Dennis Orcollo's pool career began when he was eight and his grandfather brought home a beat-up table. They lived in a coastal village on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Years before, Orcollo's father, a fisherman, was lost at sea in a storm. Soon the boy was spending entire nights on the table, and at age 16, he left home for a gold mining town called Campostela, where he hustled pool. Within days no-one would play the prodigious teen, and so he left for the capital, Manila, with a handful of dollars and nowhere to sleep. It was the mid 1990s and Orcollo had picked a good time: Pool had been a national sport since the Second World War. It was about to become lucrative too.
Today, you can find pool halls in Manila's restaurants, its schools, and even its slums, where some streets are ankle-deep in excrement and industrial slime. Each table is a refuge from horrible squalor—even in the worst neighborhoods, where locals make cash reconstituting leftover food for pennies, people shoot pool for three Filipino pesos (seven cents) a rack.
Some tables are operated by local strongmen who've salvaged them from scrap. Others, in upscale bars and casinos, are islands of shining green baize amid fogs of cigarette smoke. The dream of countless young sharks, when Orcollo arrived in town, was to work their way from the slums to the halls to the "money games," which were watched by hundreds and could earn hustlers thousands of dollars. By 2004, Orcollo was taking up to $5,000 a game from some of pool's biggest names, all over Manila.
"I started so small then I grew so much," said Orcollo, who is now known as pool's "Money Game King" and lives in Quezon City. "There's so much joy because I didn't really expect to do what I do for a career."
Pool has been popular in the Philippines since before World War II, after the country had been sold by Spain to the US in 1898. Its golden period wouldn't be until 1999, when Filipino Efren Reyes beat Taiwan's Chang Hao-Ping at the World Pool Association (WPA) Nine-Ball Championships in Cardiff, Wales. It was the sport's first televised final and Reyes, nicknamed Bata—"kid" in Tagalog—oozed laid-back charisma and came with a backstory of having worked his way up from a youth spent sleeping rough on pool tables.
Soon, pool in the Philippines got a cash infusion. Sponsors came onboard. Pool halls were renovated. Even the government pumped money into the game, backing players abroad and putting on tournaments at home. The country hosted two of the next eight WPA Nine-Ball Championships, and in 2008 the organization held its first-ever World Ten-Ball Champs in Manila, as the Nine-Ball tournament took a two-year hiatus due to the global economic crisis.
But despite a $400,000 purse, the biggest Filipino stars, including Reyes and Orcollo, didn't show. Why not?
The short answer: greed. Each player had his own manager, and each manager wanted a bigger slice of the pie. The best way to do that, they figured, was to set up independent tournaments where their own players would be the star turn.
"There was a crab mentality," said Ted Lerner, a Pennsylvania-born pool announcer and author who now lives near Manila. "These guys are starving to death and they can't even play in their own backyard."
In most cases, competing in the Ten-Ball Championships would bring players more wealth and prestige. So why did so many let their managers keep them away? "Dennis's manager helped him out from the beginning when he was a nobody," Lerner said. "There's this sense of what Filipinos call utang na loob, a debt of gratitude. That gratitude culture is stronger than money."
The WPA Ten-Ball Championships were held in the Philippines in 2009 and 2011. But the country's biggest stars still stayed away. Its Nine-Ball cousin returned to Dohar, Qatar in 2010. But despite Francisco "Django" Bustamante's victory that year, Filipino stars weren't playing each other in the big games.
The money dried up. The sponsors and the government stopped financing as many games. The best players—Orcollo included—remained on the international circuit but spent less time competing at home. Kids in the slums still dreamt of stardom. But the top layer of Filipino pool had been shaved right off. Even the money games faded away. Promising young players took their talents elsewhere and are teaching pool in the US and other wealthy nations.
A lot of them want to be the next Orcollo. But the chances he took to be a global star have faded. "There are thousands of amazing players but no opportunity," said Lerner. "There's no system for them to get involved." Pool in the Philippines permeates every level of society. But its pinups have packed their bags.