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As Efren Reyes’ generation fades, PH billiards banks on ‘bata’ movement

As the legends of Philippine cue sports see fewer and further action in between, a youth movement has been taking shape over the past few years. 

ABS-CBN caught up with 3 of those names — Chezka Centeno, Johann Chua and Jeffrey Roda — during one of their practices in Manila well ahead of their respective appointments in the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur.

The billiards events officially begin on Tuesday.

Chezka Centeno, 18

Chezka Centeno started playing billiards when she was 5. Dominic Menor, ABS-CBN News

For Albert Centeno, the idea behind putting up his own billiards hall was to serve as a source of income for his family. He didn’t imagine his new place would be a jump-off point for someone with ambitions of becoming one of the country’s top players — his own daughter, Chezka.

She was 5 when Albert went into the pool business. When Chezka played, she needed to stand on an empty soft-drinks crate so she could reach the table surface. It didn’t take long before Albert realized the girl’s interest in billiards was more than just a passing fancy. 

Chezka frequented tournaments in the Centenos’ hometown Zamboanga City. When his family happened to be in another city, Albert looked for local games wherein he could sign his daughter up. “Tuwing magbakasyon kami, punta kami ng Cagayan de Oro, Davao ganoon, dala ko iyan si Chezka. Dala namin iyong tako. Maghanap kami ng bilyaran, magpalaro talaga. Iyon, magkapera si Chezka riyan,” Albert remembers.

She occasionally won and beat adults, taking home whatever cash prize was on offer. Albert says it wasn’t unusual for spectators and bystanders to go up to him and tell him how good Chezka was. He had known that for a while now. She hadn’t turned 10 years old yet.

As Chezka’s talent grew and small-town competition thinned out, Albert took her to a bigger stage. At the Philippine National Games in Bacolod city in 2011, where she was up against the best young talent around the country, she made it to the top 3. 

The following year, Albert registered Chezka for the World Women’s 10-Ball Championship in Quezon City, where she placed in the top 16. With her steep ascension up the billiards ranks, it was inevitable that American tournament organizers would take notice. She received an invitation from Johnny Archer to play in the States, but couldn’t make it because her visa application was denied. 

When that didn’t pan out, Albert instead booked her for the Kremlin Cup in Russia. He recalls Chezka being the youngest in a field of nearly 100 players and just one of two female participants. She finished in the top 24. “Binigyan kami ng special trophy na puro tsokolate lahat sa loob,” Albert says. Chezka was 12 years old.

When the Zamboanga siege happened in 2013, the Centenos were in their hometown. Chezka, the second youngest in a family of 7 daughters, saw the conflict first-hand, and that shook her up.

“Gusto niyang mag-ensayo. Sabi ko sa kanya huwag muna. Wala, sarado lahat. Parang ghost town iyong Zamboanga, doon sa amin. Iyong mga bala tumatama sa bubungan namin. Tago ng tago lang kami doon sa CR. Ganoon, parang na-trauma iyong mga bata,” Albert recalls, adding that he put Chezka’s name down for a few tournaments, but she couldn’t bring out her best..

In 2014, she was ready to put that harrowing experience behind her. At the Palarong Pambansa, she grabbed the gold medals in the 8-ball and 9-ball tournaments. In June of the same year, the Billiard Sports Confederation of the Philippines (BSCP), cue sport’s national governing body, invited Chezka to be part of the national team. 

She won her most prestigious tournament to date in 2015 when she bagged the gold medal in the Southeast Asian Games in Singapore. To take the title, she needed to beat Rubilen Amit, the Philippines’ top female player, in the finals. The score was 7-5. Chezka was a few days short of her 16th birthday.

With a championship under her belt at every level, Chezka, with Albert’s guidance, parlayed her string of successes into big-money opportunities. Her win in the Amway Cup in Taiwan in 2016, according to AZBilliards.com, awarded Chezka $ 34,000, the biggest single-tournament cash prize she has pocketed thus far. Finally gaining entry into the States, she added a new hemisphere to her income stream, playing in tournaments from Florida to Oregon. 

She was in China in June for a women’s tournament in which she placed tied for third. This week, she is in Kuala Lumpur hoping to be able to defend her SEA Games title in women’s 9-ball.

Chezka mostly stays in Manila because it’s accessible to the BSCP headquarters where she trains. Albert says he makes sure that either he or his wife fly from Zamboanga to accompany Chezka at their condominium in the Big City. She has accomplished a lot in her sport it’s easy to forget she only just turned 18 in June.

All of Chezka’s older sisters are college graduates; the youngest still goes to school. Albert wishes Chezka finished her studies, too, although the odds of that happening are close to zero given her career trajectory. So Albert does what any parent will do for his children.

“Palagi akong nag-advice sa kanya,” Albert says, “kung andiyan ka na, lahat ng support namin sa iyo, sa iyo talaga.” 

Jeffrey Roda (from left), Alvin Barbero and Johann Chua are representing the Philippines in the Southeast Asian Games. Dominic Menor ABS-CBN News

Johann Chua, 25

Elite player and gym rat are phrases that don’t usually go together in one sentence in the world of Philippine billiards, but Johann Chua knows that in today’s game becoming the latter is key to developing into the former.

“Iba na rin ang tulong ng fitness sa iyo. Iba talaga iyong panahon (dati), wala namang ganoon. Iyong mga bagong generation ngayon, maraming preparation sa lahat ng aspeto,” Chua says.

Physical workouts the way Chua does it — swimming, hitting the treadmill and maintaining a 4-times-a-week schedule at the gym — were unheard of during the time his senior, more high-profile teammates ruled the sport several years back.

But with Chinese and European players apparently incorporating more strength and conditioning training into their regular regimen, Chua said it doesn’t hurt to adopt the philosophy, too. Besides, it has its own personal benefits for the 25-year-old.

“Importante lang na hininga mo, iyong puso mo napapagod para kapag nasa laban ka na, lalo na iyong mga pressure game, kaya mo,” he says.

Chua’s first look at billiards was when he was 9, and it wasn’t the Pinoy giants of the game that got him hooked. It was a world 9-ball championship match between Finland’s Mika Immonen and Germany’s Ralf Souquet. When Chua told his father he was interested to play, his dad immediately bought him a small pool table; a few weeks later, the elder Chua got him a regular-sized one.

As soon as he started to show promise, he gave up his studies after elementary school to become a full-time player.

From local tournaments, Chua branched out to Asian competitions, regularly participating in Japan, China and Qatar. His breakthrough win came at the All-Japan Men’s Championship in Amagasaki city in 2015. That title helped him to land 44th place in the yearend money rankings compiled by AZBilliards.com.

He couldn’t sustain his gret run of form in 2016, though, plummeting all the way down to 145 in the rankings, a steep drop caused by a lack of preparations. Chua says he needed to take care of “mga personal na gawain.”

This year, with $ 18,245 in total earnings so far, based on numbers from AZBilliards.com, Chua appears to be back in a groove and is on pace to shatter his total earnings in 2015 ($ 23,105). He is playing in more tournaments in the US — from Oregon to New York — and placing in the top 5 more consistently.

This is a season of firsts for the Manila native. He debuted in the World Cup of Pool in London, where he partnered with Carlo Biado for a quarterfinal finish in June. On Tuesday, he will play in 9-balls singles in his first Southeast Asian Games.

He got his ticket to Kuala Lumpur after he topped the qualifying tournament organized by the BSCP in May, a field that included accomplished players such as Warren Kiamco, Dennis Orcollo and the king himself, Efren “Bata” Reyes.

Chua says he has played against Reyes many times already, the first was when he was 12 about 2004 or 2005. 

“Noong time na iyon, parang bibo ako. Bilib na bilib ako sa sarili ko noong bata ako. Parang feeling ko kapag naka-shoot ako ng bola, ang galing-galing ko. Iyon ang feeling ko noong na time na iyon,” he recalled.

“Tapos noong nakalaban ko si sir Efren, parang kahit ma-shoot ko iyong bola, parang tingin ko mali iyong ginagawa ko. Nahihiya ako.”

Gone are the unfettered brashness and deep bouts of self-doubt. In its place are a measure of self-assurance and a determination not to leave anything to chance, traits that were evident as recent as the London World Cup.

“Normal iyong kaba, pero nasa kung paano mo lang iha-hande. Iyong time na iyon noong nasa World Cup ako, siyempre first time ako naglaro sa ganoong atmosphere,” Chua says.

“Kumbaga parang kaba, hindi talaga mawawala iyon. Siyempre ginagamit ko na lang iyong experience ko rin kahit papaano sa ibang events para i-handle iyong pressure.”

Jeffrey Roda, 17

A lot of “pos” and “opos” are thrown in the interview, a gesture of respect that’s second nature to Pinoy teenagers such as Jeffrey Roda. 

On the pool table and anything to do with his game, it’s the writer who takes a bow. 

Roda is one of 3 Filipinos competing in snooker in the SEA Games. For any kid in this country who grew up dreaming of making a name in cue sports, the usual pathway is via 8-, 9- or 10-ball. 

But Roda, who started out in pocket billiards, ended up playing snooker out of necessity. With a dearth in new prospects there, Roda was asked to give the game a try.

This isn’t Roda’s first foray into a sport more associated with the Brits. When he competed in the 2015 SEA Games, he was fielded in English billiards. “Mahirap pong matutunan kasi larong pang-matanda po iyon. Ako po iyong pinakabata doon,” Roda recalls. “Iyong mga nakakalaban ko, may 10 times world champion na.”

Roda was 7 years old, a second-grader from Surigao, when he first picked up a cue stick. His father was an avid player in his youth and he wanted to pass his passion for the game onto his son.

He registered a blip on the BSCP’s radar during the 2014 Palarong Pambansa in Laguna, when he won the titles in the 8- and 9-ball competitions. Those victories got him an invite from the federation to join the national team. In 2015, he won bronze in the Asian junior championship then reached the finals of the world juniors but lost.

With a disproportionate roster, the BSCP agreed to move Roda to its other events, a challenge that he welcomed. Because of his adaptability and nose for any sport that requires a cue stick, Roda, who took a year to excel in snooker and 6 months to be good in English billiards, has become a versatile shape-shifter at the highest national level.

With everybody on the Philippine team and most likely every opponent he faces older than him, Roda says he accords them respect but he isn’t intimidated by them.

“Mas gusto ko nga po iyong mga ganoong kalaban ko,” he says, “para doon po talaga makakapulot ka po ng aral, experience — iyong magandang experience.”

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