Before Manny Pacquiao, the Philippines already had a world champ who dominated his opponents. Not with his fists though, but with his pool stick.
An extremely humble man with no front teeth, if you ever see this dude in a billiard hall, don’t let his appearance fool you. He will hustle you and gladly take your money while flashing his signature toothless smile.
When it comes to playing pool, Efren “Bata” Reyes is the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time).
Skeptical? Watch this shot:
Outside the Philippines, he’s famously known as “The Magician” because of his legendary ability to make impossible shots in clutch situations. To find somebody as clutch as him, you’d have to fuse Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller together.
Efren is a true badass in pool. He seemingly appeared out of nowhere and ended up dominating what was then, a predominantly American sport, for more than three decades.
He is the best player in the world to ever hold a cue stick, especially when money is at stake.
Teenage Pool Prodigy
In 1954, Efren Reyes was born in Mexico, not the country, but a small town near Angeles City in the Pampanga province of the Philippines.
He grew up dirt poor. His father was a barber and his mother was a market vendor. He was one of NINE children. With so many kids, it’s not hard to imagine how difficult life must’ve been.
When Efren was five years old, he was sent to live with his uncle in Manila, who owned a popular pool hall, the Lucky 13.
During the day, he worked as a billiard attendant, learning the sport by watching everyone who played there.
He learned the “fundamentals” by watching good players. But he also learned the amazing shots he would later be famous for by watching bad players, who sometimes made impossible, but unintentional, shots.
Because there was another older pool player named Efren, he was called Efren Bata. The word, bata, means “kid” in Tagalog.
At night, he’d practice what he observed while working. Then he’d sleep on the pool table and dream about pool. He’d wake up and practice again before starting his day job.
Talk about a childhood. Your parents send you away as a little boy to your uncle, who then puts you to work and makes you sleep at work on a hard ass table.
Apparently, this tough love worked. By the time he was 12, he was kicking everyone’s asses playing pool in Manila.
He started traveling around the Philippines to test his skills. He’d go from town to town, ask who the town’s biggest and baddest pool mofos were, challenge them, beat them, then take their money.
In the Philippines, when you play pool, you don’t play just for fun. You play for money. Filipino pool players, including Efren, love to gamble.
There’s no such thing as practice for them. You practice by playing against someone and putting money on the line. There’s always money to be made. And with Efren’s natural talent, he started to make enough money that he dropped out of school and started supporting his family with his gambling winnings.
Gambling had the added benefit of helping him to learn how to handle pressure at an early age. His job now was to play pool and win. No victory. No income.
When the US military bases were still open, he’d roll up to Clark Air Force Base, near Angeles City, and hustle American soldiers, basically robbing them of their precious US dollars. It was easy money for Efren.
Eventually, the Americans got tired of the constant ass whoopings, realized they had zero chance of ever beating him, and stopped playing with him.
By the late 1970’s, nobody wanted to play against him for money. He was just too damn good. Efren was considered the best pool player in the country. And he was still a teenager.
Because he couldn’t find any opponents, he actually had to stop playing pool (pocket billiards). Instead, he learned how to play three-cushion billiards, a totally different (and extremely difficult) type of billiards game that plays on a table with no pockets.
The dude got so good at this game that he also started beating everyone and ran out of opponents. Again.
So he went back to pool.
Since nobody wanted to play him in the Philippines, he had nowhere else to go but overseas. He hopped on a plane to Japan where he made some money hustling and playing tournaments.
After finding a sponsor, a local Filipino, his next stop was the United States.
In hustler fashion, instead of using his real name, he used the name of his friend, “Cesar Morales.”
Efren was so good that without even having stepped foot in the US yet, he already had a reputation as a great pool player there. But while American pool players knew about him, Facebook wasn’t invented yet, so they didn’t know how he looked like.
He entered his first US tournament in Houston, Texas, where there were a lot of Mexicans, and with his Mexican name, pretended to be a Mexican.
The tournament result was predictable. Efren easily won, earning a couple thousand dollars in prize money, leaving all his opponents wondering who this Mexican dude was destroying everyone.
He then swept across the country over the next three weeks, hustling money games and kicking the asses of anyone who dared challenge his “Mexican” ass. Eventually, his true identity was discovered but not without managing to hustle $81,000. About $176,000 in today’s dollars. Not bad for three weeks of work.
He was promised 50% of everything he won. But his sponsor stole Efren’s share. He returned to the Philippines without getting a dime.
Sadly, the hustler got hustled himself.
Returning to the US, he went through a couple more Filipino sponsors who also ripped him off. Ironically, while it was the Americans that he was hustling, it wasn’t until he partnered with an American, that he was able to actually make and keep his money.
While Efren did win a couple tournaments during his first couple years playing in the US, tournament prizes were puny so he spent most of his time hustling money games. Because well… that’s where the money is. It’s expensive traveling around to different cities in the US trying to compete in tournaments only to win meager sums.
In 1989, he partnered up with brothers Jose and Aristeo Puyat, owners of the largest chain of bowling and billiard centers in the Philippines. The Puyat brothers were Efren’s first true sponsors. Instead of taking cuts from his money games, they simply paid for Efren’s expenses, and other Filipino pool players’, to compete in tournaments in the US.
They also helped raise local awareness of Efren’s awesomeness by holding billard events in the Philippines and inviting American pool superstars to come and play against him. This allowed Filipinos to witness Efren, their own countryman, being able to not only hang, but beat the best of the best.
He rocketed to global pool superstar status when he became the first non-American and the first Asian to win the US Open Nine Ball Championship in 1994.
Two years later, he played against Earl Strickland, considered one of the greatest nine-ball players of all time, in an event called The Color of Money. The first person to win 120 games would take home the entire $100,000 prize, the largest single-winning purse in a pool event at the time. Efren won 120-117.
In 1999, Efren becomes the first person to win the WPA World 9-ball Championship on broadcast television. Since nine-ball was an American’s game, most viewers were shocked to see a Filipino as the winner that day.
He won the World 9-ball Open held in Tokyo in 2001. The first prize amount was ¥20M (~$160,000), the biggest first prize in a pool tournament at the time.
In 2004, he became the first-ever WPA World Eight Ball Champion. This made him the first player in WPA history to win world championships in TWO different disciplines.
The dude was seriously clutch when it came to competing for big money. He won the largest single-winning purse in a pool event again. This time earning $200,000 after beating Mike Sigel, one of the greatest pool players ever, and winning the IPT King of the Hill 8-Ball Shootout.
In 2006, Efren teamed up with Francisco Bustamante to represent Team Philippines in the first-ever World Cup of Pool. They beat Team USA to win the title, proving the point that if pool was an Olympic sport, the Philippines would have won a lot of gold medals already.
Later that year, he wins the largest prize money in a tournament again. This time earning $500,000 by winning IPT World Open Eight-ball Championship.
When the year ends, he set a AZ Billiards Money List record by earning $646,000 in a single year.
Keep in mind that unlike other professional sports like basketball, tennis, or boxing, pool players don’t make a lot of money.
Excluding endorsements, Kobe Bryant makes over $23.5 million a year. Roger Federer earns over $2 million when he wins a Grand Slam tournament. Manny Pacquiao made at least $100 million in his most recent fight against Floyd Mayweather.
Elite pool players? Not even close.
It’s hard to make a living in the billiards world. The larger tournaments have first-place prizes of $10,000-$20,000. But most tournaments are usually much less.
So pool tournaments with huge prize money attract the greatest players but Efren seems to always come out on top.
But Efren isn’t just about the money. He also plays for national pride. He teamed up with Francisco Bustamante again in 2009 and won the World Cup of Pool for the second time. The first country to achieve such a feat.
In 2010, Reyes becomes the All-Around Champion for the FIFTH time in the the 12th annual Derby City Classic, making him the most successful player in the tournament’s history. Achieving this requires excellent play in not just one type of billiard game, but three.
He’s won over 70 international tournaments.
He topped the AZ Billiards Money List five times: in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006. Topping the list means he racks up the most money from playing tournaments that given year.
He’s also #1 on AZ Billards Career Money List at over $2 million. This feat is similar to Tiger Woods and Roger Federer who are both the all-time career prize earnings leaders in their respective sports.
These are just some of his accomplishments.
Many of his fellow professional players have called Efren Reyes the greatest living player in the world.
Billiards Digest Magazine named him “the best one-pocket player of all time,” a game he only picked up after he started playing in the United States!
He was the first Asian to be inducted into the Billiard Congress of America’s Hall of Fame.
He was also inducted into the One Pocket Hall of Fame.
He was unanimously chosen as “Player of the Decade” by the United States Billiard Media Association (USBMA).
During the most recent decade, he won 22 major tournaments, covering multiple disciplines: 4 one-pocket crowns, 4 eight-ball titles, and 15 nine-ball titles.
He also won the Derby City All-Around tournament five times, which requires playing well in three different disciplines (bank pool, nine-ball, and one pocket) during the tournament.
He was named by TIME magazine as one of 60 Asian Heroes because of the way he changed the image of pool not only in the Philippines, but also around the world.
He was named the Philippine Sportswriters Association Sportsman of the Year three times: 1999, 2001, and 2006.
He was in his FIFTIES when he did all this!
Just imagine what he could’ve done if he had the resources to travel outside the Philippines at a much younger age when he was in his prime.
Best All-Around Player
It’s important to emphasize the versatility of his game.
A possible comparison might be (again) Roger Federer, who is able to win on different tennis court surfaces, or Tiger Woods, who used to be able to win in all sorts of golf course conditions.
But even these comparisons are kind of weak because the rules and object of the games for both tennis and golf don’t change. With pool, or billiard sports in general, they’re vastly different.
Different games in pool require different skill sets. But whether it was eight-ball, nine-ball, ten-ball, one-pocket, straight pool, bank pool, rotation, balkline… Efren kicks ass in ALL of them.
When he won his first World Eight-Ball Championship, he had never played an international level eight-ball tournament before. It was his first time and he wasn’t even familiar with the rules! He also won the first straight pool tournament he attended.
It’s not just the different games of pool (table with pockets) that he’s won, but also billiards (table with no pockets) like snooker and three-cushion.
There are a lot of games that he picked up later in his career only after he started traveling around. Imagine Roger Federer learning racquetball, squash, and badminton in his 20’s and 30’s and then becoming champion in these racquet sports, while still winning in tennis tournaments. That’s what Efren did with cue sports.
When it comes to being the best ALL-AROUND player across different types of games, nobody comes close to Efren. His versatility is unparalleled.
Efren changed the way pool is played.
He’s like the Nikola Tesla of pool. The dude literally invents shots.
Shots that didn’t exist before, now exist. Shots that were thought impossible before, are now possible. All because of Efren.
Like this one:
He’s also like Bobby Fischer at the pool table. He claims to see eight moves ahead. His skill in analyzing shots is unmatched. His knowledge of angles are unmatched.
It’s like he has a third eye. But he doesn’t see ghosts.
He sees shots.
Shots that nobody else sees.
Listen to the commentators when you watch him on television, they often guess wrong at what he’s going to do next and and end up scratching their head and saying, “WTF? How did he think of that?!”
Like AI with his crossover or Kareem with his skyhook, Efren introduced his own new moves in pool like precision kicking (bouncing the cue ball off a rail first before hitting an object ball) and his ridiculous safety play (placing the cue ball in spots that leaves your opponent with no shot).
Unfortunately, he’s getting old. He’s now 60 and gets aches and pains when he plays and his eyesight continues to deteriorate.
The crazy thing is that even after having such a dominant career, he’s still winning! His most recent win was just this past December at Manny Pacquiao’s International 10-Ball tournament in General Santos City.
Now that he’s officially considered a senior citizen, who knows if he’ll ever win another tournament. Father Time eventually wins. But I wouldn’t bet against him.
Even if he never wins again, nobody can question the impact he’s had on pool and billiards.
Many consider Jordan the G.O.A.T. in basketball, Pelé the G.O.A.T. in football, Tiger the G.O.A.T. in golf, but these are all single sports.
Efren is the G.O.A.T. of multiple cue sports.