Keith Hancock excavates the history of pool through the man that got them started for expats in Ho Chi Minh City. Photos by Vinh Dao.
The Saigon Pool League has grown from small beginnings in 2014, to a huge league comprising 4 divisions of 8 ball, 1 of 9 ball and almost 400 players. This is all down to one man, with help and enthusiasm from a small group of others. It is now a superbly competitive league. At the end of the last season, in June 2017 a couple of hundred gathered at the Masse Pool Club in District 1, for the end of season awards and presentations. Snooker legend Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White handed out both the awards and some lessons in astonishing pool shots.
Four years ago when I came to Vietnam to live there were very few decent venues in which to play pool. There was certainly nothing that resembled a Saigon Pool League. Arriving in town at a similar time to me was fellow Englishman, Chris Lee. We had previously met a couple of years earlier when Chris was playing for the Shanghai team in the Southeast Asia Expat Tournament in Bangkok. I was a member of the Bangkok team then, and had been charged with organising the welcome at Suvarnabhumi Airport. As I prepared to fly with my new Shanghai team to play in Jakarta in 2014, Chris got on the airport shuttle bus. Old friendships rekindled, he informed me that whilst he was still playing for Shanghai that year, he had just moved to Saigon.
After the tournament dust had settled, we met up over a few beers to discuss the state of pool in Saigon, and it was quite frankly in a bit of a state. With the exception of, the soon to be doomed, Red Bar, there simply was nowhere in town worthy of playing decent pool. What bars did have tables, generally had poor tables and there was no league, no coherent set of rules and no competitive games.
I knew that the players were here, I played in Red Bar in those days and there were some truly excellent players in there. Surely it couldn’t just be that all the good players in town all drank in the same bar, could it? Chris told me that he was determined to start a Saigon Pool League. I travelled with him around town for a few weeks checking out venues and asking bar owners if they would be interested in trying to get a league going.
I’m not claiming any credit here; I was helping Chris just as a friend. I helped with some writing early on, but I could never have matched his enthusiasm in getting the Saigon Pool League started. It was a real struggle at first. Early meetings were totally shambolic with the usual group of wannabe leaders all vying for position. Some of the suggestions were frankly, bizarre. How Chris managed to keep it all together remains a mystery to me. In my opinion, rule by committee never works and gladly Chris managed to stop that happening. Yes he listens to arguments and ideas, but he fires the shots (no pun intended). The league is all the more successful, because of it.
Slowly but surely the Saigon Pool league began to take shape. As bar owners could see the benefit of having their bars in the league, so Chris was able to cajole them into upgrading the quality of the tables. Some were sceptical at first but the overall upturn has been impressive. A case in point would be the Buddha Bar, one of my favourite haunts. They had one table back then and it was terrible. A converted 9ft snooker table with a terrible cloth and awful pockets. Now they have two excellent tables and both are busy, constantly. That first season cost Chris thousands of dollars in travel, petrol, time and purchasing all the prizes.
I met up with Chris Lee and three mainstays of the Saigon Pool League in The White House, another superb pool venue in District 2 with three quality tables and probably four teams entering the leagues next season. Paul Gibson is captain of the Saigon legends, the team that plays in the Southeast Asian Expat Competitions. Bar owners Alexander Egert of Evita bar and Ellen Thompson of The White House both in District 2 are well known faces in the League.
I asked Chris about his motivations in setting up the Saigon Pool League in the first place. “I was aware there was no league in 2013, before I even arrived here. I was part of a successful league in Shanghai for 5 years and wanted to try and replicate that here. The Saigon Pool League now serves a viable pool community for the economic model that I had. It is sustained by the bars and involves 400 people”. Chris continued, “There is scope for a league to be run out of the Bidas and that is a possibility for the future. Currently it is a beer league, the bars are integral to its success. The ultimate aim is to make it sustainable. It’s not about me; I hope it carries on long after I have left Saigon. Though I have no plans for that in the immediate future.”
Paul Gibson is integral to the link that has formed between The Saigon Legends, the international team and the Saigon Pool League. I asked him how he thought the league had impacted on the Legends. Paul replied, “It has created an infrastructure where the community in Saigon all play together. For sure there are more players, now.” He continued, “The original Legends team was put together quickly. Now it is much easier to get the core players that we need. Most of the Legends play in the Saigon Pool League, it is not a rule but most definitely they like to play weekly and competitively.”
It is important to see the impact that the league has had on the bars. As Ellen Thompson puts it, “Obviously there is an increase in regular custom on Mondays and Thursdays. But more than that, It gives people an opportunity to visit other bars in the city. It is a reciprocal thing. My teams represent my bar when they play away and other players experience my bar when they visit us. It really is a great community for the players.”
Alex Egert agrees but makes an even more unexpected point. “Yes, there is definitely more traffic to my bar. But the surprising thing for me is that it took away some of the jealousy between the different venues.
Competition remains on the table, but there is a bonding that happens. Players and bar owners get closer together and bridge the “bar jealousy”, that sometimes exist. For example we don’t look at other bars merely as competition, we are all doing the same job.”
I’ll leave the last word with Chris Lee. “The key benefits are not only building this community but that we have created many more venues for pool players to enjoy their pool. We have around 15 venues now, but we still have to create a pool environment, for more Vietnamese players. They mainly play two or three cushion carom. However, we are trying to raise the quality of pool venues. With the right partners we will be able to grow it further. We need to get sponsors who want to get involved with high quality pool. I would love to see the Bida halls embrace better pool table standards. So that all forms of the game can be enjoyed. The Vietnamese are amazing at three cushion carom and using the technique from their game coupled with the strategy of pool, they would be incredible.”