Vietnamese world billiards champion rising at warp-speed

By Xuan Binh   September 13, 2023 | 08:13 pm PT
New world champion Bao Phuong Vinh had only played proper billiards for just over a year before making history as the first Vietnamese to win the prestigious World Three-Cushion Championship.
Bao Phuong Vinh raises his trophy after winning the World Three-Cushion Championship on September 10, 2023. Photo by UMB

Bao Phuong Vinh raises his trophy after winning the World Three-Cushion Championship on September 10, 2023. Photo by UMB

In early 2022, Vinh was still absent in the rankings of 3,000 World Billiards Union (UMB) players. After 20 months, he cracked the UMB top 10 thanks to the world championship win in Ankara, Turkey.

His story is quite rare, even in the sports world: he went from zero to world champion in less than two years.

The World Three-Cushion Championship that Vinh has just won is the highest-rated tournament by UMB, with 120 ranking points added for the champion. Winners of other competitions like the Three-Cushion World Cup or continental tournaments only get 80 points.

Vinh is now the first Vietnamese player to hold the title of World Champion.

"Glory came to me in the fastest way possible," he told VnExpress after winning the title on Sunday night.

Vinh, 28, born in southern province of Binh Duong, had a passion for billiards since he was a kid, but was never able to practice properly. His family still made sure that the priority was his academic goals. He studied at a private high school in HCMC, then entered Foreign Trade University, where he majored in International Economics. After his bachelor's degree, Vinh studied in Australia and received a master's degree in Business Management and Economics.

Vinh said studying never put much pressure on him as he had always been an excellent student. He felt joy when he was able to obtain those degrees, but it was nothing like winning the world championship.

"Many people can get a master's degree, but not many can become world champion," he said after his big triumph.

Bao Phuong Vinh during a game at the 2023 World Three-Cushion Championship. Photo by UMB

Bao Phuong Vinh during a game at the 2023 World Three-Cushion Championship. Photo by UMB

And that title was in fact Vinh's goal after he got his master's degree in Australia. When Vinh returned to Vietnam in 2019, he aimed to become a professional billiard player. His parents gave him three years to see if the career path would be suitable for him. However, due to Covid-19, Vinh could only started proper billiards training at the end of 2021 with his mentor Nguyen Thanh Binh.

The study of three-cushion billiards has a lot of similarities to mathematics, which is also Vinh's strength. The playing style of the 28-year-old player is said to be practical and logical. He said studying for his masters helped him play billiards better, as there are many scientific factors in this sport.

His parents are still the ones who have had the biggest influence on Vinh's career. They set up a standard billiards table at home so he can practice at any time. Thanks to that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he was still able to practice and even played online with the world's number one female player Therese Klompenhouwer in June 2021.

Then 2022 was a pivotal year for Vinh.

He entered his first international tournament, the Three-Cushion World Cup in Ho Chi Minh City, but failed to pass the preliminary round. Last August, he competed abroad for the first time, at the Three-Cushion World Cup in Seoul, South Korea, reaching the round of 16. Even though that result garnered him some attention, at the time, he did not think that he could compete with the world's top players.

But then earlier this year he played extremely well at an international tournament in the U.S.

"After defeating world number one player Dick Jaspers at the World Cup in Las Vegas I was finally confident that I can compete at the highest level," Vinh said. "That was the first time Jaspers was eliminated right from the group stage."

Jaspers himself also ranked Vinh the best of all rising players in Vietnam, next to Tran Thanh Luc and Chiem Hong Thai.

"Vinh is young and has only competed internationally for a short time, but has shown his talent and spirit," the Dutch player said last May.

In the World Cup, Vinh, Luc and Thai all reached the semifinals. However, the only non-Vietnamese player in the semifinals, South Korean prodigy Cho Myung-woo won the title, defeating both Thai and Luc.

In the World Championship semifinals on September 10, Vinh avenged his teammates with a dramatic 50-48 victory over Cho. That match also marked a new milestone as it led to the first time the two players entering the World Championship final were Vietnamese.

Bao Phuong Vinh with his trophy and medal at the Tan Son Nhat Airport, HCMC on September 13, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

Bao Phuong Vinh with his trophy and medal at the Tan Son Nhat Airport, HCMC, on September 13, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong

Before going to Ankara, Turkey, Vinh only set the goal of going as far as possible. He didn’t expect to win the tournament, but then he defeated Tran Quyet Chien 50-34 in the all-Vietnam final.

Now Vinh has gone from being unranked to being in the top 10 world ranking, he will qualify directly for the group stage at the next World Cup in Veghel, Netherlands, which will take place next month.

Chien, the defending World Cup champion in Porto, Portugal, will likely be Vinh’s toughest opponent.

The reigning World Championship and World Cup Champion of three-cushion billiards are both Vietnamese. Vietnam is currently the country with the leading number of active billiards players in the world. Therefore, more talents like Vinh may appear in the future.

For now, Vinh has his sights set on his own future.

"I want to conquer the World Cup next," he said.

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