Efren “Bata” Reyes didn’t even bother to pack away his cue sticks into his leather case. He simply gathered the two wooden tools of his trade in his hand--tools which over a 40 year period have made him a revered legend worldwide--and walked straight out of the brightly lit TV table arena, into the lobby and then out of the Kaohsiung Business Exhibition Center and into the warm dark night of southern Taiwan.

Briefly, this defeated master of all pool stopped to unscrew the sticks, then continued on, completely unnoticed by the few fans and fellow players who were standing outside. Down the sidewalk he went, step after purposeful step, a forlorn and lonely figure, disappearing into the darkness and the sanctuary of a hotel room three blocks away.

This was not the way it was supposed to end. The legend, the master, the man whom nearly all other pool players base their proficiency at not just 9-ball, but all billiard games, was, for all intents and purposes, out of the 2005 World Pool Championship (he was officially ousted the following day).

It’s not just that Efren lost. Nobody wins all the time in 9-ball. The game is too wide open, with too much luck and circumstance involved. And the depth of talent worldwide seems to grow exponentially every year.

What surely galled Efren was the almost pitiful way in which he was sent packing. In the biggest tournament of the year, Efren was out before it had barely begun, losing to guys hardly anyone had heard of.

The field began with 128 players playing short round robin matches in groups. It was a given that Bata would make it to the knockout stage of 64 and almost assuredly at least reach the quarters and very possibly win the title for the second time.

But after an opening close loss to Chin Ching Kang of Taiwan, Efren lost to virtual unknowns Tomasz Kaplan of Poland and Jakob Lyng of Denmark. In his fourth match he won in a squeaker over Indonesian Adam Abdurahim. With three losses and only one victory, he was forced into a must win against another unknown, Roman Hybler of the Czech Republic.

But in front of only about 50 people near midnight, Efren made several uncharacteristic mistakes which in the end sealed his fate, losing 5-2. Any chance of reaching the knockout stage had been smashed.

With plenty of missed opportunities, poor shot selection and bad luck, there’s no shortage of talk about the downward demise of Efren, that perhaps he is on his last days at the top of the sport, that he doesn’t have the legendary magic anymore. People like to point out that he’ll soon be turning 51.

They wonder if the hawk-like eyes just might be failing him, the nerves no longer holding steady, the fire perhaps not burning as hot as it once did.

Clearly there was something amiss about Efren in Kaohsiung. He didn’t even appear happy with himself. Matchroom Sport’s emcee, John McDonald, remembers previous World Pool Championships and other Matchroom promoted events where Efren played. He said Efren seemed different than in the past.

“It appears he hasn’t felt right since he arrived in Kaoshiung,” McDonald said. “Normally at World Pool Championships, Efren plays pool with the kids and he gets out the chess set. But here nothing. He just doesn’t seem to have the presence of character that he normally has at a tournament. And believe me, Efren has presence. He has power over people. If he wants to win, he can win. Efren can do anything he wants.”

Perhaps it’s that last line which holds the key to figuring out where Efren stands at this point in his career. He’s as humble as they come and doesn’t speak much, preferring instead to let his cue do the talking. But if you’re lucky enough to be around him when he does open up, you better listen carefully.

Once in Hong Kong for an Asian Tour event, I got invited out with a group of Filipino players and several others for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. As we all took our seats at the large round table, I suddenly found myself sitting next to him. Efren had been knocked out in the semi-finals earlier in the day, and we shared several cold Tsingsao beers while the massive spread of food was being served.

As he downed his beer, Efren started talking to me. I was shocked because I knew him as usually being quiet, especially when he was forced to speak English. I quickly realized I was getting a lesson in his mastery.

“Nine ball is my weakest game,” he said with a wide toothless grin that was both a bit of boyish satisfaction and pride. While Efren reached out with his chopsticks and snatched a slice of pepper steak from the rotating platform in the center of the table, then placed it in his toothless mouth, I shook my head at the wonderment of that comment. Up until that point in the year, he had already won close to $250,000 playing 9-ball pool.

“I’ve played every billiard game imaginable,” he continued while chewing and drinking. “English billiards, carambola, one pocket, snooker, straight pool, eight ball, nine ball, rotation. My best games are rotation and one pocket.” He said he mastered the billiard game of carambola. “But all the carambola players died and there were no more tables. So I quit playing.” Next he told me about his snooker prowess, a sport few people know Efren once played.

“In 1987 I won a gold medal in snooker in Jakarta at the South East Asian Games,” he said. “I don’t even know the rules. I only practice for three days. I still won a gold.”

“How exactly did you learn the game?” I asked him.

“I learned the basics of the game from the good players when I’m young growing up at the Lucky 13(pool hall),” he said, still smiling that toothless grin. “But I learn all the complicated shots from watching the bad players.”

“How can you learn from watching bad players?” I asked him as I laughed.

“Because a lot of times,” he said, “the weak players make these impossible shots. They shoot even though they don’t have a chance to pocket the ball, but sometimes the ball goes in. I learned a lot of trick shots from watching bad players.”

That was quintessential Efren Reyes, a kind of off beat genius, a thoroughly regular guy with an extraordinary, almost mystical talent. After watching him disappear into the Kaohsiung night, I thought of that comment at the Chinese restaurant and put it into the current context.

Yes he is 50 years old and, yes, the reflexes and the eyes are surely not what they were when he was 20, 30 or even 40. But take a look at the world money list and see who’s on top this year; Efren Reyes, by a large margin. He’s already won four times in 2005 and in every tournament he enters, most players still consider him the favorite to win.

Efren “Bata” Reyes surely won’t be around forever. But his shocking early exit from this year’s World Pool Championship more than likely signals nothing more than a brief patch of turbulence in a career that will no doubt soar again. After all, this is a man who possesses a volume of knowledge about the sport of pool that leaves even other top professionals in complete awe.

In other words, the next time the chips are down, it’s probably not yet a smart move to bet against the Magician.

American writer Ted Lerner is the author of “Hey, Joe” and “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers.” He is also the Philippines correspondent for the bible of boxing, The Ring Magazine. He has lived in the Philippines for the eleven years, the last six in Angeles City, the hometown of Efren Reyes. Please email him at tedlheyjoe@yahoo.com . Or visit www.hey-joe.net .

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