From waiter to world billiards champion: Duong Quoc Hoang stays on cue

By Xuan Binh   May 11, 2024 | 01:31 am PT
The 2024 Scottish Open champion Duong Quoc Hoang started playing professional billiards later than his peers, after a youth full of hardship.

14 years ago, Quoc Hoang left his hometown of Quang Ninh in northern Vietnam and moved to HCMC to build a career. At that time, the 23-year-old had only VND2 million ($78) in his hands, with no job or place to stay.

But Hoang overcame it all to become one of Vietnam's top billiards players, earning around US$60,000 in prize money from international tournaments and owning a chain of billiards bars under his name.

On May 5, the 37-year-old player set a new milestone in his career by winning the 2024 Scottish Open. This is the first time a Vietnamese player has won a world nine-ball tournament.

"My mother cried and told me not to go [to HCMC] because she worried that I wouldn’t know how to survive there," Hoang recalled in an interview with The Breaker. "I'm not the one to overthink things. At that time, I just thought that I would use my two hands to make a living."

Hoang has been passionate about billiards since childhood, and his first jobs in HCMC were also related to billiards, even if it was just being a waiter. The income from this job wasn't high, but it gave him time to practice. His talent was noticed by Luu Minh Phuc, a billiards bar owner and a player himself.

Duong Quoc Hoang at the 2024 Scottish Open. Photo by Facebook/Duong Quoc Hoang

Duong Quoc Hoang at the 2024 Scottish Open. Photo by Facebook/Duong Quoc Hoang

"Phuc was not only a brother and a mentor but he also provided everything I needed to develop my career, from a place to sleep to billiards equipment and trips to tournaments," Hoang said. "The first good cue I had, worth VND7 million, was also bought by him. He didn't hesitate to spend thousands of dollars to help me progress in my career."

Phuc also guided Hoang in other aspects of his career, such as his mentality. Knowing that his student could be impulsive, Phuc advised Hoang to always think before saying anything. This advice helped Hoang develop a calm demeanor, remaining composed even when facing challenging situations.

In Vietnam, pool is most popular in the north but is gradually spreading to other regions. Vietnam has never had a pool player in the world's top 30, but the 2024 Scottish Open title brought Hoang closer to that.

Another popular form of billiards is carom, mainly three-cushion, which is common in the central and southern regions. Vietnam currently has two players in the world's top 10 of three-cushion billiards: Tran Quyet Chien and Bao Phuong Vinh, who are also reigning world champions in both individual and team events.

Initially, three-cushion was one of the reasons that motivated Hoang to move south.

"I knew that Quyet Chien had a similar start just like me, and we both began in 2013 or 2014," Hoang said. "He showed me that billiards players can make a living. Chien once won a tournament in South Korea and earned $70,000.

The tournament Hoang referred to is the LG U+ Cup in 2018, where Chien dramatically defeated world number one Frederic Caudron 40-39 in the final. Since then, Hoang has taken the risk of spending his budget on international competitions, something that few Vietnamese pool players can afford.

Carom is not popular in English-speaking countries and therefore has lower prize money than pool or snooker. For instance, the world champion in a three-cushion event can receive around $21,500, while the world nine-ball pool champion gets $60,000.

The quarterfinal between Hoang and Eklent Kaci at the Scottish Open on May 5 attracted over 130,000 viewers in Vietnam, many times more than the three-cushion finals involving Chien and Vinh.

In world-class tournaments like the Scottish Open, Vietnamese players rarely make it to the knockout stage. If they don't reach that stage, the prize money is often not enough to cover airfare, let alone other expenses.

Hoang first earned prize money from a world tournament in 2017, finishing 17th at World Nine-ball Championship and receiving $2,000. Over the next four years, he earned an average of just $5,000 annually, despite competing in many tournaments.

"I wanted to give up international competition at the end of 2022 after playing in three tournaments in the U.S. without success," Hoang said.

"At that time, I considered stopping competitive pool and focusing on business. But my results at the 2023 World Nine-ball Championship were a turning point that revived my confidence in the path I chose."

At last year's World Nine-ball Championship in Poland, Hoang left an impression after beating legendary player Shane van Boening 11-10 in the round of 16.

He considers that match a career milestone and participated in more tournaments after that. In 2023, he earned $32,750 in prize money, six times his annual average in previous years, reaching the semifinals of the Las Vegas Open and the quarterfinals of the Spanish Open. The championship in Scotland could be another turning point, taking Hoang to new heights in his career.

Hoang always carries a rice cooker when competing internationally. After experiencing stomach issues from eating foreign food a few times, he learned his lesson and now prepares his own meals before matches. This is also a way to minimize expenses, which is the biggest hurdle for Vietnamese players in international competition.

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