Sometime in 2015, while deep in thought contemplating a hand during a tournament at a local poker room, Rhen Holz Villanueva—J.R. to his friends in the community—felt something land on his nape akin to someone hitting him from behind.
“At first I was startled and amused that someone would be bothering me while I was in the middle of a hand,” he recalls, in the vernacular. “I thought it was a friend trying to get my attention.”
Then he later felt a strange sensation at his feet and everyone at the table jumped up in shock.
A rat almost a foot long fell from the woodwork in the ceiling and landed on the unsuspecting poker pro and complete chaos followed.
“I was lucky it didn’t enter the back of my shirt,” he continued. “That would have really been awful.”
Soon after he was known as the “Ratman” but it also seemed as though that brush with the hideous may have unlocked more than just luck from the unassuming 28-year-old from a middle class family out of Isabela province. He began a string of wins and cashes and is now recognized as one of the stalwarts in the Philippine tournament poker scene.
Villanueva initially aimed to be a seaman and had just graduated from the Philippine Maritime Institute (PMI) when he began watching episodes of the Filipino Poker Tour (FPT) back in 2009—the height of televised local poker in the country.
“I saw how Neil Arce won his national title (just months before being the first Filipino to win the Main Event of the Asian Poker Tour) and I instantly fell in love with poker.”
He began as a small stakes cash game player and quickly learned he had the skill to compete with the veterans of the game.
Then in 2010 he qualified to join the Metro Card Club’s PhP1,000,000 freeroll and had his first experience of cashing in a poker tournament.
It wasn’t long before the would-be seaman decided to turn pro.
“I intentionally had tattoos to avoid being recruited into the service of being a seaman,” Villanueva explained. “Tattoos are not allowed if you’re a first time applicant and that began my professional career in poker.”
After a roller coaster journey in the national circuit, Villanueva earned his first major cash in the 2014 APT $450 NLHE Side Event when he finished eighth for a cool $2,000.
He would earn his biggest cash to date later that year in the inaugural World Poker Tour (WPT) National Philippines by placing second in the $1,100 Mixed Game Championship to earn $7,614 in just a day’s work.
Villanueva would several more times in 2015 (even after the “Rat” incident) but everything would come into place this year when he got his first international victory by topping the field in the 2016 APT Kickoff Manila Welcome Event for $5,457.
He went on to cash six more times and has already surpassed his career earnings with the calendar year just past its halfway mark.
“I’ve become a more patient and mature player as opposed to a couple of years ago,” Villanueva says. “I already know what my move will be before I even commit to it and I’m quick to find the weak player at the table and pounce.”
His crafty method of executing his set plays has set his tournament grind ablaze to the tune of nearly $33,000 in just a span of a couple of years.
“I’ve always looked up to Neil Arce as an influence, but I also used to admire the styles of Tom Dwan and Phil Ivey,” he expounds. “Their eyes can fool you and they’re very tough to read.”
However, Villanueva has become a huge fan of an iconic young player six years his junior.
“I adopted the ‘stage name’ Rhen Holz Villanueva because I’m a big fan of Fedor Holz,” he claims. “I watch him very closely and one of the biggest moments of my life was actually getting to meet him when he came over in 2015 (for the WPT High Roller Event). I hope to one day emulate his style and his methods because he has made a gigantic impact on my game.”
Locally, Villanueva may have a tough time shaking off the “Ratman” image, but on the tables he is beginning to make a killing. And many aficionados believe he is only scratching the surface of his tremendous potential as a tournament luminary and could one day make a splash in the international scene.
The “Ratman” cometh, and tables all over the world will jump up in fear.
By Noel Zarate