PoolRoom

Destiny’s Child

Fulfilling the promise of his vast potential, Taiwan’s Pin Yi Ko wins the World 9-Ball Championship, dashing Shane Van Boening’s hopes of bringing the title back to the U.S.

By Mike Panozzo

Photos by Richard Walker

There is little argument that the World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA) World 9-Ball Championship is the toughest tournament in the world to win. Unlike the sporadically staged WPA World 10-Ball and World 8-Ball championships, the World 9-Ball Championship has been staged every year since 1990, with the exception of 2008 and 2009, when the event failed to secure sponsorship. Among the game’s elite, it is the title revered above all others, and every nation’s champion players fight for the opportunity to wedge themselves into the talent-laden 128-player field.

“With some dazzling shot-making (and a few fortunate rolls), Ko jumped into the record books.”

And as if the sheer depth of talent isn’t enough, the fickle and unpredictable game of 9-ball itself makes the task of advancing through the treacherous group stage gauntlet and winning six single-elimination matches even more daunting. One only need look at the unlikely finalists in recent years to realize the degree of difficulty the annual WPA championship provides. For every Darren Appleton, Niels Feijen and Thorsten Hohmann that have reached the title match, the 9-ball world championship has seen its share of Albin Ouschans, Yukio Akagariyamas and Ronnie Alcanos — all world-class players, but hardly perennial international champions. No, the WPA World 9-Ball Championship is not often kind to predetermined favorites.

In 2015, however, the World 9-Ball Championship delivered perhaps the perfect title match — heavyweights from opposite ends of the globe, each seemingly predestined to win the coveted world championship at some point in their careers.If there are players more devoted to the game or more obsessed with practice and perfection than Taiwan’s Pin Yi Ko and America’s Shane Van Boening, they’ve yet to be discovered. The 26-year-old Ko, a wunderkind since winning back-to-back WPA World Junior 9-Ball Championships, has finally met the pool world’s lofty expectations with wins at the CSI 10-Ball Championship and, more recently, the WPA World 10-Ball Championship in late February. Van Boening, arguably America’s best player since three-time world champion Earl Strickland, has dominated U.S.-based tournaments for nearly a decade, and has shed his reputation for underachieving on foreign soil with back-to-back World Pool Masters titles.

“Van Boening appeared headed to his first world title, having thrashed his first five opponents in the final bracket by a margin of 55-15.”

All of which made the pair’s epic battle in Doha, Qatar such a delicious treat for the thousands of pool fans from around the globe who hung on every shot while viewing the match on a live stream from the mostly empty Al-Arabi Sport Club. And when Ko pounced on an errant Van Boening safety attempt to secure the title, 13-11, in a nail-biting finale, the overwhelming sentiment was that the finalists had not seen the last of one another on pool’s biggest stage.The win made Ko, who battled through several close calls but never wavered in his resolve, the first player to claim two WPA world titles in the same year. For Van Boening, who had authored several otherworldly performances en route to the title match in hopes of becoming the first American player to win the World 9-Ball Championship since Strickland’s 2002 triumph, the loss was bitterly disappointing, although it further dismissed any notion that he can’t stand up to top-flight international competition.The long road to the World 9-Ball final began with a play-in stage for 13 open spots, a stage of uninvited hopefuls that included former World 9-Ball champions Akagariyama and Fong Pang Chao (both of whom advanced). That was followed by the double-elimination group stage, which produced four players from each of 16 eight-player groups who advanced to the 64-player single-elimination rounds. Despite spreading the top-ranked players through the groups, upsets traditionally abound in the opening stages of the tournament and 2015 proved to be no different. No fewer than five former world champions booked early flights home during the topsy-turvy group stage, the most stunning of which was defending World 9-Ball champion Feijen. After winning his opening match, the normally consistent Dutchman suffered through back-to-back 9-8 losses, first to Alexander Kazakis of Greece, then to unheralded South Korean, Ryu Seang Woo. The 30-year-old Woo overcame deficits of 5-1 and 8-5 to stun Feijen and advance to the knockout stages. Feijen had company on his return trip to Holland, as his World Cup of Pool teammate and Euro Tour Player of the Year Nick van den Berg also failed to survive Stage Two.

“Time and again in the finale, Van Boening found himself on the wrong end of Ko’s unintentional safeties.”

A pair of Brit former champions also got to share in one another’s misery on flights back to the United Kingdom, as Karl Boyes (2010 World 8-Ball) and Daryl Peach (2007) failed to advance. Boyes dropped successive matches to Lo Ho, 9-5, and the resurgent Chao, 9-7, while Peach’s elimination at the hands of Mishel Turkey, 9-4, gave the host country its first-ever player in the final 64.

To complete an unusual trend, two former champions from Germany also departed Qatar on what is now deemed “Judgment Day.” Oliver Ortmann (1995) and two-time winner Thorsten Hohmann (2003 and 2013). Not surprisingly, the always-lethal contingent of players from the Philippines led the finals bracket with nine players while Taiwan (7) and China (6) were close behind. What was a surprise, however, was Van Boening being joined by two other Americans (Mike Dechaine and Hunter Lombardo) in the single-elimination stage. Young Canadian challengers John Morra and Jason Klatt joined the fray as well.

One by one, however, the mighty Filipinos were sent packing, with eventual champion Ko, who opened with an easy 11-7 win over Australia’s Justin Campbell, dispatching Carlo Biado (11-4) and Warren Kiamco (11-9). In fact, the only Filipino player to reach the quarterfinals was the nation’s top player, Dennis Orcollo.

Ko advanced to the semifinals with an 11-6 win over Morra, who had displayed plenty of nerve with back-to-back come-from-behind wins over England’s Mark Gray (11-10) and former champion Mika Immonen (11-8). Morra won the final seven games in his win over Immonen.

Tracking Ko to the semis was Jia Qing Wu of China. A decade ago, Wu, then called Chia Chung Wu and hailing from Taiwan, shocked the pool world by winning the World 9-Ball Championship at the tender young age of 16. The baby-faced lefty appeared to have regained that form in Qatar, rolling past world No. 1 Ouschan of Austria, 11-6, countryman Wang Can, 11-9, and surprising Aloisius Yapp of Singapore, 11-7.

“When the opportunity arose, Ko delivered the knockout punch.”

America’s hopes rested on the other side of the 64-player bracket, where Van Boening was starting to find a groove. Painstaking preparation has long been the South Dakota native’s calling card, and Van Boening spent hours on the practice tables in Qatar fine-tuning his break shot. The results were staggering, as Van Boening blasted through four consecutive opponents (Poland’s Tomasz Kaplan, Spain’s Francisco Diaz-Pizzaro, Taiwan’s Yu Chang and Orcollo) by a combined score of 44-14. Particularly impressive was Van Boening’s beatdown of Orcollo. The Filipino (losing finalist to Van Boening in the last two U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships) came into the match on a roll of his own, having demolished Turkey, 11-1, Lombardo, 11-7, and 2012 champion Appleton, 11-2.

But Van Boening ran from the break on virtually every opportunity in the alternate-break format and pounced on every Orcollo mistake to seize a 10-0 lead before winning, 11-1.

Dechaine, arguably America’s second-best player, performed admirably in his first foray overseas. The East Coaster showed plenty of nerve in winning back-to-back 11-10 matches against Taiwan’s Chang Yu and Estonia’s Denis Grabe. In the round of 16, Dechaine battled Pin Chung Ko, the 20-year-old brother of Pin Yi Ko, 9-9. Trailing, 10-9, but en route to forcing a case game, Dechaine jawed the 9 ball. The younger Ko, winner of the 2014 CSI 8-Ball Championship, advanced to the semifinals with a convincing 11-5 win over Poland’s Wojceich Szweczyk.

“It was an incredible experience,” said Dechaine, who will partner with Van Boening for Team USA in the World Cup of Pool. “I learned some things here. I need to stay calm. I also need to figure out my sleeping pattern. But I’m really looking forward to traveling to more of the international events.”

The semifinals offered a number of juicy storylines, with the possibility of the Ko brothers meeting for the title at the top of the list. Having split the 2014 CSI titles, with Pin Yi topping Pin Chung for the 10-ball title and Pin Chung topping Van Boening for the 8-ball crown, the brothers threaten to dominate pool for years to come. Some observers go so far as to contend that the younger Ko is the better player and simply needs more seasoning. Regardless, the duo figures to be dynamic in international events.

Of course, the storyline in the U.S. was the chance for Van Boening to reclaim the title that was won by American players six times between 1990 and 2003. And in the semifinal between Van Boening and Pin Chung Ko, that potential result looked increasingly possible. Continuing his incredible success on the break, Van Boening streaked to a 5-0 lead before Ko scratched out a game. Undaunted, Van Boening simply raced through the next six racks for a startling 11-1 win and a place in the final.

Meanwhile, the elder Ko and Wu were engaged in a tense battle of wills. Wu bolted to an early 6-2 lead, but Ko chipped away and forged a tie at 7-7 when Wu botched an easy safety. The miscue turned the tide in Ko’s favor, and the Taiwanese star edged ahead, regaining the break advantage he had earned by winning the lag. The match was tied at 8-8, 9-9 and 10-10, but Wu could only watch helplessly in the case game, as Ko broke and ran out for the win. The title match was close throughout, due in large part to some good fortune in Ko’s favor. At 4-4, Ko scratched and missed in the same rack, only to leave Van Boening stymied both times. Ko eventually won that rack, then, at 5-5, and botched a 2-9 combination, only to see the 9 carom across the table and into the side pocket for a 6-5 lead.

Van Boening maintained pressure, eventually forging an 8-6 lead that easily could have been 10-4. Ko fought back to tie the match, 8-8, but another scratch handed Van Boening a 9-8 lead in the extended race to 13. Van Boening appeared to be headed to another two-game advantage when a positional error left him hooked on the 7 ball. His jump attempt railed and Ko again tied the match, regaining his serve.

The combatants battled nerves and tough run-outs to 10-10 and 11-11. Ko broke and ran out to reach the hill, 12-11.

As it had several times during the match, Van Boening’s break yielded a pocketed ball, but no open shot. He pushed out to a tricky kick attempt, which Ko quickly handed back. Van Boening’s kick was thick and the 2 ball was left in the open. The unflappable Ko calmly picked his way through the rack, pumping his first at the drop of the final 9 for the 13-11 victory. “I definitely didn’t play perfect in the final,” admitted the elated Ko. “But it is the final of the World 9-Ball Championship and you know so many things can happen. I think we both played good and both made some mistakes. I feel that I got a few lucky rolls to help me win the match. But at the end of the match, I played good. I was able to stay patient.”

“He got a lot of fortunate rolls and got lucky to hook me a couple of times after misses,” said Van Boening. “But I also made mistakes that I should never have made. He played great. I think I made more mistakes than he did and that is what cost me. My break wasn’t working, but that’s the way the game plays.

“It’s an honor to play in the world championship final,” Van Boening added. “I know I can’t win every tournament. I’ll be back.”

“When I won the World 10-Ball Championship, that was great,” said Ko, $30,000 wealthier for the win, “But winning the World 9-Ball Championship is unbelievable. I’m really happy.”

Orcollo Undefeated at Carom Room Fall Classic

dennisorcolloEarly on, it looked as though one way or another, it was going to be over quickly.

Dennis Orcollo and Johnny Archer met up in the finals of the $10,000-added Carom Room Fall Classic up in Benoit, WI, a 10-ball, bar table event held on the weekend of August 28-30. They broke and ran their way through the first five games of that final matchup, until, ahead by one, Orcollo jumped on Archer’s first dry break of the match to take a lead he’d never relinquish. The event, streamed live, by Ray “Big Truck” Hansen and his crew at PoolActionTV, drew 96 entrants to The Carom Room in Beloit, WI.

They’d met first in the hot seat match. Archer had just sent Josh Roberts to the loss side. Orcollo sent Jason Klatt over. Archer broke dry five times in the hot seat match that sent him to the semifinals 9-5.

Still playing on the loss side when the first money rounds came around were (among others) Shane Van Boening, Skyler Woodward, John Morra, and Tony Chohan. Billy Thorpe was still playing, too. He’d sent Van Boening to the loss side, and they were both working their way to a potential head-to-head rematch in the quarterfinals. Working on that loss side, Thorpe got by Chohan and Morra to pick up Klatt. Van Boening had defeated Jesse Bowman and Skyler Woodward to draw Roberts.

Roberts spoiled the Thorpe/Van Boening re-match by eliminating Van Boening, while Thorpe took Klatt out. Roberts then defeated Thorpe in the quarterfinals 9-6.

Roberts then ran into the buzz saw of Johnny Archer smelling the finish line. Mindful of his break problems in the hot seat match, Archer had spent much of the intervening time between the hot seat match and semifinal (during the quarterfinal match) practicing that break and it paid off. Roberts broke to get things underway, but Johnny took the first game and then, sunk three on his subsequent break to jump start his way to taking the second. On the third rack, Roberts broke dry, but left Archer a long, rail-first shot at the 1-ball, nestled against the 10-ball, pointed right at a 6-ball, sitting just off-center of the side pocket. Acting as though he did this sort of thing every day, Archer stroked the ball and sure enough – rail first, cue hit the 1-ball, 10 slid over, nudged the 6-ball out of the way and dropped into the side pocket.
3-0, Archer. He won six more to shut Roberts out and the re-match versus Orcullo was on.

Though Orcollo would win by four racks, he and Archer both were handed and squandered numerous opportunities. Immediately after Archer broke dry to give Orcullo the 4-2 lead, Orcollo broke dry to hand Archer his third rack. Archer then broke dry a second time, and for the second time, Orcollo made him pay. It was 5-3.

The 9th rack created a problem that was, much to Archer’s chagrine, solved by allowing Orcollo to break rack # 9 a second time. Within a shot or two of Orcollo’s initial break that saw three balls go down, the 1-ball was locked up in a tight pack of balls and could not, without foul, be touched. Archer and Orcollo took turns giving each other ball in hand, by shooting at a ball that either tied up the 1-ball even further or just moved a different ball, away from the pack, in some random direction. The game and match came to a halt, before it was determined, by TD David Coles, that the game was a stalemate, and that, by rule, Orcollo (the original breaker) would be allowed to break again.

Orcollo did so, made two balls and was looking at a decent table for a run when he put himself out of position, shooting at the 5-ball and gave the table to Archer. Archer, in much the same way, gave it right back and Orcollo finished it – 6-3.

Archer broke dry for the third straight time, but Orcollo chalked up another unforced error, missing a ball completely to give Archer ball-in-hand, and eventually, the game. It was 6-4 and still looking interesting.

A quick break-and-run for Orcollo moved him back out in front by three (7-4), before Archer broke dry for the fourth straight time. Again, Orcollo failed to capitalize, and when he turned the table over to Archer, Archer jumped on it to complete what proved to be his final winning rack.

Orcollo broke rack # 13, sinking two balls, and though he’d make a tricky 1-8 combination, the position result was not what he’d hoped for. He played a safety that left Archer snookered, and went on to reach the hill first at 8-5.

Archer broke the final game, and though he did sink a ball, he was left with a difficult shot on the 1-ball that he missed. Orcollo stepped to the table and completed his undefeated run to claim the Carom Room’s Fall Classic title.

DCC 9-Ball: Alex Roars in Final

Pagulayan was all smiles after taking the 9-ball title. (Photo by David Thomson-mediumpool.com)

Pagulayan was all smiles after taking the 9-ball title. (Photo by David Thomson-mediumpool.com)

With three players left in the Derby City Classic’s 9-ball division, Shawn Putnam caught a bit of a break when he received the bye into the final, leaving Mike Dechaine and Alex Pagulayan to play in a de facto semifinal, with both players already having exercised their buy-back options.

Dechaine, fresh off a dominant 9-2 victory over Shane Van Boening, kept pace with Pagulayan. With the 9-ball event extending races to nine racks, a change to meet BCA-mandated specifications for points events, Pagulayan and Dechaine met on the hill, 8-8. Following an exchange of safeties, the Filipino hit a table-length kick on the 1 ball on his way out, securing his spot alongside Putnam.

And while Putnam kept pace with Pagulayan, the Lion proved too much for the 41-year-old American. After Putnam closed to within a rack at 7-6, Pagulayan forced his opponent to foul in each of the next two racks to take the $16,000 title by a final count of 9-6.

With that victory, Pagualayn capped the 15th Derby City Classic where the majority of the big prizes went to the always-formidable Filipino contingent. Francisco Bustamante, winner of the banks division and runner-up to Corey Deuel in one-pocket, took home the $20,000 Master of the Table all-around award. Dennis Orcollo, meanwhile, snapped off the Bigfoot 10-Ball Challenge to pocket the $20,000 first prize.

U.S. Open: Van Boening in Hot-Seat

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Despite their much heralded domination of professional pool in the past two decades, the Philippines has collected just two U.S. Open crowns, with Efren Reyes’s win in 1994 and Alex Pagulayan’s 11 years later. But that seven-year winless streak looked a good bet to end, when five of the six remaining players at this year’s event had connections to the island nation.

A Pinoy champion, though, will have to go through Shane Van Boening. The American throttled Pagulayan in Saturday afternoon’s hot-seat match. Clearing six racks from the break, Van Boening sprinted away from his frequent foe, eventually taking the match, 11-5.

The left side of the bracket, meanwhile, looked like a mini-tournament in Manila. Efren Reyes topped Ronnie Alcano late Friday evening, 11-9, in what was an uncharacteristically sloppy match. Dennis Orcollo bested Jose Parica, 11-4, in a one-sided set where the 63-year-old appeared to tire after a thrilling run deep into the tournament.

On Saturday afternoon, Orcollo then faced Reyes, with the winner then getting Pagulayan in the third-place match. Though making fewer and fewer trips to the United States in recent years, 58-year-old Reyes electrified the crowd with his play throughout the U.S. Open’s first week.

The greatest thrill came in his 11-10 victory over two-time defending champ Darren Appleton. Facing a tricky kick shot on the 4 ball in the case game, Reyes sent the pink off three rails and into the 9 ball, which then crawled into the side pocket for the win. From there, Reyes topped China’s Wang Can and Orcollo, before losing to Pagulayan.

In a left-side rematch with Orcollo, the Magician was unable to find a rhythm. Orcollo opened up an early three-rack lead, which he maintained until the final 9 ball fell for an 11-8 win.

With Van Boening now resting until Saturday night’s final, Pagulayan and Orcollo are facing off for the second seat in the championship set. Orcollo holds and early 4-2 lead in the modified race to 11.

Van Boening Takes U.S. Open Title No. 2

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Dennis Orcollo is arguably the best tournament player on the planet. But in the final of the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship, he barely stood a chance. Shane Van Boening, riding a break that bordered on the sublime, blasted his way past the Filipino powerhouse to take his second U.S. Open crown by a count of 13-7.

The 29-year-old American jumped out to an early 9-2 lead in the modified race to 13. Winning eight straight at one point, Van Boening dropped a ball on the break seven straight racks, four of which he cleared without letting Orcollo to the table. Following a scratch on the break in the 12th game, Van Boening’s only unsuccessful break in the set, Orcollo made an impressive run of his own, closing the gap to just 9-7. But a missed table-length jump on the 1 ball was the end of Orcollo’s road. Van Boening cleared that rack, then broke and ran the final three for an emphatic stamp on his U.S. Open victory.

“I’ve been playing a lot of pool the last month or so,” Van Boening said, shortly after his victory. “I felt really good coming here. I had a lot of confidence and started out [playing well].”

His path through the winners bracket and into the hot-seat included a number of world-class players, only one of whom managed to stay with the two-time BD Player of the Year. In his third match, Van Boening throttled Mosconi Cup foe Nick van den Berg, 11-4, before besting Chris Melling by the same count. In the next round, he faced Ronnie Alcano, his opponent from the 2007 U.S. Open final. The lanky Filipino stood within a rack advancing, but Van Boening collected the final two racks for a thrilling 11-10 win.

That would be his one and only close call. Two more Filipinos fell, with Van Boening topping Jose Parica and Alex Pagulayan, both 11-5, to take his spot in the final.

On the one-loss side, Orcollo was gathering steam after his loss to Efren Reyes. He won three straight, including an 11-7 victory that ended Darren Appleton’s hopes for a third straight Open crown, to earn a rematch with Reyes. The 58-year-old legend was the story of the tournament’s opening week, but Orcollo was too much. He sent Reyes packing, 11-8, before eliminating Pagulayan in third place.

While Van Boening and Orcollo are far from strangers — the two frequently match up in money games — the American would not be denied. With title no. 2 at just 29, Van Boening didn’t waste time looking forward, if only in jest.

“What do I need, three more to tie Earl?” he said, acknowledging Earl Strickland’s record five U.S. Open titles.

If he can come anywhere close to replicating his dominant form over the past week, though, the joke might be on his competition.

Dozen Remain in U.S. Open Hunt

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — If you’re looking for story lines at the 2012 U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship, the winners-side final four should provide plenty. Efren Reyes, Jose Parica, Alex Pagulayan and Shane Van Boening remain unbeaten. Young vs. old, Philippines vs. U.S., former champions chasing titles or an overdue contender closing in on his crown, the final 24 hours of the U.S. Open should be riveting.

Parica, 63, is chasing his first Open title after finished second in 2003. He will face the 29-year-old Van Boening, who has been absolutely dominant thus far. In a superb match against Ronnie Alcano — a rematch of the 2007 final, won by the American — Van Boening erased a late two-rack deficit to take an 11-10 victory.

On the other side of the bracket, Pagulayan and Reyes will square off. The Magician has been nothing short of magical in his march through the right side. He topped two-time reigning champ Darren Appleton, 11-10, on Thursday afternoon, then outlasted Wang Can, 11-7, that evening. On Friday, he then trumped Dennis Orcollo, leader of the Philippines’ next generation of stars, 11-7.

Over on the one-loss side of the bracket, it’s tough to find a player without top-tier credentials. Johnny Archer faces Darren Appleton, with the Englishman plodding through the left side in search of his third straight U.S. Open title. World 9-Ball champ Chang Jung-Lin, China’s Li Hewen and Netherlander Niels Feijen top an impressive international class of hopefuls.

Stay tuned, as updates will be posted as each round of play concludes.

Appleton Loses Bid for Third U.S. Open

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It goes without saying that you can’t win the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship without a lucky break or two. In the case of Darren Appleton, who went unbeaten on his way to victories in 2010 and 2011, this year’s story took a turn with a very unlucky break. In a Thursday match with Efren Reyes, the Brit watched the Filipino legend fluke in the 9 in the case game. The loss sent Appleton to the left, where his pursuit of a third consecutive title would be much more difficult.

On Friday evening, that pursuit ended with an 11-7 loss to Dennis Orcollo. Like Mika Immonen, who chased the three-peat in 2010, Appleton showed championship mettle, but simply couldn’t muster the magic of the previous two years.

With the win, Orcollo earned a spot opposite Jose Parica in Friday’s last round of matches. The winner, as well as the winner of the set between Ronnie Alcano and Reyes, will be among the final four players to advance to Saturday.

While the eliminations continue, two unbeaten players — former champs Shane Van Boening and Alex Pagulayan — have punched tickets to Saturday afternoon’s hot-seat match. In his set with Parica, Van Boening struggled to get rolling at first. But he built a lead against the 63-year-old Filipino, and eventually ran away with the match, 11-5.

Pagulayan, meanwhile, sprinted to an early lead in his match with Reyes. Taking the first six racks, Pagulayan never relented in his pressure until he dropped the clinching 9 ball for an 11-5 victory.

U.S. Open Primed for Big Weekend

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Heading into the final two days of the 2012 U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships, it’s clear that the strong have survived. At the conclusion of play on the winners side on Thursday night, just eight players remained. And that octet packed plenty of star power.

Former champions Shane Van Boening, Alex Pagulayan and Johnny Archer are all chasing title No. 2. But in perhaps the most thrilling story of the U.S. Open to this point, 58-year-old Efren Reyes strung together five victories — including an electrifying 11-10 win over two-time defending champ Darren Appleton — to put himself in contention for the Open crown. He will square off against countryman Dennis Orcollo on Friday. Pagulayan and Archer will square off in the other match on that side of the bracket.

Scotland’s Jayson Shaw will face 63-year-old Jose Parica on the other side of the bracket. Parica, runner-up at the 2003 U.S. Open, advanced via a dominant victory over a resurgent Earl Strickland, 11-5. The winner of that set will then face the victor in Shane Van Boening’s match against Ronnie Alcano, a rematch of the 2007 U.S. Open won by the American.

While eight players have two bullets left in their revolvers, the left side is packed with championship-caliber talent. Most notably, late Thursday evening, Darren Appleton trailed American Oscar Dominguez. In search of his third-straight title, the Englishman was struggling to rally in the second match after his heart-breaking loss to Reyes.

Leading the charge on the one-loss side, Japan’s Yukio Akagariyama, China’s Li Hewen and Taiwan’s Chang Jung-Lin are major title winners seeking glory on American soil. Europe’s Albin Ouschan, brother of women’s star Jasmin and rising star on the EuroTour, joins England’s Chris Melling in the title hunt. American hopes settle on Corey Deuel, who dropped a Thursday night set to Jayson Shaw, and five-time titlist Strickland.

It’s Hohmann vs Manalo for biggest prize in pool history.

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – German precision will meet Filipino steel in the final of the $2 million IPT North American 8-Ball Open on Sunday, as Thorsten Hohmann and Marlon Manalo battle for the history-making tournament’s $350,000 top prize.

Germany’s Hohmann and Manalo of the Philippines rose to the top of the final round-robin stage of the tournament on Saturday night in the Venetian Hotel and Casino. Both posted records of 4-1 in the six-player bracket, besting foes Ralf Souquet, Efren Reyes, Dennis Orcollo and Evgeny Stalev.

“It’s not over yet,” said Manalo after coming back from a 6-2 deficit against Souquet in his fourth match, winning 8-6 and securing his spot in the final with a then-perfect 4-0 record.

Manalo then faced Hohmann in their fifth set of matches for the night. Hohmann needed to win in order to tally four victories and cement his spot in the final. In what was to be a preview of the championship match-up, Hohmann blistered Manalo, 8-1.

The winner of Sunday’s race-to-8 final will skyrocket to the top of the IPT’s rankings, this being the first event of the fledgling’s tour’s 2006 season. The winner will pocket $350,000, and the runner-up must settle for $99,000.

Hohmann, certainly the most fit of the final six, seemed to get stronger as the day wore on. The rest were visibly flagging, and missed balls and mental miscues were common.

“For next time, I will need to exercise more,” said Orcollo of the Philippines, who finished third with three match wins, collecting a none-too-shabby $80,000.

Reyes and Souquet both had one win apiece by the last match of the night, putting them in the position of fighting for fourth and fifth place. In a painfully slow and often sloppy battle, Reyes squeaked out a hill-hill victory, 8-7, to take fourth and $65,000. Souquet settled for fifth and $50,000.

Stalev of Russia, the biggest surprise of the final six contenders, had trouble shaking off the debilitating effects of the previous five days of morning-to-night play. He finished sixth with a 1-4 record but happily accepted a $40,000 check, roughly $33,000 greater than his previous high-watermark for prize money.

The final will pit perfectionist Hohmann, a former world 9-ball champion and current world straight-pool champion, against rising star Manalo, whom many believe could be the heir to Reyes’ throne as dominant Filipino in a country of pool giants.

As far as experience in big events and technical mastery of pool mechanics, 27-year-old Hohmann seems to have the edge. But 30-year-old Manalo had the best record in the Open, finishing the round-robin stages at 23-5 and winning 61 percent of the games played. Hohmann often found himself on the brink of elimination, only to pull through with gutty wins. His overall record was 21-7, with a games-won percentage of 57.3 percent.

And Then There Were Six: Heavy Favorites Make Beeline for Final IPT Round-Robin

The cream has risen to the top of the field at the IPT North American 8-Ball Open, and six well-known players look to get significantly richer in the next round.

After 12 hours of round-robin play on Friday, a half dozen players separated themselves from the pack of 18 remaining shooters, in some cases by mere inches on the table, or percentages point on the official stat sheet. Those deserving six stand to make a minimum of $40,000 in the next round, and a maximum of $350,000 for winning the title at Sunday’s final.

The players are: Efren Reyes, Marlon Manalo, and Dennis Orcollo of the Philippines; Thorsten Hohmann and Ralf Souquet of Germany; and Evgeny Stalev of Russia;

Stalev was probably the biggest surprise of the bunch. The 26-year-old from Litkarino, 20 miles outside of Moscow, rarely ventures outside his home country for pool events, beyond the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships and Derby City Classic. But he’s a legend in Russia, having won nearly 100 titles in the cue sport of pyramid.

The reedy Stalev found himself in a must-win situation in the fifth and final match of the day, against plucky Englishman Darren Appleton. He took control of the match from the start, using his powerful break (with full-body extension) to gain control of the table, and his surgical-quality touch to pilot the cue ball.

With Stalev up 7-4, his close friend Fabrio Petroni of Italy began nudging fellow spectators in the stands, saying in a dramatic stage whisper, “That is my friend. I know him. He is a very good player!” Stalev closed the match at 8-4, leaving Appleton slumped in his chair for several minutes with his head in his hands.

“It was tough,” Stalev said. “Every opponent right now is tough. … I feel terrible. My back, my legs. The whole week, you wake up and play 10 hours a day.”

He quickly grabbed his cell phone and called his father back in Russia, and then his manager.

Meanwhile, Hohmann and Sweden’s Marcus Chamat were fighting on an adjoining table for the final spot in their bracket. Chamat led 7-5 and had three solids left on the table when he ended up straight-in on the 2. His only choice was to draw straight back on the shot, hooking himself on the 6. After a missed multi-rail Hail Mary, Hohmann took over the table and didn’t let go until he had the 8-7 victory.

The final set of matches for the night were anticlimactic for three players: Reyes was undefeated at 4-0 and a sure thing to advance; and Souquet and Manalo could afford to lose their matches, knowing that at worst they would tie with their respective bracketmates and still advance on the basis of their superior games-won percentage.