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Running The Tables

When money is at stake, Dennis Orcollo is the best pool player on the planet

MANILA IS HUMID. A pungent, fruity odor works its way into the pool hall from a canal beyond the door. A man in a sweat-stained dress shirt breaks a nine-ball rack and a cracking sound filters through the room. As the balls come to rest, so does their clatter, and in a far corner of the parlor, the best player in the world silently levels his stick above the green felt. He shoots. And he misses.

The few fans around the table trade looks with one another. This isn’t what they expect. They want to see a little magic—a trick shot or an inventive technique or a subtle ploy that reveals why Dennis Orcollo is the best there is.

Orcollo, 33, doesn’t look like anything special. He’s 5’5″ and would weigh less than his 150 pounds if not for the small belly pushing out his shirt. You wouldn’t pick Orcollo out of the crowds of Filipinos in the pool halls that are as characteristic of this country as the jeepneys that ferry passengers through its crowded streets for nine cents a ride. His appearance is well-suited to a game in which the goal is not to win a few racks, but to be underestimated—and thus take the money your overconfident opponent has wagered on the match.

Orcollo has won so many money matches over the years that he is forced into long stretches of solitude, like this one at Star Billiards Center, where he is practicing. No one underestimates him or plays him for money anymore. Not on equal terms, not without asking him to spot several games or a few balls—carrying “weight,” as it’s called. The skill that lifted Orcollo from poverty to upper-middle class is decreasingly applicable these days.

Seclusion is the penalty for being the moneygame king of the Philippines, which has become the international center of pool. Playing the game, and betting on it, is the national passion. Even Manny Pacquiao, boxing’s welterweight champ, has been a regular in the action.

Orcollo attempts several more shots, the balls still refusing to drop. He isn’t missing because he has lost his touch, but for a reason that is nearly as unsettling: He needs a new cue stick.

His favorite warped in Manila’s moist climate. A $2,500 SouthWest weighing 19.5 ounces, he used it to win last year’s player of the year award from the World Pool-Billiard Association. He sold it recently at a tournament in Kentucky. Now Orcollo is searching for one he can “believe in,” the cue stick being the pool player’s material link to the cue ball on the table. In a tight money game, in the final rounds of a tournament, when simple shots become difficult and the pool hall’s heightened tension can feel as stifling as humidity, belief in the cue stick calms a nervous heart. “If you don’t have a good cue,” Orcollo says in his accented English, “you can make a mistake.” The search for a new cue lasts as long as it must.

It is unfortunate for Orcollo that faith cannot be expedited. In one week, he travels to the United Arab Emirates, where he will defend his World 8-Ball Championship. Such tournaments now hold his only prospect for making a living.

He steps away from the table, unscrews the cue. The fans press forward. Orcollo is a two-time Filipino athlete of the year. He is often on TV. He signs these autographs, smiles for several pictures. But a pool player isn’t supposed to smile at the table, particularly when he can’t find a cue.

THERE WERE 1,000 POOL HALLS in New York City around 1900. When the Philippines became an overseas U.S. possession, in 1898, it became one of the first recipients of American cultural export. Pool seeped into local life after World War II, starting in the town of Angeles City, north of Manila, where bars and brothels materialized around nearby U.S. military bases. GIs spread their R&R dollars around the town’s dusty streets, where playing a game of pool for money provided an escape from the periods of drudgery and danger that made up their lives.

Efren Reyes and other locals who grew up near the GI pool halls learned straight pool, one pocket and 9-ball. Day and night, they studied stroke, draw, and placement. They mastered the game’s intricacies so well that when they began hustling GIs, it was hardly fair. The tables had turned so dramatically that by the 1980s, Reyes brought his game to the U.S. and hustled $80,000 in a single week, according to popular legend. Word of his escapades filtered home, and Reyes, already considered a top-tier pool player, became a folk hero.

At the time, the Philippines was not known for much in the world besides the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, and it was this environment into which Dennis Orcollo was born. Orcollo’s father was a fisherman in the southern village of Mangagoy, but a typhoon claimed his life when the boy was just 5 years old. At 9, Orcollo dropped out of school to run racks on his grandfather’s pool table, routinely beating grown men for 20 pesos a game. He was a pure shooter, cleanly sinking shots that others routinely missed. At 15, Orcollo left Mangagoy to see how far this skill could take him.

He arrived in a frontier gold town called Mount Diwalwal, a mean place. Men stole from one another. They gunned each other down in the streets for small gold nuggets. Orcollo found little gold, selling the flecks he panned from a river in exchange for time at the local pool hall. There he heard the tales about Efren Reyes and his successes abroad. Orcollo left Mount Diwalwal, but not before he spilled molten gold on his right hand, his stroke hand, the mean town leaving its mark on him in the end.

For the next two years, Orcollo bounced around, playing pool in the pockmarked and backroom pool halls that scattered across the country like a solid 9-ball break. He ate once a day, a handful of rice or a thin soup made from chicken bones scrounged from café trash bins. Bedding down in rusted auto frames abandoned on the side of the road, Orcollo would dream of Reyes, the type of dramatic figure encountered only in fantasies. In the pool halls, Orcollo heard stories about Manila, about the big money in a place called Sunrise Billiards, about the action that paused only when it came time to spot the rack for a new set. Orcollo hopped a ferry, slept standing up for several days, crammed like a fish in the hold with a thousand other souls transiting between stages of desperation. He was 19 when he landed in Manila with 300 pesos in his pocket—seven bucks—and he walked straight to Sunrise Billiards.

Sunrise felt like home. It was home. It was open night and day, so Orcollo could sleep in a chair, then wake up and practice his game. He didn’t say a word to the seasoned regulars. He took it all in and tried to stay awake long enough so they wouldn’t see him slink off to a corner, back to his chair. Then one day Orcollo opened his eyes, pulled himself up in the chair, and there stood Efren Reyes.

From that moment on, Orcollo kept track of Reyes, following him through Manila’s pool halls, through the action, trying to understand what made Reyes better than those he beat with machinelike regularity. “I was a good shooter,” Orcollo says. “But I didn’t know how to control the cue ball. I watched how Efren controlled the ball. It was like chess.”

While Orcollo was learning technique on the table, he also began to employ the tricks of the hustle. He bought a shirt identical to the uniforms of the Manila university students who were hooked on pool, and whose families could afford to give them spending money. In the afternoons, Orcollo would cruise the pool halls around the colleges. The kids thought he was one of their own, underestimating him to the tune of 500 pesos per day, enough for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Orcollo’s new luxury. At night, he would return to Sunrise, to his own studies of Reyes, who in 1999 would win pool’s world championship.

Orcollo was learning how to kick the ball off a break, leaving the cue in the middle of the table, open for shooting. How to move the cue ball around after a shot, always leaving himself an easy path to run the rack. His game broadened, became refined. Orcollo was no longer the fast-and-free kid from Mount Diwalwal who would sink difficult shots but ultimately snooker himself. He was becoming a complete player. His competitors took note of his unemotional, even-keeled demeanor. If they watched his face and not the balls on the table, they couldn’t tell if he had made a shot or missed it. Whispers spread at Sunrise Billiards that with the right kind of weight, a backer could make money off this kid. Soon enough, one did. A backer named Stanley arranged Orcollo’s first real money match, against Antonio Lining, a lefty who had made a name for himself on the international circuit. Orcollo won the 5,000-peso match, causing the action to swirl around him. Soon, Stanley was arranging money games five times a day, allowing Orcollo to leave the college kids behind. He went on a winning streak that lasted a month. At the end of it, his cut, 20,000 pesos, was enough to rent a small room.

For the big-time backers and managers who fed off the action of an interesting proposition, Orcollo had become impossible to ignore. And in 2003, what once was a dream was now arranged into reality. At Sunrise Billiards, Orcollo stared across the table, and chalking up his cue in the dim illumination of the overhead lamp was Efren Reyes, the 48-year-old who was still decidedly in his prime. A race to 25. For $2,000. Reyes carried weight, giving up a two-game handicap to Orcollo, or two games on the wire. Orcollo lost 25-9. Not even close.

Over the next year, Orcollo played Reyes so often, and lost so often, that he was forced to consider that he didn’t belong on the same table as the man who once occupied his dreams. “I was always thinking about Efren,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about the game.”

Still, during that time, his matches against Reyes were getting closer. And Reyes was now carrying only minimal weight, one game on the wire, when the two met in 2005 at Coronado Lanes in Makati City. The game was 10-ball, a race to 25 for $2,500. “I am young,” thought Orcollo. “His only advantage is experience.” The thought steadied him. For the first time in all of Orcollo’s pool playing, the money didn’t matter, the action didn’t matter. It wasn’t about how much he had in his pocket. It wasn’t about finding a place to sleep or something to eat. It was about the game and nothing else. The final score: 25-24, Orcollo.

PERRY MARIANO IS MOANING. He sits on a stool in Hermes Bar, his three-table pool lounge in Quezon City, which neighbors Manila. Mariano is Orcollo’s manager, and he’s watching his man knock balls around a table, testing another stick. Orcollo looks at the cue in his hands, then looks at Mariano, and says, “I don’t know, boss.” Mariano closes his eyes, his graying hair reaching to his chin, and he moans loudly again. He is getting a massage.

Hermes Bar is for serious players only. There are no friendly games of pool in the Philippines. From the squatters’ slum, to the dank pool halls that ring the universities, to the polished parlors that host international players, money is always on the line. There is an economy: The match fixer, the referee, the kid spotting the rack—everyone gets a cut of matches that run from a buck to tens of thousands of dollars and that can continue for days.

The men who rule this world are the financial backers. They put up the money. The players take about 30 percent of winnings, but they risk nothing, except their reputations as bankable commodities. Finance prevails here, as in all realms, making the players pawns to the backers, objects shuffled around from one table to another, from club to club, for the purposes of “the action” that the Filipinos talk about as if it were the air that they breathe.

The action in Filipino pool was never as good as it was when Manny Pacquiao got involved. Born a month apart, Pacquiao and Orcollo shared a hunger that made one a great boxer, the other a great pool player. Like most Filipinos, Pacquiao grew up playing a modified version of pool on a small, rotating table, using plastic discs. He watched international tournaments on the live feeds that dominate the national networks. The welterweight boxing champ developed an appreciation for pool, along with a need for the action around it.

Pacquiao opened a pool hall at the Pan Pacific Manila, the best hotel in town, and he started backing players more than a decade ago. Inevitably, the greatest boxer in the Philippines ran into the greatest pool player in the Philippines. About two years ago, as Pacquiao watched Orcollo decimate his stable of shooters, he decided that the better action would come in staking Orcollo instead. For other backers in town, the attraction of getting into a bet with the most famous man in the country outweighed any concern of facing Orcollo on the table. The money got so big—with matches up to $60,000, often taking place at Pacquiao’s high-end Asia Poker Sports Club—that Pacquiao and Orcollo became the biggest game in town. “I made a lot of money with Manny,” Orcollo says.

Then, about eight months ago, Pacquiao closed his pool hall at the Pan Pacific Manila. He told friends that he was turning to God. Some say he is cleaning up his image for politics, maybe even for a run at the presidency of the Philippines. Others say that Pacquiao lost a bundle—$11 million—in a Singapore casino, and that he realizes the need for a break in the action. The only reliable fact is that Pacquiao and his money have left Manila pool for the time being, and the action has waned.

In the Philippines, pool without action is hardly worth doing. Perry Mariano understands. He once owned 20 Manila nightclubs, at the same time. He acts as the liaison between the pool halls and the go-go bars, and the cops and officials who turn a blind eye to what goes on in Manila at night. Mariano straddles the line between what is legal and what just happens. About 10 years ago, he ran across a young Dennis Orcollo. He kept him afloat, paying him $350 a month, in return for 40 percent of his tournament winnings—the standard manager relationship. Later, Mariano called up his FBI friends at the American embassy in Manila and secured Orcollo a visa (after he had been twice denied), which enabled him to play lucrative tournaments in the U.S. Success can make someone a target in Manila, but while physical threats against Orcollo have come and gone, people understand that it’s bad business to cross Mariano. When Mariano asks his guests if they would like to visit a go-go bar, a plainclothes cop from Manila police intelligence arrives at Hermes Bar to provide armed escort.

Where there is action, violence follows, and Filipino pool is no exception. Years ago, the young prodigy Boy Bicol, an ambidextrous player with great potential, was gunned down along with his manager. People said they hadn’t paid off a lost bet. In 2009, a pool cue maker named Edwin Reyes (no relation to Efren Reyes) opened the door to his Quezon City home to accept a delivery. Shot dead. They said he was telling too many stories about which underworld figures pulled the strings on which big players. So it is serious when Orcollo says that he owes Perry Mariano a debt of gratitude, or utang na loob in the native Tagalog. This means that he can’t refuse any request that Mariano makes of him. Without Mariano, Orcollo could be dead like Boy Bicol. Or just another guy spotting a rack.

“WHY DOES DENNIS GAMBLE?” asks Ahmed Ibrahim Saif. “It is against our religion.” Ibrahim sits in his Bedouin-white dishdasha on a dais above the playing area of the World 8-Ball Championship in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. Fujairah does not have Abu Dhabi’s $900 billion in cash reserves. It has no record-setting skyscrapers, as Dubai does. What it has instead is the honor of having hosted the World 8-Ball Championship for the past eight years. Ibrahim, an official in Fujairah’s civil aviation department, once visited a Daytona Beach pool hall, and he liked it so much that he opened the first of its kind in Fujairah. But while Ibrahim is an enthusiast of the game, he may never understand that for Filipinos such as Orcollo, gambling on pool approaches the sacred.

Cross-cultural misunderstanding is a staple of the international pool circuit, a five-continent collection of the introverted, the unpresentable, the affable and the obscure. Devoid of serious sponsors and an American tour, professional pool has become so marginalized that players chase $10,000 pots around the globe, often carefully calculating exactly how far they’ll need to advance in a particular tournament to cover their travel expenses.

This life on the margins makes for a strange grouping. In Fujairah, there are Japanese players, who keep to themselves and speak no English. The four members of the Polish team wear matching red jackets, as if this were the Olympics. Max Eberle, a top American player, has traveled here at the expense of his sponsor, Scorpex, a waste incinerator. Markedly absent in Fujairah is Reyes, now 57, who travels less frequently each year.

Ted Lerner, an American of no pretense who serves as the press officer of the World Pool- Billiard Association, strolls through Fujairah’s Al Diar Siji Hotel. He points across the lobby to a thin-waisted Asian man dressed in black. “That’s Fu Jianbo,” Lerner whispers in excitement. “Chinese. An amazing player. You know what he lists on his player profile as his favorite activities? Gambling. And smoking.” Lerner cups a hand to his mouth, yelling across the lobby. “Hey! Fu Jianbo! Yo, what’s up, man?” Jianbo looks up, startled. Does he speak English? “Not a word,” Lerner says.

All around the Fujairah Tennis & Country Club, where this event takes place, are craggy mountains, suggesting the crude sets used to depict alien landscapes in the original Star Trek series. Fujairah is not the strangest place on the pool circuit, but it is up there. Last year, players visited Ordos, a Chinese coal boomtown built for a boom that never occurred. Constructed to house 1 million people, Ordos has a population one-fiftieth that size, its streets and apartment towers ghostly silent, a fitting home for international pool. The game is so depressed that players go anywhere someone is willing to pay so much as an honorarium (in Fujairah, first place earns $20,000; reaching the round of 32 players nets $2,000).

Orcollo’s victory in 2011’s 8-ball tournament accounted for roughly a third of his tournament winnings for the year. Still, Mariano does not splurge on Orcollo, renting him a room at a cheap hotel near a Baskin-Robbins, where he bunks with a few other players. When Orcollo opens the door to his room, dirty laundry can be seen scattered around the place, pots and pans and dishes piled in the sink. “Look,” he says, pointing to the stove. “A kitchen. We can cook.” Even the best man in the global game has to watch his money.

After Orcollo beat Reyes in 2005, the two men went on to play each other many times, playing even, with neither of them carrying weight. Orcollo also began playing the other top players in the Philippines and downing them. He beat them all—Reyes, Francisco Bustamante, Ronnie Alcano—again and again. Orcollo so thoroughly dominated the best Filipino players that they laid down their cues and declined to play him anymore. Or, rather, they couldn’t find any backers willing to risk the money. Mariano paid a couple of Filipino newspapermen to write that Orcollo had become the “money-game king” of the Philippines, a fabricated title. “They’re reporters,” Mariano says. “What do you think I paid them? Chicken feed.”

His new visa in hand, Orcollo packed off to tournaments in America. He initially played poorly. In a money game, in a race to 25, a race to 100, he often starts cold, missing a few shots, allowing his opponent to get on a roll, to get overconfident. Then Orcollo storms back. He likes to play from behind. But in the tournaments, matches are much shorter and there’s no time for his strategy to play out. He’s had to alter his approach, become more disciplined, scan the direst situations and maintain concentration throughout a match. “Find a solution,” he’d remind himself. Soon he was picking up titles in Reno, Louisville, Sacramento, building a name that carries such weight in international pool that players who know him well find it difficult to consider him one of their own. “I don’t think of him as Dennis,” says Eberle. “I think of him as ‘Dennis Orcollo.’ ”

In tournaments, this name is usually enough to beat the lower end of the draw. But Nasser Al Mujaibel, an unheralded Kuwaiti, plays Orcollo tough in their first-round match in Fujairah. A race to seven, the match is tied at four. Orcollo is using a Filipino cue stick. And from the sight of one or two missed shots, it is clear that he doesn’t believe in this cue. But he puts his game together and runs the three final racks of the match, moving on in the tournament 7-4.

Orcollo’s victory pleases his Arab hosts, who are familiar with dynasty. In the palace of His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, WPA president Ian Anderson recaps the recent events of the tournament. Sheikh Hamad has ruled Fujairah since 1974, and he listens to Anderson with the kindly patience that he has developed receiving countless petitioners over the years. He speaks little, instead humming a low vibration that rattles through the room, soothing the varied supplicants and servants. “We have Dennis Orcollo back this year,” Anderson says. Sheikh Hamad hums his low vibration. “Hmm…,” he says. “Dennis. Hmm….”

The reaction to Orcollo’s name is livelier later that evening in the nightclub of the Al Diar Siji Hotel. “I would like to introduce to you …” Ted Lerner bellows into a mic, employing a ring announcer’s cadence, “… the reigning, defending 8-ball champion of the world: Dennis Orcollo!” The darkened souls in the nightclub rouse themselves, rising to their feet in applause. Orcollo waves to the crowd, but the smile soon fades from his face. Maybe life was better when people underestimated him, when all of the action surrounding him was real action.

The next day, in the tournament’s second match, Orcollo arrives to the tennis club to meet his opponent, Karol Skowerski, who peels off his red Polish team jacket and limbers up with his cue stick. The match is a race to nine, and on the opening break, Orcollo sends the cue ball off the table. Ninety minutes later, in easy fashion, Skowerski has won 9-3. Like the crack of a break, the news scatters across Fujairah: Orcollo is out.

After the match, Orcollo does not appear to be overly concerned by the result. He says the cue never felt right. And as the final match of the tournament plays out days later, Orcollo stands over a practice table on the far side of the venue. He is testing yet another cue, this one made in Dubai, firing the balls vigorously around the table—as though he wants people to see.

HIS LIFE IN MANILA remains routine. Orcollo’s son and daughter play in the living room of his tidy two-bedroom apartment in Quezon City. Dinner is over. His wife is in the kitchen, directing their two maidservants as they wash the dishes. This is Orcollo’s middle-class existence, a far cry from Mount Diwalwal. Orcollo sits at the dining table alone, running his eyes across the many trophies that stock the shelves over the TV. He wears a new watch, inscribed “WPA Player of the Year.” Just before heading to the UAE, the Philippine Sportswriters Association named him one of its Athletes of the Year for the second time in a row.

But this year, he has lost his 8-ball title. And he has fallen to sixth in the new WPA rankings. Whispers are circulating around Manila. Orcollo is slipping, they say. When Orcollo’s phone rings, he knows they have begun to underestimate him again.

He books a few games. Small-money games, 5,000 pesos, a hundred bucks here, a hundred bucks there. The action is light. But it is action. He wins, pockets some money using one cue, then another. Then one night in March, Orcollo finds himself at Hermes Bar, finishing up the last rack of another small-money game. Perry Mariano watches from his stool. He’s getting another massage. The last ball drops, and Orcollo readies to go home, unscrewing his cue.

But he doesn’t go. Because the man on the next table asks him to stay. One more set. A money game. A hand swipes the chalk off the rail, then lifts it to a cue that stands next to an old, recognizable face. The match with Efren Reyes is set—one-pocket, 5,000 pesos, barely action at all, the two men coming together more for pride and standing than anything so ephemeral as money. The atmosphere in Hermes Bar shifts. Play stops on the other tables. Side bets start working their way around the room.

What Reyes doesn’t know, what the bettors don’t know, what nobody but Orcollo knows, is that the cue he is now screwing back together is a cue he can believe in. It’s a Ted Harris cue, American-made, which Orcollo has borrowed from a Chinese-Filipino collector in Manila. It has “good sound,” Orcollo believes, “good hit, good control.”

For the first time in a long time, Orcollo feels like he’s in control. He looks over at Mariano. They know that this was what the moneygame king of the Philippines had to do to get a match. He had to lose.

The rack is set. Orcollo grips his cue. The scar on his right hand goes white, recalling the sting of molten gold. The best player in the world silently levels his cue stick above the table’s green felt. He shoots. He does not miss.