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?