At 65, Efren "Bata" Reyes Takes Another Shot at the SEA Games

The Magician aims for gold.

Magicians never tell their secrets. But four-time World Eight-ball Champion Efren "Bata" Reyes is not just any magician and he isn't selfish with knowledge, especially to the next generation of Filipino billiards players who he guides as playing coach for the Philippine team in the 30th Southeast Asian Games.

Not that the legendary cue master feels he can still hold a candle to some of the best cue masters nowadays, most of whom grew up hoping to emulate the man who transcended billiards and sports as a whole upon becoming World Pool 9-ball champion in 1999 in Cardiff, Wales. 

"Maganda ang pulso nila 'pag naglalaro. Di ko na siguro kailangan pang turuan sila. Baka sabihin nila, magaling sila, tinuturuan pa sila, eh talo na nila ako," Reyes says, breaking into that iconic smile while scratching his head.

But what he can impart to these kids is his unmatched knowledge of the game, an uncanny skill to see the angles between balls that ordinary mortals can't, which made the impossible shot makeable and grew the legend of "The Magician." 

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"Ang tinuturo ko lang sa kanila 'yong mahirapan. Sa shooting, kaya na nila 'yon," he spills. "[Kapag] kailangan ng larong scientific, sa akin sila dapat makinig."

PHOTO BY Jerome Ascano

Truth be told, Reyes doesn't really need to talk much to make his point known. Most of his exploits are just a click away for today's players and his new generation of fans who have turned "Bata" videos into some of the most watched on YouTube and Facebook.  

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Reyes, however, will also be the first to acknowledge that, at age 65, he is but a shade of that unwitting social-media phenomenon.

"Akala nila magaling pa ako," he mentions with a chuckle. "Lagi kasi nila akong nakikita, lalo na sa mga video, sa Facebook. Nakikita nila ako lagi."

Just Keep Playing

The spectacular cue master insists he's no more. Injuries, from nagging left shoulder pains to failing eyesight has handicapped Reyes in his long battle with Father Time that he himself knows he's bound to lose.

That may be the case, but don't expect "Bata" to turn his back on the sport that gave him so much. "Siyempre hanapbuhay ko ito, dito ako kumikita. Paano mo maiiwan ito?" muses Reyes, who rarely plays in tournaments but is often seen playing money games in neighborhood pool halls around the country, mostly on the invitation of his fans.

"Kahit di na ako naglalaro, ang dami pa ring nag-iimbita kahit di ako maglaro. Pumupunta naman ako. Hindi pwedeng mawala sa isipan ko ang billiards kasi dito ako nagkaroon ng pag-asa, sa billiards."

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Reyes also didn't think twice about accepting an offer to be a member of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games team, even if he will no longer play in the glamor events like 9-ball and 8-ball but in three-cushion carom, a game which he himself described as "pang-matanda."

The three-cushion carom is more popularly known as karambola, which Reyes used to play in the '60s and '70s before he was smitten by other versions of the game like rotation and 9-ball. So this SEA Games is more like a return to Bata's roots. 

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"Ako, may edad na. Sa pool, nandyan naman yung magagaling nating players kaya sila ang nandoon. Di na ako malalagay doon [sa 8-ball o 9-ball] kaya nilagay ako dito sa pang-matanda," Reyes said.

"Ang laro ko dati, rotation muna, pagkatapos noon, karambola. Nawalan ako ng kalaban sa karambola kaya bumalik ako sa rotation ulit. Ngayon, bumalik ako," he shares.

"'Yong ibang player na matatanda, wala na. Wala nang naglalaro ng karambola. Kailangan ng event kaya ako yung pinalaro. Okay na rin kasi tatlo na lang kaming natitirang players ng karambola," he jokes in his usual self-deprecating manner.

The Decline of Billiards' Popularity

It's been two decades since Reyes' famed triumph in the 1999 WPA World 9-Ball Championship, a tipping point for billiards. The game, which was considered a game for kanto boys, became a national passion.

But if he has one regret, it is seeing billiards' popularity decline as his own star, and skills, faded with age.

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PHOTO BY Jham Mariano

"Noong nanalo ako noon, nagsunod-sunod na, meron nang iba-ibang tournaments. Pero maraming tournament din ang naganap, hindi naman ako kasali. Kaya syempre nawala siguro ['yong interes sa billiards]," he speculates.

"Kasi simula no'ng di ako nasali, nawala sa TV ang billiards kaya 'yong mga kapwa natin magaling dati, hindi sila masyadong nakilala at di na-expose. Sayang 'yong galing nila. Eh kung nakikita at nate-televise sila lagi, nakikita nila sana yung magagaling."

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Reyes feels pride seeing players like Carlo Biado, Dennis Orcollo, Rubilen Amit, and Chezka Centeno keep the flame burning in the country, convinced that those names will be among the roster of gold-medal winners once the events are over.

He also hopes to be back in the winner's circle before his Pinoy fans after missing out in the 2005 Manila SEA Games, when he had to honor a prior commitment to play in Orlando in the IPT King of the Hill 8-Ball Shootout, which he won.

"Syempre, special 'yon kasi umaasa ang mga kababayan natin na maglaro ako at manalo. Alangan namang di ako maglaro? Gusto din ako ng mga kababayan natin makitang maglaro," he expresses.

A showman never refuses the stage, and the same goes for Reyes, no matter what pains and shortcomings he's burdened with. The best finish he ever had in the SEA Games was a bronze medal in one-cushion carom in the Palembang 2011, Naypyidaw 2013, and Singapore 2015. But he is not counting himself out of this one.

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Who knows? Bata may yet recapture his old magic before his adoring fans.

Hope for the New Breed of Players

Time is a tough foe to beat but Reyes has no plan of stopping for good anytime soon, no matter how many retirement tours are given to him.

"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," he said.

When The Magician's curtain call finally comes, he hopes the new breed will keep the fire burning for Philippine billiards, just like he had done all these years. 

Old age beckons, but hope remains in Reyes: "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 'yong nangyari at ginawa ko."

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Watch the rest of the interview with Efren "Bata" Reyes:

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