The author and Bata play a game of chess, January 1, 2020 in Pampanga. "I was distracted by how awful I was. And it was scary how well he was playing." Photograph by Geric Cruz
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The day Efren “Bata” Reyes destroyed me at chess

Challenging the billiards legend to any game at all is a huge mistake. Writer Gian Lao, visiting Bata on New Year's Day in his hometown Pampanga, should have known better.
Gian Lao | Jan 12 2020

Efren "Bata" Reyes never stays in one place for too long. He has a compulsive need to play something. Billiards. Chess. Tong-its. It doesn’t matter. He speaks sparingly, but his entire body seems to always be screaming: “When are we going to play?!” His old friend Ruben Cunanan warns me: All it takes is a few minutes. A few minutes of idleness and the legend gets impatient. He will find a way to leave. He will do it in perfect sequence. He will stand, pull up his shirt, rub his belly, and ask his friends about what’s going on in his other usual haunts. Before you know it, the Magician will have disappeared. 

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This is how I ended up in Dau, Pampanga, playing chess with the Magician. We needed to be doing something, and interviews don’t count. He was nice enough during our first sit-down, but anyone with a sense for these things could tell he wanted to be elsewhere. He had a chess game to get back to, he said. The moment he finished answering my last question, he was already standing up, rubbing his belly.

The unbearabe lightness of being Bata: A friend says he is famously easily bored. A few minutes of idleness and the legend gets impatient. Before you know it, he's off.

Quickly, I asked if I could visit his home province to continue our conversation over a few games of chess.

“Sige. Pumunta ka dun sa Dau,” he said. “Nandun ako parati.” [Okay. Go to Dau. I’m there all the time.]

The Magician is a fast walker. I almost missed him on his way in, simply because he is deceptively quick for a senior citizen. After our first interview, his phone rang; he picked it up; asked about someone’s whereabouts; and he was gone before I could process that he was leaving. But at least I had a chess match to look forward to.

The next step was to practice. I watched chess tutorials on YouTube. I nailed down the variations of the one chess opening I know how to play. I’ve never seen Reyes play chess, but he seemed like he’d be okay at it. He’s been interested in the game since the 1970s, and he has confidence enough to say—in a few interviews—that he enjoys chess. As for me, I am your average player. Literally ranked at the 50th percentile on a number of chess websites. Nevertheless, I figure: It won’t be such a mismatch. It’ll be a challenge, but maybe I can nab a game or two. 

One of the tarps at St. Martin's that has the pool champ's image.

Eventually, Reyes gave me a date for our duel.

“Jan 1 sa mabuhay cockpit arena 10am,” his text said. New Year’s Day 2020.

We, as a nation, have neglected defining the Filipino dream, but Reyes’ life is certainly one version of it. His friends can enumerate the components of his current life: Billiards. Cockfight. Cards. Chess. Play with grandkids. Sleep. Every single day, including the first day of the new decade.

So I rearranged my plans. I went straight to bed after the first few fireworks. As soon as I was awake, I played some Sudoku on my phone to make sure my brain was working. It will all be worth it, I thought. Reyes told me he once played Manny Pacquiao in a few chess games. Later, when Geric, the photographer, asked him who the better player was, Reyes showed us his trademark smile before saying: Ako!

There was going to be no money at stake in our game, but it was a rare chance for me to beat him and—indirectly—Manny Pacquiao. Two legends with one New Year’s trip to Pampanga. That’s what hung in the balance. Bragging rights until I die.

“Kahit saan ako magpunta, ninenerbyos ako,” Reyes says. “Kahit hindi marunong kalaban ko.”

THE MYTHOS of the Filipino billiards player is already cliché. They grow up in pool halls, work as setters, and practice in their off hours. They sleep on pool tables. Their skin bears streaks of blue and white—chalk and powder. As children, they stood on yellow pages or—in Reyes’ scenario—on plastic cases of Coca-Cola so they can reach the table. Before they are tall enough to actually play, they master the tiririt—the mechanical bridge cue whose name is derived from the Filipino for birdsong.

Asking Efren Reyes about his life gives you all the same old details. He shares them automatically, as if he’s bored of his own life story. It was his life, after all, that gave rise to the cliché. If there is a Philippine billiards story out there, he is at the very center of it. Everyone else is cliché, but he is the original. Every rags to riches billiards story traces his footsteps at one point. There is a reason why we call him legend.

Reyes’ story begins in the streets of Sta. Cruz, Manila. His family moved to to the national capital when he was five, and his Uncle Abé—a true Pampangueño based on name alone—ran a pool hall named Lucky 13.

“Sa Sta. Cruz, Avenida, malapit sa Carriedo!” Reyes says of its approximate location.

“Hindi ko na alam kung ano nangyari dun,” he says. “Iba iba na bumili ng lugar na yun. Pero binenta yun dati kasi nahati yun. Ikinuha ng may-ari. Kasi dati inuupahan yun, tapos biglang tumaas [yung upa]. Gusto gawing building. Ayun, napaalis na yung tiyuhin ko.”

[“I don’t know what’s happened to the place now. It’s been bought and sold many times. But back in the day, it was sold off. The property was divided, and the owner took back the space. My uncle was just renting, and the cost of rent just suddenly went up. They wanted to turn it into a building. That’s how my uncle was muscled out.”]

The exact coordinates of the old Lucky 13 remain tucked somewhere in Reyes’ head. What good is it, after all, to remember a place that’s been gone for so long? Like many other sacred places, it was a participant in and eventual victim of urbanity. The pool hall where the greatest of all time first picked up a cue stick, probably inhabited now by another 7/11.

Somewhere in the streets of Sta. Cruz, though, is the space where Reyes began to build his legend. He learned the most from players considered “tama bola”—those who were happy enough to hit the ball. That’s when you would witness the impossible, he says. One could say that—like a comic book villain—the Magician absorbs his magic from lesser players, though not as deviously as one might imagine.

“Sa mga tama bola ko napapanood ‘yung mga magic shot,” he says. “May mga malalakas tumira na napapahina, at merong mga mahihina tumira na napapalakas. Siyempre, pagdating ng gabi, ineensayo ko kung paano nangyari ‘yun. At tsaka nakikita ko ang angat ng pamato kasi ‘yung taas ko, hanggang dito lang sa lamesa. Kitang kita ko ‘yung takbo ng pamato.” [I witnessed the so-called magic shots when I watched players who weren’t very good. It may be someone who usually strikes the cue ball hard—who’s accidentally struck it softly. Or it may be someone who usually shoots softly—who’s accidentally struck it hard. Naturally, I tried to replicate those shots at night—and tried to figure out how they happened. It helped that I was small, too. I had a good vantage point to see the spin on the cue ball.]

It’s hard to describe the extent to which Reyes is energized by an odd arrangement of billiard balls, or by a particularly enthralling chess match. It’s an irresistible trigger for him. A tick in his brain. If he sees something interesting, he dives in, no questions asked. He takes cracks at interesting problems until he’s exhausted all solutions. Until such time, there is nothing else in the world.

This obsession with situational practice has followed Reyes throughout his life. There is evidence online. In early 2020, after Reyes won 55,000 pesos in a money game on YouTube, the onlookers crowded the pool table to ask for photos; other spectators were settling bets. The champ, however, was busy putting the balls back in place to make an attempt at the shot his opponent missed. 

Nothing has changed, even though everything has changed. At the end of the day, Efren Reyes is with himself, practicing magic.

"His openings are unorthodox. His tactics invisible to me until it was too late."

ON NEW YEAR’S DAY, we end up in St. Martin’s—an outdoor billiards place run by Reyes’ friend Ruben in Dau. Reyes’ chess opponent was ignoring his texts, he said, so he ditched our initial plan of visiting the sabungan and went to his regular pool place instead.

St. Martin’s is an unassuming spot. It sits behind a bakery, around thirty steps from MacArthur Highway. There is only one table. On the walls are names of people who need to pay up—those who won’t get lines of credit anymore. Around us were a number of tarpaulins featuring Reyes. One medium-sized tarp for Jarno’s—one of the billiards champ’s favorite restaurants—includes not just one but six photos of him.

“He has so many photos with the wait staff there,” Ruben says. “People think he owns the place. But he just really likes eating there.” 

When our party arrives, Reyes is waiting for us on a bench, chatting with the regulars.

Not long after we shake hands, we begin our chess match. Or, put more honestly: I start losing over and over again. A hanging knight. A fork that he saw four moves ahead. His openings are unorthodox. His tactics invisible to me until it was too late. The audio recording is mostly a depressing silence. In the beginning, we are talking to each other, but pretty soon I could no longer manage the multitasking. All one could hear is the light thud of the wooden pieces and Reyes’ mischievous chuckle.

In the middle of my ordeal, Geric, who is taking action shots of Reyes, asks him: “Ninenerbyos pa ba kayo pag naglalaro?”  [Do you still get nervous when you play?]

“Kahit saan ako magpunta, ninenerbyos ako,” Reyes answers. “Kahit hindi marunong kalaban ko, ninenerbyos ako. Baka masilat ako. Nakakahiya.” [I get nervous wherever I play. Even if my opponent doesn’t know how to play, I get nervous. They could get one over me. That would be embarrassing.]

He then points to the chessboard. 

“Pero dito hindi ako ninenerbyos,” he adds, smiling. [But this isn’t making me nervous at all.]

Reyes has a great aphorism game. The best cure for nerves, he says, is becoming a really strong player. He adds that he’s gotten more nervous as he’s aged, since he’s no longer as sharp as he once was. I ask about some mind games or tricks he’s picked up during money games, and he seems almost offended by the question.

“Walang tactics,” he says. “Hindi pwedeng may tactics. Madi-distract sila pag hindi sila tumitira. Pakitaan mo ng galing. Matatakot na sila nun.” [You can’t resort to tactics. They’ll get distracted when they never see the table. Show them how good you are. That’ll scare them.]

One other thing I took away: Advice is more potent when it’s coming from someone who’s killing you at chess as he’s dispensing wisdom.

His old worn-down Nokia that always finds its way back to him.

I HAD NO CHANCE of winning any of the games. I was distracted by how awful I was. And it was scary how well he was playing. But there was more to it than that. His competitive aura—even during a casual game—was overwhelming. You could see it in his eyes. He hated the idea of losing. What did I do, I thought, to deserve the same game face that he gave Earl Strickland? This man was not going to blink. He was not going to make a mistake. There was no hope.

On our fourth game, I was so fed up (read: cornered) I sacrificed a bishop to launch an aggressive and ill-advised attack on Reyes’ king. He smirked. He had strong counterplay, and it became a race to see who could corner the other’s king first. Of course, I ended up blundering, and I was promptly mated by the champ. He stood up, lifted his shirt, and rubbed his belly. “This is boring,” his body language said. But eventually he saw something on the board that piqued his interest. He took his seat back, reassembled our position, and made a move for me.

“Paano kung ito ginalaw mo?” he asked. [What if you had made this move?]

We replayed the final few moves to see how he would have fared against a more capable opponent. We examined the corpse of the game to study the exact anatomy of his victory. The man never rests. He went through this process relaxed and smiling, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Reyes began hustling as a pre-teen. But he says there weren’t enough money games in Manila to play pool full-time back then. 

EFREN “BATA” REYES is a Mexican. He was born in the municipality of Mexico, Pampanga. There are several explanations about why his hometown shares a name with the country of tacos and tequila. Some say it’s derived from ‘sico-sico’—a name to describe the bends in the nearby rivers. Others say it’s due to the chico trees in the area. The official Augustinian record books, however, offer the most boring, credible, and documented explanation: the colonizers came and simply named the place “Novo Mexico,” which stands for New Mexico. We enjoy explaining things as destiny. As for history, it just happens.

Reyes began hustling as a pre-teen. But he says there weren’t enough money games in Manila to play pool full-time back then. In the 70s, it was merely a semi-lucrative side hustle, so he made ends meet by arranging pages for a local comic publisher—the comic he worked on most often was called WOW. 

“Nasa printing press ako dati, gumagawa ng komiks,” he recalls. “Ako ‘yung taga-ayos ng pagkasunud-sunod. Kaya lang ang liit ng sweldo.”

The komiks Bata used to work for in the 70s. Photograph courtesy of Baul ni Juan

[I used to work for the printing press that produced comics. I was in charge of sequencing the pages. But the salary was very low.]

“Siyempre, kahit na nung nagtatrabaho na ako, magaling na rin ako sa bilyar. Kaya lang wala masyadong labanan noong araw. Pagkatapos nun, dumayo ako sa tournament sa Japan. Sabi ko, pag natalo ako, magtatrabaho na lang ako doon, kasi kinukuha na ‘ko. Kung natalo siguro ako, pwede na ‘yun. E nanalo ako, e.”

[Of course, even when I was working a day job, I was already good at billiards. But there weren’t enough competitions back in the day. At one point, as I visited Japan for a tournament, I told myself: If I lose this I’ll just get a job here. Someone in Japan was recruiting me. If I’d lost, that would have been decent. But I won.]

One tournament. One tournament is how close we came to never witnessing the talent of Efren “Bata” Reyes. Some of us might believe he was bound to succeed eventually, simply because the world deserved to hear about him. But in Reyes’ world, this is only one of many possible lives. For all we know, he could be an old, mysterious shark in the pool halls of Tokyo by now. He could have become a wily chess hustler in the streets of Manila. But we live in this timeline, where Efren Reyes is probably the greatest pool player of all time.

To us, his rise seems like destiny. But maybe life is a little closer to a chess game. Reyes only ever thought about his next move.

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. 

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.

I ask him if he’s ever considered using his name to start a chain of pool halls, which would undoubtedly turn a profit. He tells me he doesn’t see the need. Everyone who plays pool, he says, knows which pool halls are his. I ask if he’s ever considered running for office—and many people have asked him to—and he says he never would. He doesn’t even endorse political candidates. He never graduated from high school. He has no experience. Politics isn’t where he belongs.

Reyes would hate politics anyway. This is a man who clearly wants to play. If he were born three decades later, one could imagine him crushing the World Poker Tour, or raking in millions in Esports leagues. Call it what you want. Raison d’etre. Ikigai. Reyes lives to play. He takes us through his schedule, and he has a money game almost every day. When he doesn’t, that’s the time for playing with his grandkids, for chess, for cards, or—when he’s sure he’s not the worst singer in the vicinity—some karaoke. 

You just know. Even if he became the richest man in the world, Reyes would not change a thing.

The author challenging Bata:

IT IS NEW YEAR’S DAY IN DAU, Pampanga and the champion has just finished embarrassing me at chess. I figure I had nothing more to lose, so I ask him: “Sir, baka pwede kayong maka-one game sa bilyar?” [Sir, can I play one game of billiards with you?]

Reyes hesitates a bit before acquiescing. He doesn’t want to impose on the regulars playing a game, he says. But this is everyone’s favorite thing about Efren “Bata” Reyes. He doesn’t realize that he’s Efren “Bata” Reyes. He never has. Everyone in that place wanted to watch him play. So of course, they let us play.

I borrow a house cue and I ask him if his cue is custom-made. He says he can’t remember the last time he bought a cue for himself. He uses whatever his sponsors send him. They pay me to use this, he says, smiling.

"There’s a reason why he is perhaps the most universally loved Filipino athlete in the country. He keeps it real."

We play 10-ball. I break. I make nothing and take a seat.

A few steps away, cars are zooming past along the highway. Christmas songs are playing on a distant radio. A small crowd gathers as the champ begins shooting pool. He makes the first shot, and the second, and the third. Eventually, he sinks the 9 ball with perfect preparation for the 10. He looks to me, smiles a big smile, and says: “Buti pa sa chess nakakatira ka!” The crowd is laughing and I am laughing and Efren is laughing. The decade, I thought, was off to a brilliant start.

 

Photographs by Geric Cruz