When he broke, it was hammerlike. It almost hurt my ears: a terrific crack! The colorful balls caromed and danced and spun everywhere.Nothing went in, though, lucky for me. So I lined up my first shot. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I was playing pool, eight ball, at College Billiards Center with local pool pro Victor Castro. Castro, 53, isn't just the best Filipino player in the area, he's one of the best pool players in San Diego.I dropped the five, but left myself with poor position. My second shot, a long, crooked line at the four ball, barely missed.And then it was his turn. Castro stepped forward and examined the table. "Not bad," he said. "Not a bad layout." Then he ran eight straight balls for a dominating victory. Russia has chess, Brazilians own soccer, and Kenyans run long distances better than everyone else. Canadians take hockey, the Swiss ski, and the English have their cricket. Everyone plays baseball and basketball well -- and despite what Americans might think, those are quite probably the world's sports. Here in the United States, our first love and greatest expertise seems to be football. And Filipinos? Filipinos shoot pool. Victor Castro owns a three-bedroom house just east of National City, where he lives with his wife, who is a secretary, and their 12-year-old daughter. The family has three cars, one of them a Lexus. When I first got Castro on the telephone, I started out by asking if a guy could make a living playing pool in this town.
"Yes," Castro said. "But you do it by teaching pool and going to tournaments. I used to run College Billiards for about four years, but now I just teach and try to win tournaments. My immediate goal is to qualify for an IPT tour card -- the International Pool Tour. This is the biggest pool tournament ever. The last IPT was won by Efren Reyes, who's Filipino. And he won over $500,000."
The International Pool Tour was created in 2005 and works a little bit like golf's PGA tour. One hundred IPT qualifiers are held every year, with the top two finishers in each event earning the right to compete for a tour card. Holding a card, and playing on the tour, means playing in high-profile tournaments for large amounts of money. The top six earners on the 2006 money list made well over $100,000.
"The guys on the tour are the best players in the world," Castro told me. "And this year I'm hoping to make it.
"You know, I also do exhibitions," he said. "I'll do parties in a poolroom or a bar, and I'll come in all dressed up, and I'll be the pool artist. I do trick shots and answer questions about pool, and sometimes people want to play against me. So that's pretty good money."
What pool games did Castro play for money? And how much money did he risk?
"Most games are nine ball, race to the nine, and maybe you play $20 a rack, sometimes maybe $50 a rack. In the IPT they play eight ball, where one guy has high balls and the other has low and you race to the eight ball, so I've been playing a lot more eight ball lately. Same wager, usually about $20 or $50 a rack. But I've seen guys playing $2000 a rack before, in Baton Rouge, in Louisiana. Big money. But there's not a lot of gambling going on in San Diego. Even in other cities nowadays. There's a lot of tournaments. A lot of leagues. So you can play for money in other ways."
So Castro must practice a lot?
"I try to play five or six days a week," he said. "Two or three hours in the morning, and then some more at night. I'll do set-up shots for a good half hour, and then I try to get my break going. Then I get in for a whole hour with eight ball, just playing by myself. Because that's the most important. The IPT is big money. So I have to get sharp with my eight ball. But you can't just practice. If you just practice, you're not going to be any good."
So he had to compete. Did Castro gamble at pool?
He hesitated. "I guess you'd say that. Everybody does it. We have to. To keep your game, you have to play for money. If your heart's not beating hard... To get good, you've got to put pressure on your heart. You've got to maintain that killer instinct."
Did Castro hustle people?
"I don't really do that," he said. "I just come out and tell them, 'If you don't know me, I play pretty good.' I don't really want to go and pretend that I don't play."
So Castro would approach people to play for money?
"Not usually," he said. "Usually, they see me practicing on a table, and then they come up and ask me, and then they usually ask for weight. They want a game of nine ball, and they want me to spot them a ball. They want a handicap. It's not that I'm one of the top Filipinos in the world, but they see me playing and they see I'm Filipino, and they think that I'm one of them. A lot of Filipinos, they play pretty good."
And why was that?
"You know what?" Castro began. "I was [in the Philippines] in 1986, and I was at the top of my game, and I was watching Efren Reyes play somebody, some Filipino named Lenny, and Reyes, who's the world champion now, the best player in the whole world, he got drilled a couple sets. And then I looked around, and there were, like, 30 people in the crowd who could give me weight. That's how many great players there are in the Philippines. A lot of the players over there, if they don't play good, they don't eat."
The Philippines is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, or rather, it's a many-many-islands nation. The Philippines archipelago has 7107 atolls, islets, and water-locked landmasses in all. Some of these islands are large, but most are not much bigger than, well, a pool table.
Castro grew up in Cavite City, on Luzon, the largest island. "Cavite City's close to Manila, in the northern Philippines. It was a nice town. Most of the classes in school in the Philippines are in English."
And Castro grew up playing pool.
"I started young," he said. "When I was 12, I was already playing. That was all you did. There were so many poolrooms around my school. But you know, it's not true that a lot of Filipinos play pool. The ones who play, they play a lot. But the most popular game when I was there was basketball."
I mentioned a game I'd heard about in the Philippines, using chips and a powdered table.
"Yes." Castro sounded nostalgic. "That's a game for kids. It's also called pool. They hit numbered chips into pockets on a small table."
And they use pool sticks?
"No," Castro laughed. "It's just a piece of stick. We got started gambling on pool so young. It's that killer instinct. Efren Reyes started gambling on pool when he was nine. And me too. I used to play for my lunch money. I either won or I didn't eat."
Castro told me that most Filipino-Americans get along with each other. "Of course, in the Philippines, it's different," he said. "There are rivalries from town to town and island to island, but once we come here, we all get along. My wife's from Visayas" -- a group of islands in the center of the country -- "but there's not much difference between us because we're from different islands. We do have different dialects, but that's about it. Some Filipinos do have different accents in English."
Eighty percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic. But wasn't there also a large Muslim contingent in the Philippines?
"The Muslims don't come to the U.S.," Castro said. "The Muslims live mostly in the south, on Mindanao, and they stay there. Those are scary folks, some of them -- the Abu Sayyaf terrorists. But I never had any trouble with them personally while I was growing up."
Castro came to the United States when he was 19. "I emigrated in 1973 with one of my brothers, because it was martial law," he said. "It was when Marcos was there. Believe me, you don't want to live in a place where there's martial law."
Ferdinand Marcos was president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. He declared martial law from 1972 to 1981 and remained in power in that country as a virtual dictator.
"There was a curfew," Castro said. "You couldn't be on the street after midnight. And there were no jobs there. Living was hard."
Castro's older brother was the first family member to become a United States citizen, after he joined the U.S. Navy in the 1960s. Then, after Castro's parents had emigrated here as well, it was easy for Castro to make the decision to pull up his roots. Castro's parents and two brothers all still live in San Diego.
When he came to the United States, Castro worked various odd jobs in factories, all the while keeping up with his pool game. Then, in 1975, he joined the Navy and still played as much pool as he could. After leaving the Navy, he worked in quality control for General Dynamics until the plant closed in 1993.
"When the plant closed down," Castro told me, "I said, 'I'm not working anymore. I'm going to go shoot pool.' And so basically in '93, I did it. I went on the road, went all over the U.S., and played the pro tour for a number of years. That was the PBT, the Professional Billiard Tour, which doesn't exist anymore. But I never won a tournament, though. My highest finish in a professional tournament was fourth place."
San Diego's Filipino community centers around National City and Mira Mesa, Steve Yagyagan told me by phone. Restaurants, grocery stores, and other Filipino businesses line Plaza Boulevard and Eighth Street in National City and Mira Mesa Boulevard near Black Mountain Road. Yagyagan, who lives in Chula Vista, is a recent past vice president of the Filipino-American National Historical Society, San Diego chapter.
"Many Filipinos in San Diego hail from Hawaii, where pool halls were common from the turn of the 20th Century through the 1970s," Yagyagan said. "It was common for Filipinos to marry Polynesians and other people from throughout the Pacific Rim. In Hawaii, Filipino sugar and pineapple plantation workers used to flood the pool halls, cue stick in one hand and gambling money in the other. My dad's friend even made a square, wooden pool table with flattened wooden cues. Although the cues were not spherical, a lot of math (geometry, physics) went into the art of the game.
"I used to invite my schoolmates over to challenge them. Some of my friends, the recent émigrés from the Philippines during the 1970s, were outstanding players. They knew how to measure the angles and use the right amount of speed to make all the shots they called. The games became serious -- to the point that I'd send them home if they beat me two to three times."
Five of the world's top 14 players are Filipino. Efren Reyes, who lives in the Philippines, is almost indisputably the world's best pool player right now. In July, he won the International Pool Tour World Open Eight-Ball Championship in Reno. The week before, he'd played in the IPT North American Open Eight-Ball Championship in Las Vegas. I was in Vegas," Castro said, "and I watched him play. And he lost. He was in the top six, but he lost to two players -- two Filipinos actually -- but he lost, and he told me, 'Victor, the next tournament, up in Reno, I'm going to win it.' And that just tangoed in my head. I was, like, 'Wow.' Because he went up to Reno, and he did it. He won. He told me he was going to do it, and then he did. Do you know how tough that is?
"Efren Reyes is my best friend," continued Castro. "He's the godfather of my daughter. So I'm really proud of him."
How did Castro and Reyes come to know each other?
"In '93, I went into the U.S. Open tournament," Castro began. "And there were all these Filipinos there, so we started talking to each other. But Efren's not a guy that you could just befriend easily. The thing was, the Filipinos would share rooms on the road. Back then, it was tough. You might not win very much money, but it was expensive to travel and everything, so the Filipinos would room together on the road. And one time, I was doing pretty good, I had a lot of money saved. And I was by myself in my room. But next door, there was, like, four guys in one room. So I told them, hey, there's an extra bunk in my room, if you want to use it. And I didn't make them pay anything. And that really started it. We went to tournaments together, and we'd bunk together. And then Efren started winning, and then he'd buy dinner and stuff, so that really started it. It became a friendship."
And it was more or less the same with all the Filipino players?
"In nine years on the tournament scene, we always stuck together," Castro said. "It's funny, but most of my friends in San Diego are white, but when I'm on the road playing pool, I hang out mostly with Filipinos."
Were there any better players than Castro in San Diego?
"Well," he thought for a moment. "There's only about ten players in San Diego who play pretty good. They're all Caucasian."
And how often did Castro play against these ten players?
"Once in a while," he said. "But basically it's like the sharks on the Nature Channel. If you see the great white sharks, when they're all in the same area, they don't battle each other. They work together and eat all the little fish. Well, it's the same with the pool sharks. You go to a poolroom, and the good pool players, they go after the bottom of the food chain."
Did Castro own a pool table?
"No. I believe owning a pool table is bad for your game," he said. "Then you see the same table every day. You get used to it, instead of going out to play."
How many cues did Castro own?
"I've got three right now," he said. "Plus a break stick. I've got a couple sticks that were made in the Philippines, and I've got a McDaniel. The ones from the Philippines were made by a guy named Jesse.
"I bought the McDaniel five years ago for $1500," Castro said, "but one of the guys that plays in L.A. tells me it's worth $3400 now." Then he added, "The ones from the Philippines were only a couple hundred dollars each."
And why have a different break stick?
"It saves your tip," he told me. "You don't break with your playing stick. Also the break stick can be used as a jump stick for the same reason."
Eventually, I went out to play a little pool with Victor Castro. When we met, at College Billiards Center, on El Cajon Boulevard and 53rd, on a Wednesday afternoon, only 5 of the 20 tables were occupied: mostly solo players practicing, shot after shot.
In the minutes before Castro arrived, I sat there in the pool hall and took in the scene.
It was like any bar -- alcohol, TV, jukebox -- but instead of a dance floor or dartboards, the major area was taken up by those funny squat green rectangles -- pool tables -- all evenly placed. And at one o'clock on a Wednesday, the only sounds were the intermittent clacks of billiard balls banging into each other.
A pool player lining up a shot looks a lot like an archer cocking a bow. Take aim, pull back, and smoothly follow through. It's all eyes, grip, touch, and rhythm. It's an action of admirable focus and cadence. Power means little in pool. It's more about steadiness and pace.
When Castro arrived, I explained to him that my pool game was like the little girl with the little curl in the middle of her forehead: when it was good, it was very good indeed, and when it was bad, it was horrid.
He suggested we warm up a little.
Castro had a narrow physique but was also muscular, five foot six, with a thin mustache and fine, black hair dusted by strands of gray. He seemed tan, and, true to what I'd heard about the physical appearance of Filipinos, Castro looked like a perfect cross between a Mexican and an Asian. But his facial expression is what got me. It was as if he was equally ready to smile or get angry. When I tried to think of a phrase to describe the default facial expression of Victor Castro, what I came up with was "amiably intense."
Castro recognized my cue from ten feet away, fresh out of the carrying case. "That's a Mali, right?" Castro had brought one of his custom Filipino cues to play that day.
After a few warm-up shots, and before we started playing, Castro showed me a few of his trick shots. He made six balls at once in six different pockets. He used the triangular rack in some nifty jump shots. And then he challenged me to a game of eight ball.
The first rack, we went back and forth, both missing a lot and not leaving the other player anything promising to shoot at. It seemed as though Castro was playing down to the level of his competition. Maybe he was trying to give me a chance. It didn't matter, though, since he won the rack anyway.
On the second rack we played -- as I related at the beginning of this story -- it was a different matter.
After getting crushed in that second game, I put my cue away and sat down to watch Castro give a pool lesson. Alan Derivera, 42, had been a student of Castro's for over six months.
"I like the game," Derivera said, when I asked him why he was taking lessons. "I just want to get better."
"Alan's also Filipino," Castro told me. "But he looks like a Mexican, though." And so he did, with his darker skin and long black hair.
Derivera warmed up by stroking straight shots, and Castro watched and commented.
"That's a good shot."
"Pumasok!" said Derivera, disbelievingly.
"Pumasok," answered Castro.
Was that Tagalog? I asked, referring to the most common language of the Philippines.
"It's pronounced Ta-GAH-log," Castro said. "Yes, that's Tagalog. It means, 'It went in.' "
"Oo." ("Yes." Pronounced "oh-oh.")
Tagalog had a relaxed cadence. And then, every once in a while, a Spanish word would get thrown in. Castro explained that the numbers in Tagalog are the same as in Spanish, and other words are the same too, "like la mesa is 'table,' " he said. "But our accent's different."
Derivera continued stroking shots under Castro's guidance.
I asked Castro the next time he might be playing for real. He told me there would be a tournament on the following Monday at On Cue Billiards in La Mesa. "It's small money," he said, "a $12 buy-in. But it's fun and competitive, and it keeps me sharp."
In fact, on the following Monday, Castro came in third place at On Cue, for a $50 payout. "Bad luck," he told me, when I asked him why he came in third. "And first place was $200. Pretty good. But I got some terrible leaves, and I couldn't pull it out."
Just after dark on a Thursday night, all the tables at On Cue Billiards were full. Among the small groups of laughing friends and young couples on dates, at a table tucked in the corner, two men in particular were engaged in a serious-looking game.
Reggie Gobaleza, 55, a retired naval officer, told me that he'd lived in San Diego since 1977.
"I grew up in the Philippines and started playing pool when I was nine years old," Gobaleza told me between shots. On this night, he was having a game of nine ball against fellow Filipino and Navy vet Val Fonseca.
Gobaleza had an even thinner mustache than Castro had, and he was thickly built and short, maybe five foot seven at most.
"Pool players are lowlifes," Gobaleza said. "That's always been the rule. Although that's changing. Pool's on television a lot now. And they have a dress code. Plus poolrooms like this one are pretty nice."
Indeed, On Cue Billiards did look like a classy joint: good lighting, clean, well maintained.
"Pool is big in the Philippines because it's a cheap game," Gobaleza theorized. Then he went on. "Filipinos are a territorial people. We have lots of islands over there, and not a lot of money, so we do things in little groups, and little areas compete against each other. There's not many cars to get around. So it's hard to tell who's the best at something, unless you're really the best. You have to be the champion of your town. Then maybe you get to play against other towns. By the time somebody's good at something in all the Philippines, you know that he's really, really good."
Gobaleza's mother was a Filipino historian, and he'd studied history himself.
"The Spanish brought billiards to the Philippines," Gobaleza said. "And they ruled for 333 years. But when the Americans came in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, they brought pocket pool. The Americans beat the Spanish in Manila with one cannon. Commodore Dewey. He fired one shot in Manila Harbor, and that was it. The Spanish surrendered. And then the Americans introduced pocket pool to a country already enamored with karambola, or billiards." (Billiards is pool without pockets, played on a large table with smaller balls and different rules.)
Gobaleza echoed something Castro had told me earlier.
"Pool isn't the national sport," he said. "Basketball is. Everybody plays basketball. We used to be good internationally, but we're too short as a people to compete now." And then, in an interesting and perhaps apocryphal aside, Gobaleza fed me this tantalizing tidbit of info. "Filipinos invented the jump shot in basketball," he said. "For smaller people to beat the bigger ones, they had to be artistic. So Americans used to shoot underhand, or they would take set shots. But then Filipinos came up with the jump shot, back in the late 1930s."
Unverifiable, but as likely to be true as any other story documenting the first jump shots in basketball history.
Just about every shot that Gobaleza and Fonseca were "supposed" to make, they did. Tough shots too. Breaks and runs. Tactical safeties. Just first-rate, competitive pool. And if I hadn't been there, making Gobaleza talk, I got the impression that neither one of them would've spoken any words.
"We're pretty evenly matched, usually," Gobaleza said.
But on this night, Gobaleza was cleaning up. They were playing nine ball in a race to seven racks. In other words, whoever took a "set" of seven racks would win $50. Gobaleza had already prevailed in the first set, seven racks to three. And when I showed up, he was on his way to winning a second one, seven to four.
But besides being a good pool player, Gobaleza was a true storyteller. And the whole time he played, he talked.
"In the 1950s and '60s," he said, "only the very poor or the very rich played pool in the Philippines. And of course they never played against each other. But times have changed, and now that we have the world champion, it's made pool more popular all over the country. The Philippines has only ever had world champions in two sports, boxing and pool, and of course boxing and pool are pretty popular over there now."
I asked Gobaleza why Filipinos are such good pool players, in general. I cited the fact that the Philippines had won the first annual World Cup of Pool in August 2006.
"We're hard workers," he said. "When we get good at something, we stay good, because we work extra hard at it."
I told Gobaleza I had trouble spotting Filipinos.
"We have brown skin and tough facial features," he said. "We're the same color as Mexicans, but we don't look Mexican. And we look tough, because most Filipinos in the Philippines have had tough lives. The only ones who smile a lot either came from rich families or they're not right in the head."
But then, I'd noticed some wonderful smiles from Filipinos. Gobaleza himself had a charming way of lighting up whenever he thought of something funny. But then it occurred to me that Gobaleza's view and my own were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Perhaps the underlying toughness made the smiles shine that much brighter. Perhaps a Filipino's smile meant more because he'd only smile when he meant it.
So I began to sum up the equation in my head -- watching Gobaleza and Fonseca play and listening to Gobaleza talk -- and I thought I'd figured out why Filipinos were the best pool players in the world.
They had a natural toughness, fostered by a past full of colonialization and martial law; there was a long and storied history with the sport of pool itself; Filipinos were evidently good multitaskers and hard workers; they had a timely hero to rally them, namely Efren Reyes, the reigning world champion; there was an islander's inborn sense of geometry and maximizing tight space.
Oo. Filipinos. Pool. It made perfect sense.