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"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.

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