This is an excerpt from Sports Stories, a weekly newsletter written by Eric Nusbaum and illustrated by Adam Villacin. Sports Stories covers the intersections of sports, history, and sports history. It’s free to subscribe, which we recommend you do here.
Efren Reyes would rather not have become the most famous and universally praised pool player in the history of the world. Would rather not have gone pro or been the subject of a million YouTube highlight reels or won every single pool tournament known to man. Would rather not have become so successful, so universally admired that there is a literal X-Men character based on him.
Going pro, getting famous—this was all a last resort. Because what Efren Reyes really wanted to do was hustle.
He was born in a town called Mexico, in the Filipino province of Pampanga, about 40 miles up the highway from Manila. When he was a kid, the family moved down the highway and into the capital. Efren had an uncle there who ran a pool hall called Lucky 13. Efren started hanging around the pool hall, watching the older men—the good players and the bad ones—while working as an attendant, and goofing around at the empty tables.
There was another Efren who played at Lucky 13, so the regulars started calling the younger one Efren Bata—which is Tagalog for Efren the Kid. It didn’t take long until Efren Bata surpassed big Efren and every other grownup at Lucky 13. There was something about him. He had a genius for processing information. He could see things happening on the table that other people couldn’t. He would practice for hours and hours. Before opening. After close. Standing on milk cartons to reach the middle of the table.
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