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."