CEDAR RAPIDS — Two of the best pool players in the world played each other here Wednesday night and almost no one knew it.
In the back of 2nd Avenue Corner Pocket, Ronato “Ronnie” Alcano and Lee Vann Corteza of the Philippines played a match of 10-ball, a game in which you must make the balls in numerical order. The first to win 25 games was the winner. Alcano got on several nice runs, and prevailed in the two-hour contest, 25-13.
Alcano won $500 that was put up by sponsors. Corteza got $250. It was live-streamed on the internet, but few viewed it.
No more than a dozen people at any one time saw the match in the pool room. More were playing the game themselves elsewhere in the room. But those who did watch the pros were mesmerized by their skills, their fluidity and precision, their creativeness.
One of those, Corner Pocket employee Misty Munson, said “My daughter’s an art major. This was like watching an artist paint.”
“You learning anything, Steve?” someone asked one of those who intently watched the pros for the entirety of their match.
“Yeah,” Steve replied. “Don’t miss.”
Today, Alcano and Corteza will begin play in the Derby City Classic, an annual pool tournament of prestige hosted by the Horseshoe Casino in Elizabeth, Ind., on the other side of the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky. That tourney will stretch through Jan. 27. Then, Alcano will return to Cedar Rapids and Corteza will return home.
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Their links here are Corner Pocket owner Dennis Wolrab, and Pat Diveney of West Liberty, who manufactures cue sticks and sponsors some Filipino pros, including Alcano. Wolrab drove Alcano and Corteza to Elizabeth Thursday, with a load of cue sticks in tow. Wolrab will operate a vendor’s booth on behalf of Diveney for the duration of the event. He works for Diveney a few days a week in West Liberty in addition to running his club.
This isn’t the first year Wolrab has opened his home and pool hall to a Filipino pro. But neither he or the players are getting rich from the arrangements. Wolrab said he does it to help expose people here to world-class players, and to help players who make very little money at home.
“There are cabdrivers over there who would beat our best players,” he said.
“In any other sport, the best players in the world are millionaires. In 2006 when Ronnie won the World Nine-Ball Championship, he got $100,000. Last year, the winner got $60,000.”
Alcano came to Cedar Rapids in October and will leave at the end of March. Wolrab has taken him to tournaments in Louisiana, Kansas, New York and Virginia. Most his time in the U.S., though, has been spent in a back corner of the Corner Pocket, practicing, practicing, practicing.
“I play every day, five hours a day,” Alcano said. “I’m a good player, but I need to learn more.”
He is 45 and has won both the WPA Men’s World Nine-Ball and World Eight-Ball titles. He has seven children, “from three different women,” he said. He sees and speaks to his kids frequently via phone, often between running racks of pool balls while practicing.
“When these guys get any sort of money,” Wolrab said, “they run to Western Union and wire it home.”
Corteza, 38, won the World Straight Pool Championship last year in New Brunswick, N.J. He spent 22 hours in transit Tuesday/Wednesday before reaching Cedar Rapids from Manila. He arrived wearing sandals, unprepared for the brutal cold that awaited him outside The Eastern Iowa Airport. The Derby City is a big tourney, and that’s why he’s here.
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“For me,” he said, “it’s to try to keep on going and to make some more titles.
“You have to practice hard every day. You have to take care of yourself, exercise. I run and swim. I always keep a positive focus that I’m going to win this tournament. I have to win.”
Corner Pocket is for players who love pool. Almost everyone who plays there brings their own cue. The club sells alcohol, but the focus is on the game. It’s not a loud place, nor does it in any way resemble the dingy stereotype of pool rooms past. But it is full of camaraderie.
“It’s not a club, it’s a family,” Munson said.
As customers walk in they see a hand-painted sign saying “Welcome world champion Ronnie Alcano.” They seem to leave him alone when he’s practicing other than to exchange pleasantries. They know if they challenge him for money they would be making a donation. Even Wolrab, a terrific player, says he gets demoralized when he plays Alcano.
“How do you (expletive) beat this guy?” someone in the room quietly said Wednesday night.
“I made lunch for him today,” Munson said. “It was like cooking for Michael Jordan.”
But not every star shines in plain sight. For the next several days, Alcano will try to approach the level he played at a decade ago and make some money to send home. Pool isn’t basketball when it comes to fame or fortune. But greatness is greatness.