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Exclusive Interview with Roberto Gomez: The Secret Identity of “Superman”
Nov 10, 2007, 11:29 PM

MANILA, Philippines – “Superman” is a more than appropriate nickname for Roberto Gomez of the Philippines, because although the barrel-chested 29-year-old is creating a sensation with his heroics at this year’s World Pool Championship – leading to a berth in the finals today – hardly anyone knows anything about this former TV newsman’s mild-mannered life off the table.

Gomez isn’t a known quantity even inside his own country, and wasn’t among the dozen or so Filipino players who earned invitations to the 128-man WPC field. He had to play in seven different qualifying tournaments to earn one of 10 open spots in the field.

Billiards Digest’s Mason King sat down to a late dinner with Gomez on Saturday night, the eve of his championship match. They were joined by a group including Gomez’s live-in girlfriend, Pearl, and Gomez’s managers, Perry and Verna Mariano of Bugsy Promotions, which has drastically reshaped Filipino pool over the last two years by taking young talents like Gomez under their wing and providing them with training, direction and the means to travel to international events.

Gomez represents a shift in the Filipino model for creating a world-class pool player. Instead of living a hard-scrabble life in this Third World country and turning to high-stakes pool “action” matches as a sole means of survival, Gomez was university-educated, had a good job in a respected field, and decided to pursue tournament pool as a career.

That decision seems to be paying off, although not in terms of sleep. Although exhausted from his quarterfinal and semifinal victories on Saturday, the perpetually grinning and joking Gomez was nervous and wired on Saturday night. He had slept maybe three hours the night before, and couldn’t sleep at all the previous night.

During a traditional dinner of shared beef and fish dishes, Gomez said, “My pulse is moving fast, my brain is moving fast. … I’m thinking about tomorrow – thinking about being the world champion, thinking about how if I lose I will regret it forever. I want to think of something new, like I’m flying, like I’m Superman, so I can sleep. Or thinking I’m with a beautiful girl in a waterfall. I think of things that are really nice so I can go to sleep. But still, the billiard balls, the pool, are still in my head.”

Gomez grew up in Mindanao, the second largest and easternmost island in the Philippines, and started playing pool at 9 years old.

“I idolized Efren ‘Bata’ Reyes,” Gomez said of the Filipino pool legend. “I love Efren Reyes. Every game that he has ever played that there is a [video] record of, I have it on video tape. … And I enjoyed playing pool.”

Although he dreamed of being a professional pool player some day, he followed a traditional path through the local school system. And he had other passions in his teen years.

“My dream was to be an architect,” he said. When it came time to consider advanced study, Gomez tried to sign up for a course in architecture, but “the only open courses were broadcasting or political science. So I just chose broadcasting.”

He attended Western Mindanao State University and eventually took a job as a field reporter for the ABS-CBN network in the Philippines, “looking for crimes and accidents and other fresh news,” he said. However, he stayed less than two years. Among the job’s drawbacks: He was not enamored with speaking English on-air.

He ended up pursuing pool more aggressively, and took on a sponsor. He came to the attention of Perry Mariano when one of Mariano’s friends suggested that they bet on Gomez in an upcoming challenge match with Leonardo Andam.

“I saw him and he beat Andam. He was good,” Perry said. “The next time around, we bet on Gomez, and we lost. When Gomez would see me, he would play bad. He was trying to impress me. He really wanted to be in my stable of players.”

The Marianos eventually signed him about two years ago. “Great players hit the ball a certain way – very slowly and subtly, and the effect is tremendous,” Perry said. Gomez had the gift, like other Bugsy stablemates such as Dennis Orcollo and 2006 world champion Ronnie Alcano.

Gomez started an aggressive practice regimen that the Bugsy group has developed. “First, we play 70 racks a day, without taking a rest,” he said. “It’s about four hours standing alone at the table, playing yourself, racking the balls on your own and scoring, every day. I enjoy that. But it’s really tiring. It’s really tough. And when we come late, even one minute, they make us run as a penalty.” Bugsy players also practice hours of cut shots, kick shots, rail shots, safeties, and whatever else a particular player requires to round out his game.

Another essential element of the Marianos’ plan is to send their players abroad so they get international playing experience and begin building a resume. However, it can be tough to acquire visas for unknown players. The Marianos twice applied for visas so Gomez could compete in tournaments in the U.S., and twice they were denied.

Still, there were signs that Gomez would be a force to reckon with. As a qualifier in the 2006 World Pool Championship, Gomez went undefeated in the group stages, only to be defeated in the first knockout round by cohort Alcano, who eventually won the tournament.

In February, the Marianos were able to send Gomez to a small but highly regarded tournament in Norway called the 8-Ball Battle of Scandinavia. The field included heavyweights such as Marcus Chamat, Niels Feijen and Raj Hundal. In his first trip ever outside the Philippines, Gomez finished fifth in the 8-ball division, and first in an accompanying 9-ball contest.

In June, the Marianos were finally able to secure him a spot on the elite, all-Asian Guinness 9-Ball Tour, which only fields 24 players per event. He finished tied-for-fifth in each of the three stops he competed in this year.

Gomez still didn’t have the resume to qualify for an automatic spot among the Philippine contingent at the World Pool Championship, so he went the route of 10 qualifying tournaments held in late October and early November. He won the seventh event.

In the WPC field, he advanced easily through the group stages, beating Niels Feijen, 9-6, and D. Singh Lilly, 9-4. Then he went on an absolute tear through the knockout rounds, beating Alex Lely, 10-1; former world champ Chao Fong-Pang, 10-2; Feijen, 11-0; 2005 runner-up Kuo Po-Cheng, 11-3; and Karl Boyes, 11-4. He will face England’s Daryl Peach in the final.

Gomez has amazed spectators and fellow players alike with his shotmaking prowess and imaginative play that can only be described as Efren-esque – no doubt honed by his many hours studying the master. Just one example from the Boyes match: Escaping from a safety, he executed a two-rail kick along the short rail that hit the object ball at midtable and comboed in the 3. Nearly all his safeties have both scoring and defensive components.

Unlike Reyes, he has developed a menacing visage at the table and in his chair, which is entirely intentional. “One of my strategies is that I put a little angriness in my performance, which I got from Perry,” he said. “I put in my mind that my opponent is my enemy.”

Otherwise, he is as ebullient and bubbly as they come. He may be nicknamed “Superman” (a sobriquet coined by Reyes himself when Gomez wore a Superman T-shirt at a tournament), but at five-feet-seven inches and with heavily moussed hair, he’s really more like 2004 champion Alex Pagulayan on steroids and an all-hamburger diet. Friends call him “crazy” sometimes, “because he can be so childlike and fun-loving,” Verna Mariano said.

Like Pagulayan, Gomez has learned how to focus his energy. He no longer loses interest in matches when he develops a big lead – a fault in the past which he has not committed at the WPC. “At the World Championship, when they give you a chance, you have to grab it,” he said.

He also has mastered the soft break that has proved so effective on the main TV table at the WPC, and he has no apologies for those who think it has made play at the championship too predictable this year. “With the soft break, I’m in control of the cue ball, and the wing ball always goes in. I don’t care [if people don’t like it]. If I win the tournament, I don’t care if anybody watches.”

Of course, winning the WPC will bring fantastic rewards, not the least of which is the $100,000 top prize (of which the Marianos will keep 40 percent, per their player contract). Like Alcano in 2006, he is likely to get bonuses from the Filipino government. And, being a known quantity and national hero, he will much more likely receive visas for international travel and events.

His plans for the money include establishing an education fund for his and Pearl’s daughter, Samantha, born this summer. But at the moment, he’s really looking forward to some quality time with a pillow.

“I’m pretty sure I’m finally going to be able sleep when I am the champion,” he said.

Even Superman needs his rest.