Former marbles champion Zang Duong, 34, stands in a recessed area of cement, where white pop-up tents shade five round tables covered in felt. The space is nestled in the middle of the Del Mar fair and yet feels removed from the crowded bustle, grating music, and gaudy colors of the carnival atmosphere. It feels more like a neighborhood block party. A grey-haired man with a cane, straight out of Norman Rockwell, greets guests at the sign-in table. He grins as he challenges players to guess the number of marbles in a large jar, while bystanders linger by another table, examining a display case full of trophies won by previous champions.
Although Zang doesn’t have a trophy in this case, he does have a few at the Marbles Hall of Fame in Wildwood, New Jersey. He’s been written up three times in Sports Illustrated. He is considered one of the best ever in the United States. He even starred in a few Japanese commercials in the ’80s. And perhaps he will add another marble to his jar today.
It happens to be perfect beach weather on this Saturday in July, but the crowd of mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings might as well be in Kansas because they have no interest in the beach today. They are captivated by a deceptively simple children’s game. In his aviator sunglasses and striped, terrycloth wristbands, Zang walks around one table, coaching a few friends.
“The way you shoot it is you put your shooter at an angle to a line of marbles. And if you hit a marble out and your shooter stays in the ring, then you keep going.” Zang points out the best angles to shoot from, the same way one would talk about hitting billiard balls on a pool table. His buddy nods, arms folded and looking serious behind dark sunglasses, as he contemplates the marbles that are arranged in the shape of a cross on the felt table.
“I think I get it,” the friend says. He unfolds his arms and picks up a shooter. With knuckles down, he flicks his thumb hard. The shooter skids across the table, knocks a marble out of the ring, and bounces onto the pavement and into a bush.
“Yeah, you got it!” Zang sips from the straw of his super-sized drink.
A few of the younger kids have camera-toting parents hovering around them, who seem to be taking this event more seriously than the rest. One father cups his hands to shout rough words of encouragement to his son after a bad play. “This isn’t a practice round! Focus!” The favorite of the event appears to be a red-haired kid, about 5’6”, with big, round glasses that mirror his body shape; he looks as if he stepped out of a comic strip. The kid’s got great technique, but it’s just not his day. The Duong brothers are in town.
The lively crowd watching the 15–19 division begins to clap and chant a player’s name as he steps up to the table with his shooter. “Matt! Matt! Matt! Matt! MATT!…O-Ohhhoo.” The fans comment, cheer, and chat away during the matches, occasionally whooping — there’s no golf-clapping here or hushing the crowd. Zang watches Sang, his youngest brother, adjust the sweatband around his forehead and step up to the table. Sang sweeps the table, knocking five marbles out of the ring in one turn to win the match. “Somehow he’s gotten a lot better in his old age,” quips Zang. An ironic comment. But then, Zang saw marbles fame at the age of 11.
“Zang is the most unique person I know,” says a friend, Tyler. “We laugh about it, but not many people can say they are considered the best at something.”
Eddie, another friend, tells a story about Zang from when they first became acquainted in Philadelphia in the late 1990s. They were just out of college. “Zang sat next to me when we were both working at an investment firm. One time, I asked him what he was doing for the weekend, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m going to Wildwood, New Jersey, for the Tournament of the Champions, for marbles,’ and I said, ‘The what?’ That’s when I found out he was a former marbles champion. The next week, he was on the phone with some girl he met at the tournament who kept calling him. Apparently, when she found out who he was, she got really excited. The girl’s mom happened to work for the University of Pittsburgh, and the girl offered to get Zang tickets to a game. He brought four of us from work. We were in the hotel room, and she called, and he said, ‘Thanks, I got the tickets in the mail.’ She asked if he wanted to hang out later, and he said, ‘Nah, I’m busy.’ That’s how Zang was.”
Eddie has an incredulous look on his face. “He actually had marble groupies.”
“Badass,” Tyler says.
Zang sat for an interview in his cozy townhome in Pacific Beach. He wore his daily uniform, a T-shirt and shorts, interchangeable, depending on the activity: soccer shorts, board shorts, cargo shorts…marbling shorts? Eddie, who is also his roommate, hung out in the background, preparing an evening meal. But despite the comfortable setting, Zang seemed anxious about the interview. He smiled across his kitchen table, eyes averted; he picked up a newspaper and leaned back as though to read it. One of Zang’s friends from back east has been attempting for some time to write a screenplay, a comedy about Zang’s life that includes a few fictitious spins. But the friend hasn’t been able to get enough details to complete the project — Zang is hard to pin down.
“All right, I’m ready,” he says.
His skin is caramel, and his features often cause people to assume he is Korean. To a passerby on the street, he’d probably appear American-born — his outward appearance is an obvious embrace of America — but when speaking, a light Vietnamese accent occasionally slips into the conversation. He pays homage to his homeland on an almost weekly basis by gathering a group of friends for his favorite Sunday ritual: lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant.