Senior high school student Wu Chia-Ching (吳珈慶) began the defense of his World Pool Championship title yesterday in Manila, a feat only achieved once before, by Earl "The Pearl" Strickland in 1991 and 1990.
Wu leads a delegation of 16 Taiwanese players in the 128-player tournament, which will be broadcast live on ESPN twice a day (afternoons and evenings) over the next 10 days.
By most accounts, Wu had a remarkable year last year, becoming the youngest person to win the title at the age of 16, and months later, winning the World 8-Ball Championships in Dubai. This was the first time both titles were united, emphatically earning him Billiards Digest's "Player of the Year" award.
This year, he lost 27kg thanks to a diet of congee, vegetables and meat, along with a daily jog of 2km to 4km.
"I don't feel as tired when I play. Losing weight has helped my performance, it hasn't had any negative effects", Wu said.
As the tournament draws near, Wu says he will be careful not to lose any more weight or experiment with his diet. He faces a grueling tournament schedule in the next few months, with appearances at the Japan Open later this month and the 2006 Asian Games at the start of next month.
For this high school student, classes may have to wait until potentially next summer as Wu admits that he will need to participate in supplemental courses in order to graduate.
A bigger challenge facing Wu is a rule change in his title defense as organizers have decided to switch to an "alternate break rule."
This means that runs of 5, 6, and even 11 straight racks will be a thing of the past. The rule change is thought to give all players a fair shot at winning each match, though it may lead to boring play as there will be a greater emphasis upon defense and safety shots.
"I don't think this change will benefit Taiwanese players, because many of them have a very strong break and are accustomed to going on long runs," says Robert Huang (
Huang says the high level of competition in Taiwan means that players need to break well, otherwise they would have little chance of beating local competitors.
One top competitor, Kuo Po-cheng (郭柏成), says he's been practicing with this rule change in mind for the past nine months. Kuo finished both second and third at the two previous World Pool Championships.
Taiwanese players such as Wu and Kuo have been seeded in groups that are deemed less difficult than others because of their previous finishes at World Pool Championships.
However, for three Taiwanese players -- Hsia Hun-kai, Nieh Rong-chih, Lu Hsun-chen -- qualification for the tournament has come the hard way as they had to win pre-championship qualifying tournaments in Manila.
As many as 100 competitors took part in these pre-qualifiers, with only the top player earning a spot in the tournament.
Still, Taiwanese players did remarkably well in these qualifiers, winning three out of five single-day tournaments with one spot won by 27-year old Philippine native Lee Van Corteza, who made a long run to the finals as he flourished in the next-to-last qualifying tournament, beating better known pro Max Eberle.
Many are expecting Filipino players to turn in good performances this year, as they will benefit from a home crowd, as well as familiarity with local conditions. Former champions such as Alex Pagulayan and Efren Reyes will pose a formidable obstacle for even Taiwan's best competitors.
Perhaps the highest profile player in this year's tournament will be Brunei's Prince Muhtadee Billah, who was granted a special wild-card spot on behalf of the host country. An avid pool player, this 32 year old has reached the semifinals in doubles 8-ball tournaments and will bring a royal air to the competition.
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