What all Filipinos can learn from our Billiards Masters

Bob Guerrero

Today is the first year anniversary of the Passionate Fan sports blog here on Yahoo! Sports. Firstly I would like to thank everyone who has read, shared, retweeted and commented on my blog posts. It has been an honor to tell the story of Filipino sports to all of you. I'm very grateful for all of your support and participation.

This blog post is a special one, a piece I have had in my mind for years, long before I started writing for Yahoo! Although most of my writing is about Football, this one centers on the sport where I got my first break in sports broadcasting, Pocket Billiards.

This post is dedicated to three people who have inspired and influenced my writing. The first is Rick Olivares, an extraordinary sportswriter and friend who has been producing smart, insightful, fearless sports journalism for a long time.

The other is our good friend Jeffrey Joe Pe-Aguirre who taught me to play Pool and is now has a PhD in Journalism. He used to write for Business World. Now Jeff lives in the states and I wish that he could one day come back home and rejoin the sportswriting fraternity. It was also his birthday two days ago. Happy birthday man!

The third is my editor Sid Ventura. Thanks for believing in me and selecting me for this gig, which has become such a big part of my life.

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The Philippines has always had a giant inferiority complex. We Filipinos like to berate ourselves for being lousy at everything. We moan about our sluggish economy compared to our neighbors. We bellyache about how asinine our political system is.

Pinoys everywhere are ashamed of our dirty cities, embarrassed by our crab mentality, and bemoan our inability to unite and cooperate in even the most trivial of matters.

The Philippines is “Batong basag sa sahig ng mundo” as Joey Ayala once sang in his song “Tignan Mo.”

Our nation has underachieved in so many ways. And yet in one obscure field, we reign supreme. In the sport of Pocket Billiards.

No less than six Filipinos have won World Pool-Billiard Association-sanctioned World Championships in Pool. Efren Reyes has a pair, (9 Ball and 8 Ball) as does Ronnie Alcano. Reyes is also a former U.S. Open 9 Ball champ. He and Alex Pagulayan, also a former World 9 Ball champ, are the only Pinoys to have won that prestigious event, although other Filipinos (Amang Parica, Rodolfo Luat, Alcano) have been runner-ups.

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Francisco Bustamante picked up his long-awaited world title in 2010 when he beat Kuo Po Cheng in Doha. Dennis Orcollo, considered by many as the best player in the world at the moment, has won scores of tournaments around the globe including the 2011 World 8 Ball.

Who is the sixth Filipino world champ? It's a great trivia question. The answer is Rubilen Amit, who won the Women's World 10 ball title in 2009.

Plenty of other Pinoy shooters have lifted trophies both here and abroad, like Lee Van Corteza, Ramil Gallego, Antonio Gabica, Warren Kiamco, and Jeff De Luna.

We love and appreciate our Philippine Azkals and Smart Gilas Basketball team, but neither are anywhere near amongst the world's best.

But if Dennis Orcollo was a Tennis player, he'd be Novak Djokovic. If he were a golfer, Rory McIlroy. Reyes is Pool's Jack Nicklaus.

Why are we so good at this game, when we struggle in so many other sports and other ventures? The reasons are many, and offer a valuable lesson to all of us.

Pool may not be as popular as it once was in the Philippines, but is still played all over the archipelago. There is no Barotac Nuevo of Pool. Our champions come from Luzon (Reyes, Bustamante), Visayas (Kiamco, Amit, Gallego) and Mindanao (Corteza, Orcollo.)

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When you have a vast pool (pun intended) of Pool players, there will be plenty reaching a high level.

But one of the big advantages of the Pinoy shooter is that he, especially if he is an older one, was weaned on the game of Rotation Pool.

Rotation uses all fifteen balls, and like 9 Ball you must shoot them in order, from one to fifteen. But unlike 9 Ball it's a points game, with the number on each ball corresponding to the points it represents for whoever pockets it.

The discipline is essentially 9 Ball on steroids. The sheer number of balls on the table creates a very congested playing field that necessitates pinpoint control of the cue ball around scores of blocking balls.

Pinoy legends like Reyes, Parica, and Alcano are wizards at the game, with the ability to win a rack (you do it by running the rack to the eleven ball), and then pocket the next four balls just for fun.

Compared to Rotation, 9 Ball or even 10 Ball can seem like child's play.

Rotation is played in the Philippines but has mostly died out everywhere else in the world. It's the secret weapon of the Pinoy shooter. His unheralded training tool.

Jumping the ball is usually not allowed in Rotation, and that brings me to my next possible reason for Filipino Pool dominance. If you ask any Pool aficionado what the Pinoys do better than anyone else, you will probably get one answer: counter-safety.

The top Pinoys are astonishingly good at not only making a legal hit when you've gotten them into a safety, but also re-safing you right back.

When Reyes first went to the United States he stunned the American Pool world with his ability to get out of safeties time and time and again, and hook his opponent right back, leaving him with no shot.

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Filipinos have developed the ability of “kicking” the cue ball two, three and sometimes even four rails with uncanny ability to not just hit the object ball, but strike A CERTAIN SIDE of the ball at the right speed to block his opponent. The finest Pool players from all around the world can do this, but the Pinoys seem to be the masters of the art.

Of course Pinoy pros do know how to jump with a jump cue these days, but even without it, they can get the upper hand.

While everyone was learning to jump, Pinoys were mastering the kick.

Another reason for Pinoy success is the stroke itself. The Pinoy cueing technique is unique in the world of Pool.

Many western and Taiwanese players use a somewhat mechanical grip, putting all their fingers on the cue stick and then “releasing” just as they strike the ball. The Pinoy stroke is different. In my opinion, the best Pinoy shooters do not release the cue, because they never really hold it to begin with.

Filipino pros seem to let the stick rest on their fingers, rather than grip it. Then when they execute their invariably smooth stroke, they simply let the cue lay there without tightening the grip. The result is wicked amounts of spin, crucial to cue-ball navigation, and, ironically, better accuracy because the shooter is no longer “steering” the cue stick but letting it flow straight forward naturally.

It's plenty obvious when Corteza shoots, and very apparent when Reyes is playing. He almost seems to let go of the cue stick when he shoots. Ditto for Alcano.

Bustamante's buttery stroke, which involves waving the cue around as if he were mixing something in a bowl before he shoots, is another prime example.

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Little-known Pinoy shooter Jarry Pelayo is another personification of the light touch on the Pinoy stroke. He regularly runs racks, not bad for someone who is missing most of the fingers of his right hand thanks to a firecracker accident when he was in grade six.

No other foreign player I've seen shoots like a Pinoy.

Lastly, the Filipino pro has reached the pinnacle of his craft not because of formal training and organized tournaments, but because of the gambling culture that pervades the local Pool scene.

There has always been a dearth of tournaments in the country, even during Pool's heyday. But we have produced the finest Pool players in the world because they have matched up against each other in for huge sums of money, night after night.

The money game culture is harsh, unforgiving, and Darwinian. You sink or you swim. You either lose money or make it. But it works. It has toughened up generations of Pinoy players, steeling them for the pressure of tournaments, and forcing them to work on their technique on their own, or risk going hungry.

“It's so much harder to win here gambling than in the states” said Dutch pro Niels Feijen to me once in the old Coronado Lanes pool hall.

But there is one thing Pinoys do well aside from shoot Pool, and that is copy just about everything. Our musicians ape western artists with aplomb. Our TV shows oftentimes look like facsimiles of foreign shows. Rather than build our own brands, we made copies of western brands. Remember World Balance shoes? Our sports also follows the lead of the west too, with our PBA players mimicking NBA stars.

And yet in the world of Pool, we've done the exact opposite.

Pinoy Pool players play an antiquated game to hone their skills. They kick when everyone else jumps. They hold the cue in a way that would horrify most western Pool instructors. And they become the best not by going through organized tournaments, but by staking their lunch money on late-night races-to-fifteen.

Pinoy Pool zigs while everyone zags. And it works, spectacularly.

There's a lesson here, for all of us. Filipinos should stop trying to blindly emulate the rest of the world. It isn't always the best route to success. In fact it's unhealthy. It turns us into unoriginal copycats.

We need to let our own Pinoy identity shine through in everything we do. We need to stop copying and be ourselves for once. We need to blaze our own trails instead of following other paths.

Whether it's music, art, or business, the Philippines can and should take the lead from Efren and company.

Show your uniqueness. Express your individuality. Don't follow the textbooks, but instead write your own. Don't be afraid to break the rules. Be bravely, unabashedly Filipino in what you do.

And in the process, rule the world.

Follow Bob on Twitter @bhobg333.