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

Evgeny Stalev

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.

That left one spot in the final six to be decided after all the action was complete. Daryl Peach of the U.K. defeated bracketmate Orcollo, giving them identical records of 3-2. However, they learned minutes later, after IPT staffers crunched the numbers, that Orcollo's game-won percentage was 0.4 percent higher than Peach's - 56.86 percent to 56.46 percent. Orcollo passed through by a whisker.

It certainly was no surprise to see heavy favorites Reyes, Souquet and Hohmann enter the final round. Between the three of them, they have won almost every significant pool title in the last seven months. Orcollo, who left the Philippines for the first time this spring in order to play in IPT qualifiers, has collected several major regional titles on the West Coast during his travels. And Manalo placed well in international competition in 2005, including a third-place finish at the World Pool Championship.

After another grueling day of five matches apiece, the winners looked forward to grabbing some shut-eye. The top two players in Saturday?s round-robin play will advance to the final.

"Tomorrow there's more pressure. I need to break good tomorrow," said undefeated Reyes, who finished first of the bunch with a quick win over Larry Nevel.

Don't feel too bad for Nevel and the 11 other eliminated players, including fellow Americans David Matlock and Gabe Owen. They all pocketed $30,000 each for their tied-for-7th finishes.

File photo courtesy of Diana Hoppe - Pool Pics by Hoppe