a lot on the bridge, but he displayed sharp potting skills and seemed to be able to move the cue ball around with the proficiency of someone much older. Were we looking at the next Wu Chia Ching?
I found out that Michael was at the World Pool Championship qualifiers as part of the Hilton Cues billiard team, a group of players mostly from Cebu put together by Mike Hilton, an American businessman who owns Hilton Cues, a line of handmade cue sticks manufactured in Subic. Hilton discovered little Michael a few years back in Cebu working the table at his father’s sports bar.
“I started seeing him make shots, banks, cuts and all kinds of shots,” Hilton recalls. “I said, ‘Man, this kid can play!’”
The son of a British father and Filipino mother, Michael was introduced to pool at the age of four and he could barely reach the table and had to stand on his toes. Despite his obvious limitations, he fell in the love with the game and couldn’t be kept away from a table. This was ok with his father, who encouraged his young son to play as much pool as he wanted.
Nowadays Michael can be found playing every night at the Badgers sports bar in Cebu where he regularly humiliates the local expat crowd.
“When I beat them they feel like getting revenge,” he said. Michael told me that he practices pool everyday from 6pm to 2am, although he assured me that he always completes his homework and that the late hours he keeps are no problem as his school begins at 12 noon each day. His pool heroes are Alex Pagulayan, Ronnie Alcano and Wu Chia Ching and he one day hopes to emulate all of them by winning a world championship.
Although he didn’t win a single match in five days of competition, little Michael made a good accounting of himself. In his first match he actually had a 2-0 lead over his Taiwanese opponent but he eventually lost 7-2. The rest of the time he never threatened but he did manage to win a few games in each match. Most importantly he enjoyed the experience.
”I was only nervous on the first day,” he said. “I had a lot of fun.”
Remember the name Michael Savage. You’re are sure to hear lots more from the mighty mite in the years to come.
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.
Email Ted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit his website at www.hey-joe.net or www.tedlerner.com
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