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.”

IPT Round Three: The Plot Thickens as the Field Thins

Round three starts today in the International Pool Tour’s North American Open and already 17,066 games have been played. Fatigue certainly played a role yesterday with 120 players facing a $5,000 difference in payout as they were whittled down to 60 in 12 straight hours of 8-ball action. The 60 remaining contenders who advanced to round three have been placed into 12 groups of five players each. Three players from each group will advance to the next round. The 24 who are eliminated will receive a lovely parting gift of $10,000.

Here’s a breakdown of yesterday’s highlights:

Mike Sigel was eliminated with a 2-3 record after losses to Marlon Manalo, Marko Lohtander and Quinten Hann. “The Mouth” settled for 61st and a $5,000 consolation prize.

The female players are near extinction, survived only by Sarah Ellerby who edged out Corey Harper by less than one percentage point in win average to advance to round three. Both Loree Jon Jones and Allison Fisher went winless in round two, and Gerda Hofstatter was eliminated with only one win.

Only eight players went undefeated throughout yesterday’s round, including three Americans: David Matlock, Nick Varner, and Charlie Williams. Also unscathed: Australian Quinten Hann, Filipino Santos Sambajon, Mexican Rafael Martinez, Mika Immonen of Finland, and Ivica Putnik of Croatia.

The Filipino contingent is now down three men, with Warren Kiamco and Gandy Valle eliminated after round two, and Jose Parica eliminated after round one. Still, 10 of the original 13 remain and most dominated their groups. Francisco Bustamante fell to Efren Reyes, but has the highest winning percentage of the entire field at 73.68 percent. (Johnny Archer is second with 70 percent.)

Snooker superstar Ronnie O’Sullivan held on by the skin of his teeth, with only two wins, but advanced on the merit of his winning percentage. On the other hand, Takeshi Okumura missed out on advancing by 0.03 percent to Larry Nevel.

Veterans Allen Hopkins, Kim Davenport, Keith McCready are all heading home. George San Souci and Tony Chohan went winless in round two. Other notables who are heading home with $5,000 consolation prizes: Danny Basavich, Jeremy Jones, George Breedlove and Oliver Ortmann.

Round three is upon us, and each player will play five matches among formidable fields. Here’s a quick analysis:

Ellerby will have to face two top Americans: Gabe Owen and Charlie Williams and two Filipinos: Marlon Manolo and Ronato Alcano. Good luck!

Earl Strickland is alive and well in the tournament, but grouped with Raj Hundal and Efren Reyes, the recently inducted Hall-of-Famer will have to fight hard to see another day.

German Thorsten Hohmann is by far the biggest name in his group, but will face Mick Hill, a promising British 8-baller.

Check out this group: Break-and-run Bustamante, Undefeated Ozzy Quinten Hann, 8-Ball Boy Wonder Karl Boyes, Prince of Pool Cory Deuel, and Bad Boy O’Sullivan. Yikes!

Mika Immonen and John Schmidt will face off in their group — undoubtedly there will be some good-looking pool played there.

IPT Open Continues: Filipinos Dominate; Fisher’s Perfect While Most Women Falter

The IPT’s North American 8-Ball Open is shaping up to be the Philippines 8-Ball Smackdown.

The Filipino contingent flew their flag high and often on Monday — the second day of the history-making, $2 million event — as six Pinoy shooters scored perfect 4-0 records in round-robin play: Efren Reyes, Alex Pagulayan, Francisco Bustamante, Marlon Manalo, Dennis Orcollo and Ronato Alcano.

Joining the ranks of the undefeated was Brit snooker and 9-ball superstar Allison Fisher, who steamed through a fairly soft bracket to qualify for the next round of play. However, she was one of only two women of the 15 female tour members to score a winning record, and one of only four to advance. The U.K.’s Sarah Ellerby had the other winning record, 3-1.

Top female pros making early exits Monday included Ireland’s Karen Corr, who went 1-3 in a particularly tough draw; the U.K.’s Kelly Fisher, 1-3; Helena Thornfeldt of Sweden, 0-4; and American Monica Webb, 0-4.

Play on Monday centered on the second set of 100 competitors in the 200-player field, divied up into 20 groups of five. The top three in each group advanced to today’s round, featuring the remaining 120 players, parsed into 20 groups of six.

The 80 eliminated players from the first round will settle for $2,000 each. The winner of the event will pocket a record $350,000.

Here’s a brief wrap-up of Monday’s highlights:

• One of the biggest surprises of the Open so far is the number of players who qualified for the event — those not among the 150 regular IPT tour members — who are posting undefeated records. These surprise contenders from Monday’s play include Dutchman Rico Diks; England’s Karl Boyes; and Anthony Ginn of Australia.

• Keith Bennett, a 27-year-old house pro at Breaktime Billiards in Wilmington, N.C., who made it into the Open as alternate after Hall-of-Famer Jim Rempe bowed out, posted a 4-0 record in the first-round on Monday.

• The four women to advance to Tuesday’s matches in the round-of-120 were Allison Fisher, 4-0; the U.K.’s Sarah Ellerby, 3-1; Hall-of-Famer Loree Jon Jones (U.S.), 2-2; and Austria’s Gerda Hofstatter, who managed to limp into the next round with a 1-3 record when her games-won percentage topped two other players in her group with the same record (Ed Kelly and Jim Weast, both of the U.S.; Hofstatter’s games-won percentage was in fact just 1 percent higher than Weast’s).

• Beyond the Filipinos, who were expected to do well, several favorites sent messages to the field that they were not to be underestimated. Also posting 4-0 records were well-regarded Americans Johnny Archer and Shannon Daulton, and Germany’s Oliver Ortmann.

Ten New Players Qualify for the IPT

In the second-to-last week of qualification tournaments, 10 new players have earned the right to play in the International Pool Tour’s “IPT North American Open 8-Ball Championship,” which will be held July 22 at the Venetian, Las Vegas:

Anthony Ginn
Corey Harper
Gary Abood
Jianbo Fu
Jonathan Penegar
Karl Boyes
Louis Condo
Scott Frost
Teddy Garrahan
Wei Liu

By placing first or second in their respective qualifiers, these players will be playing for more than $2,000,000 in prize money and a first place prize of $350,000, as well as a place on the money list at the North American Open. Each of them are also guaranteed a minimum of $2,000 for qualifying and playing, even if they fail to win a single game at the event. If they do well at the event, they have the chance to be in the top 100 on the money list at the end of 2006, thus qualifying for a 2007 tour card. IPT officials say that a 2007 tour card is worth a minimum of $100,000.

There are still spots left in two of the five remaining qualification tournaments, each taking place starting June 23:

Las Vegas, NV: Lou Butera’s Pool Sharks
Tulsa, OK: Magoo’s

Kiamco, Breedlove make the IPT cut

The International Pool Tour gained two new players after its fourth qualification event ended Feb. 26 at in Chelmsford, Mass.

Warren Kiamco of the Philippines advanced steadily through the the winners’ side, scorching Furuta Kazao 10-2 and then besting George Breedlove 10-10-8 in the winners’-side finals. Breedlove was down, but not out. Facing an 8-5 deficit in the one-loss side finals to Karl Boyes of the U.K., Breedlove ran five racks in a row in a comeback victory for the coveted tour card.

Players who had been eliminated from the tournament could play Hall of Famer Mike Sigel for a free entry into the final qualifier, to take place March 10-12 in the Netherlands. Imran Majid and Chris Melling, both from the UK, defeated Sigel, while Kevin Brown and Kevin Becker were unsuccessful.