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The Greatest Pool Player In History Just Wanted To Hustle

Efren Reyes, drawn by Adam Villacin.
Illustration by Adam Villacin

This is an excerpt from Sports Stories, a weekly newsletter written by Eric Nusbaum and illustrated by Adam Villacin. Sports Stories covers the intersections of sports, history, and sports history. It’s free to subscribe, which we recommend you do here

Efren Reyes would rather not have become the most famous and universally praised pool player in the history of the world. Would rather not have gone pro or been the subject of a million YouTube highlight reels or won every single pool tournament known to man. Would rather not have become so successful, so universally admired that there is a literal X-Men character based on him. 

Going pro, getting famous—this was all a last resort. Because what Efren Reyes really wanted to do was hustle.  

He was born in a town called Mexico, in the Filipino province of Pampanga, about 40 miles up the highway from Manila. When he was a kid, the family moved down the highway and into the capital. Efren had an uncle there who ran a pool hall called Lucky 13. Efren started hanging around the pool hall, watching the older men—the good players and the bad ones—while working as an attendant, and goofing around at the empty tables. 

There was another Efren who played at Lucky 13, so the regulars started calling the younger one Efren Bata—which is Tagalog for Efren the Kid. It didn’t take long until Efren Bata surpassed big Efren and every other grownup at Lucky 13. There was something about him. He had a genius for processing information. He could see things happening on the table that other people couldn’t. He would practice for hours and hours. Before opening. After close. Standing on milk cartons to reach the middle of the table. 

Efren Bata started hustling at 12. The Reyes family needed cash. There were nine brothers and sisters, and Bata knew he could help. He dropped out of school. But the billiards scene in Manila was still small back in the 1970’s. There wasn’t enough action for a teenager to make a living doing it, even as he spread his wings beyond the city limits, even as he hustled American servicemembers at Clark Air Base. This was to be a constant problem for Bata: not enough competition, not enough people in the world to hustle. 

Illustration by Adam Villacin

To make ends meet, Efren worked at a comics publisher, arranging pages for the printer—a fact that would prove prescient later on. After work, he would hit the billiards halls. Even into adulthood, Efren retained something youthful in the way he moved and the way he carried himself. The name Bata really suited him. There was an incongruity to it: that a person so deeply focused, so consumed by competition could still seem so loose, so unbothered by pressure, and so at ease in the most innermost recesses of his own intellect. 

He spent his teenage years and his twenties as a hustler, living in what the New York Times once called “lucrative obscurity.” He traveled to the United States and played under different names, returning to the Philippines tens of thousands of dollars richer. His unassuming nature suited him as a hustler. But you can only hide from your own shadow for so long. It got to the point that Efren Bata was a known commodity in billiards halls around the world. Even when he was going by, say, Caesar Morales. So he did the only thing he could do—he turned pro. 

Efren was nearly 30 years old when he played his first pro tournament in the Philippines. (He won.) Then he just kept on winning. But what made him so special, so compelling, was how he won: by outthinking his opponents, by making outlandish shots that nobody else would have even dared attempt, by simply never losing his composure. As a pro, Bata got a new nickname. People started calling him The Magician.

The Magician

You have to see the shots to understand. But not just the shots themselves. Watch the way the ball spins. Watch the reactions on his opponents’ faces. I’ve played enough pool to know that he’s playing a different game altogether. I’ve played enough pool to know that I can’t fully grasp the genius that I’m seeing here:

The other thing about Efren Reyes—and it’s clear from watching videos like the one above—is that he was cool. He had the vibe about him when he played. It wasn’t just cool because there were TV cameras or there was prestige on the line or because he was a hero in the Philippines; it was the kind of cool that all great athletes have, a presence that transcends time and space. And yet he also remained approachable: dressed in whatever schlubby clothes, unbothered by all of it, not above superstition and routine. Efren didn’t shower during tournaments. Bad luck. He seemed to understand that everything outside the table itself, outside the competition was bullshit. It was artifice. He lived for the one thing that wasn’t. 

In an article for the now-defunct website Grantland a few years back, the writer Dave Hill told the following story about Reyes: 

At the inaugural Derby City Classic in 1999, he won the “Master of the Table” award for best all-around player. At the ceremony he refused his trophy. “I play for money,” he said as he accepted his $25,000 check.

This is the beauty of Efren Reyes. He didn’t grow up dreaming of winning world championships or Derby City Classics—he grew up dreaming of winning money. But it’s also true that Efren Reyes never really cared that much about money or status. Money is something to be won; to give stakes to competition. Money is something you need in order to live. But even today, he does not know vanity. When he lost his front teeth some years back, he didn’t bother replacing them. Here’s the writer Gian Lao, who spent time playing chess and hanging out with Reyes in the Philippines in early 2020, just before the first Covid-19 case was recorded there. 

EFREN “BATA” REYES gives money away as quickly as he makes it. All his friends and family call him generous. After winning the World Pool Championship in 1999, he told the commentators he was going to use the prize money to buy a Honda CR-V for his wife. Over the span of his career, he’s opened a number of pool halls, many of which were eventually owned and managed by a sibling. His friend Ruben says Reyes sometimes gives the entirety of his winnings for the day directly to his son, who drives him around almost every day.

There is a difference between wanting to be rich and not wanting to starve. Reyes does not want to be rich—or at the very least, he wants to be rich only on his terms. His phone is an old worn-down Nokia. It always finds its way back to him, he says. No one wants to steal it. He wears nothing expensive. His favorite dishes are sinigang and pritong bangus, and he has a particular preference for the tail of the bangus. There’s a reason why he is perhaps the most universally loved Filipino athlete in the country. He keeps it real.

Efren Reyes rose from obscurity on the streets of Manila to become the greatest pool player in the world: hustling former champions, winning titles, earning the reverence and awe of his peers. All of that, and he never really left. 

The Mutant

Whilce Portacio also saw that realness in Reyes. Portacio was born in the Philippines and grew up in the United States where became a popular comic book writer and artist. In the 1980s, he had an idea for a new X-Men character: Bishop, a time-traveling mutant who could give Wolverine a run for his money. In his head, this character would be Filipino-American, and he would be based on Bata. 

“Efren ‘Bata’ Reyes would go up against these big American guys and give them this look,” Portacio told the website Being Cool. “That’s who Bishop was. He was born with the skills and the DNA to fight and survive. In the daytime he would fight off Sentinels, save other mutants, and then he would go underground at the end of the day and ask ‘Saan ba yung next party? Saan ba yung handa?’ (Where’s the party at now? When’s it ready?)”

Illustration by Adam Villacin

On the page, Bishop ended up being black. Portacio’s boss asked him to make the change because Marvel was getting lots of fan letters from black kids—and they wanted to show their appreciation in the form of a new black character.

“Understanding as a minority, I couldn’t say no,” Portacio said. “I was already operating in the mood of being Pinoy, diba? Learning about our ugali. And that’s another part of it. Pagbigyan, diba? (give it up, right?) there’s always another time.”

Related Reading

Reyes is still playing cash games in the Philippines, still hustling. If you’re going to read anything on Bata, I would recommend the aforementioned story written by Gian Lao, in which, among other things, he describes getting absolutely demolished by Bata in chess as well as in pool. 

Dave Hill’s Grantland piece Can’t Knock the Hustle is not about Reyes per se, but I learned a ton about pool, and about hustling, from reading it. 

Finally, you can check out this New York Times profile on Bata from 2002. It’s full of fascinating details and contains a really good overview of his life and his place in the world of pool. But something about the way it was written rubs me the wrong way.