MANILA, Philippines – Grace Village in Quezon City might seem an odd spot for a billiards venue. But tucked away among the graying warehouses and factories in its narrow streets, is the Star billiards center. Taking up some warehouse space in the Star Paper complex, the facility boasts 36 tables, where players of all skill levels shoot around.
“Noon 2013 to 2014 dito ako 3 to 3. 3 pm hanggang 3 am,” says a lanky Jeff Ignacio, dressed in a blue shirt, grey athletic shorts and flip-flops.
(From 2013 to 2014 I would be there from 3 pm to 3 am)
No doubt the practice has paid off for the Batangas-born son of a Surigaonon pool player who was raised in Las Piñas. He is back in Star, shooting around on the evening of his flight to the Middle East for the 2016 World 9 Ball Championship.
Ignacio may only be known to the cognoscenti in Philippine pool. But he could join the pantheon of Filipino greats if his recent form persists. Last year he snapped off the prestigious US Bar Table championship in Reno, Nevada, downing American Skylar Woodward in the final. He also reached the semis of the Derby City 9 ball earlier in the year.
Just a few weeks ago he won the Kantou Open in Japan, defeating Japanese veteran Hayato Hijikata in the final. His closest call in a world ranking event might be his loss to Chang Yu Lung in the final of the China Open in 2014. You can see the match in its entirety here.
Like all Filipino pros, Ignacio enjoys playing for cash. But he has taken a liking to tournament play, and understands that success in that arena will bring him great rewards.
“Kung ako ang pipiliin, mas gusto ko maglaro sa mga tournament. Kung manalo ka sa malaking tournament dadami ang sponsor mo. Pwede kang makilala at baka mag-iba ang buhay mo.”
(If I could choose, I prefer playing in tournaments. If you win a big tournament you could have more sponsors and become more well-known. Your whole life could change.)
He will get his chance when the World 9 Ball Championship is played in Doha, Qatar from July 25 to August 4. The Philippines has not won this event since Django Bustamante defeated Kuo Po Cheng in the final in 2010.
Currently ranked 32nd in the world, Ignacio does not have the world ranking points to make it automatically to the “Stage 2” main draw, so he must first play in the “Stage 1” qualifying phase. With 12 spots at stake in that phase, Ignacio will be a hot favorite to reach the 128-player Stage 2 and be in contention for the $40,000 USD first prize.
Apart from a few exceptions, big tournament success has eluded Filipino shooters of late. It has been postulated that Filipinos are better at money games, since they play them more often. Tournament play seems to require a different kind of focus and mindset.
Ignacio says that his buddy Woodward is a very good example of a player suited for tournaments.
“Kung mag-money game siya dito sa Pinas maraming pwede tumalo sa kanya pero sa U.S., pag may tournament na mabibigat, madalas siya ang champion.”
(If he played money games here in the Philippines many would beat him, but in tournaments with strong fields in the US he wins a lot.)
Ignacio identifies Johann “Bubwit” Chua as one Filipino who has shown his mettle in tournaments. He won the coveted All-Japan Championship last year and was a quarterfinalist in the 2015 World 10 Ball held in General Santos City.
Chua will be in Qatar along with a bunch of other top Pinoy talent. According to Ignacio, Dennis Orcollo, Lee Vann Corteza, Warren Kiamco, Ramil Gallego, and Raymund Faraon will be present. In terms of world ranking points, Carlo Biado will be a threat. Ranked sixth in the world, he is the only Pinoy in the top ten. Biado lost the world 10 Ball final in 2015 to Ko Pin-yi of Chinese Taipei.
Middle East-based Pinoys like Antonio Gabica and Elmer Haya are also likely to participate.
Ignacio says that Bustamante and Efren Reyes will not enter. Neither have the requisite ranking points to make it into Stage 2 automatically.
For many casual fans, those two are the be-all and end-all of Filipino pool. But Ignacio and his cohort want to prove otherwise. Not only is the current crop of players very solid, but young talent is also on its way. Ignacio rattles off a list of other up-and-coming Filipino players, like Anton Raga, Baseth Mapandi, Patrick Gonzalez, and Zoren Aranas, who is practicing a few tables away as we speak.
“Walang takot yan sa kalaban,” says Ignacio of Aranas. “Mabilis tumira at ang galing magpa-hulog.” (He is not afraid of anyone. He shoots quickly and has really good pocketing.)
No doubt Ignacio is a similarly fearless player. Despite his young age, he has an air of quiet confidence that should serve him well. He also has world-class ability. In the practice session I witnessed he executed a perfect 3-rail kick shot and also a superb 6-foot stun draw from one object ball to the next.
Technically he has a stroke that may not have the buttery smoothness of Reyes or Ronnie Alcano, but there are no glaring fundamental issues.
“Jeff is a very talented guy who is also a lot of fun to be with,” says former world 10 ball champ Darren Appleton. “He has all the tools to be a world champion.”
“Jeff is a rising star on the World pool scene,” asserts pool commentator Jay Helfert.
“He already has wins over great players like Orcollo, Alcano and (Mika) Immonen. He is considered one of the top two players in the new generation of Philippine pool champions along with Johann Chua.”
Ignacio’s pool story is a familiar one. He learned the game in the pool hall owned by his father. Ignacio quit pool in 2007 to focus on studies, but restarted a year later. From then on, there was no looking back. He traveled all over southern Luzon playing money games, with his father as his match-maker.
“Doon ko kinukuha ang pambaon ko sa eskwela,” admits Ignacio. (That’s where I got money to pay for my school expenses.) Jeff is a high school graduate but instead of going to university, has immersed himself into his pool career.
When he isn’t playing, Ignacio spends time with his wife, Christine and their three-year old son, Sebastian. His only other interest aside from pool is music. He plays the guitar and a bit of drums. A brother who is a musician is a sometime jamming partner.
But can he lead the Philippine pool renaissance and win a world title?
“Pinapangarap ko, pero di ko masasabi kung ibibigay.” (I dream of it but I don’t know if it will be given to me.)
This coming week in Doha could be one step towards making that dream a reality. – Rappler.com
For more information on the 2016 World 9 Ball championship, click on http://wpa-pool.com/web/index.asp. In past years live streaming of the event has been provided, and chances are there will be one this year.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
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