Filipinos take extreme measures for bite at 9-ball riches

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MANILA, Nov 9 (Reuters) Ronnie Alcano pulled out all his teeth for good luck on the pool table and the Filipino cueman's attention to detail helped lead him all the way to a global title.

Last year's world 9-ball champion performed the extreme act of dentistry to emulate his idol Efren Reyes, a man famed for his gummy grin, who became the first Filipino to win the crown in 1999.

''It was Efren who introduced the wonderful world of billiards (pool) to the Philippines,'' Alcano told Reuters on the sidelines of this year's world championship, taking place this week at Manila's Araneta Coliseum.

The Philippines are the most-represented country at this year's competition, with 15 nationals entering the 128-man contest and four reaching the last 16 at a venue where Muhammad Ali beat Joe Frazier in the ''Thrilla in Manila'' 32 years ago.

The best-of-33 racks final takes place on Sunday with the winner due to pocket 0,000.

Since Reyes' success in 1999, the Southeast Asian archipelago has won the championship a further two times, including Alcano's victory last year.

The 35-year old, like Reyes, was beaten in the round of 64 knockout stage this week but Francisco Bustamante, 2004 world champion Alex Pagulayan, Roberto Gomez and Joven Bustamante remain on course for a fourth Philippine victory.

Asked why his compatriots are so good at pool, Reyes gave a simple answer.

''Because they need money,'' said the 53-year-old, often referred to by his nickname 'Bata' and also known as 'The Magician'.

MAKING MONEY Now a member of the Billiard Congress of America's Hall of Fame, Reyes started playing pool as a boy in the northern province of Pampanga, where he slept on the tables at night.

One of nine children and the son of a barber, riches were his motivation.

''When I saw the people making money, I started practising,'' said Reyes, who lost his teeth years ago and prefers to play without dentures.

These days, with arthritis in his hands, Reyes does not win as many tournaments as he used to but happily admits he has accumulated a fair amount of wealth from the game.

Pool in the Philippines is followed and played with the same passion as soccer in South America or cricket in India.

Prize money and endorsements are the stuff of dreams in a country where just under half the population live on 2 dollar or less a day.

Reyes remains the inspiration for millions of school children, some too young to remember his famous victory, who practice their shots for hours in pool halls and garages.

Ernyl Reyes, 15, who trains every day in a sweltering pool hall west of the Araneta Coliseum, says The Magician is his idol but he would not pull out his teeth to copy him.

''I don't need the luck,'' he says, confidently circling the pool table, cue in hand.

In this week's championship, money is not the only motivation for some players.

The crown prince of Brunei, Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah, came back for a second year to try his luck but bowed out in the early stages.

For Alcano, who puts his false teeth in when he is doing endorsements, the love of the game is a key motivation but with six children from three different women, he admits money is important.

''That's why I play,'' he joked of his large family.

REUTERS RJ BD1216

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