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.
Zang, his sister Loann, and his parents escaped Vietnam in a boat just after the war ended. “We were robbed by pirates on the first leg of the trip,” he recalls, “and we were lucky — many people had worse things happen to them. The pirates even steered us in the right direction after they robbed us.” Long Duong, Zang’s father, was a supporter of the South Vietnamese Army and did not feel safe after the war ended. Many South Vietnamese officials were imprisoned in re-education camps after the Communist North took over the country. Zang remembers his father hiding from police several times before his family fled. Long and several others built a boat that took them as far as Malaysia, where Zang’s brother, Bang, was born. His mother had endured the first leg of the trip while pregnant, two children in tow.
“We were a part of the second wave of boat people,” Zang says. About two million civilians fled the country after the war. About half of these boat people perished. A Lutheran church in Philadelphia enabled the Duong family to come to America around 1979, when Zang was six. His parents are forever grateful to the church for sponsoring their immigration. They still attend church services regularly, as a sign of respect and gratitude, even though they don’t share the church’s beliefs.
“They got us involved with the church and the community — they helped us adapt to U.S. culture and customs,” Zang says. It was a neighbor and family friend from the church who introduced him to marbles.
“I was like, ‘Marbles, whatever, who plays marbles?’ ” remembers Zang. “At eight years old, I was thinking about running around outside, not marbles. But I finally went. I ended up beating the kid that got me to go out and play the first time.” Jim Ridpath watched Zang that day at the Lutheran church and asked if he could coach him. Ridpath, a decorated Navy veteran of WWII, had a passion for marbles.
“It was just like The Karate Kid,” says Zang, describing how he learned to play the official game in the U.S., called Ringer. “Mr. Ridpath made us shoot ten times each, two-inch shots, four-inch shots, so on. He kept records, and we had to do it a certain amount of time before he’d let us move on. We had to practice different scenarios — if it’s windy, I might put a lot of spin on it.”
Ridpath was the founder and a member of the Marble Club of America. His passion for marbles, and also for his collection, led Sports Illustrated to write a story about him: “Here’s a Man Who Has All of His Marbles — Maybe Some of Yours, Too.” At that time Ridpath owned 161,471 marbles, thought to be the largest collection in the world.
That December 3, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated describes how Ridpath drew a regulation ring on the linoleum floor in his basement. “Every now and then, a kid will knock on his door and ask his wife Helen, ‘Can Jim play marbles today?’ ” the article says. There were marbles all over his house, everything from agates to a 19th-century sulphide worth, in those days, nearly $300.
“He would take us on trips during the off-season, to glass and marble museums to see how marbles were made,” says Zang. “It was really cool. He taught us about the history of the sport, little by little. I think my mom liked that I played marbles because it kept me out of trouble.” Ridpath was a second father to kids in the area, and he took care of them when their parents weren’t around. The legendary coach considered Zang his protégé, but that didn’t mean he favored him.
“If we missed a practice he would tell us, ‘Do you want to get serious about this game?’ ” recalls Zang. “I was kicked out of the program a few times for missing practice, and he would tell my mom.” Zang practiced three to four times a week during the year and then every day for two months before the big tournament.
“You need a lot of composure in the finals,” Zang says. “Kids used to break down before even finishing the game. It’s a lot of pressure.” Once, after an intense match that he won, Zang ran from the table and began to cry, upset because he thought another kid had cheated. And Zang remembers one girl, Shellie, who came to the Wildwood, NJ, tournament and placed second or third, year after year. She never won because she would break down from the emotional strain before the game was over.
“The year I won,” Zang says, “the guy I played against in the final was also coached by Mr. Ridpath. My coach was so emotional during the match that he just had to sit back and watch — he told us he couldn’t coach.”
Ridpath passed away in 2005, before he could publish a book he was writing about marbles.
“It’s all downhill after you win the title at nine,” quipped a girl in another story about marbles in Sports Illustrated. Zang laughs when this quote is read to him. But he remembers the intensity of feelings that come with the sport he practiced religiously growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant in Philadelphia.
In a book about New Jersey history, author Mark Di Ionno writes that “the misty-eyed sports romantics who think that only baseball is a microcosm of changing America should look at marbles. In 1986, Giang Duong, a boy of Vietnamese heritage, won the championship. His brother, Bang Duong, won in 1994.” After all the write-ups, Zang Americanized the spelling of his first name, Giang.
Along with the youngest brother, Sang, all three Duongs have held the title of National Marbles Champion. Zang, the oldest, is the marbles legend. Like Jim Ridpath, Bang carries on the tradition by volunteering as a marbles coach for kids in Philadelphia.
At the San Diego County Fair, Zang met the grey-haired man with the cane and the jar filled with marbles. His name is Doc Leavitt, and he is a Vietnam veteran. They first talked when Zang called to ask about the tournament, and the two ended up trying to identify when they both were in country. Leavitt was a medical corpsman in the Navy but spent his time — 29 months, three tours — in the Marines as a naval advisor. He has seen a lot of tragedy in his life, but you wouldn’t know it if you met him. He seems to make a dear friend out of everyone, with his willingness to share his stories and his knowledge. One friend who stops by asks him, “Are you doing another one of your war interviews?”
John Smith, a friend of Doc’s and fellow combat medic in Vietnam, recalled a childhood filled with all kinds of street games — mostly marbles. Smith is a tall African-American man with graying hair. Although he is younger than Doc, he has just as many stories.
“We used to play with cat-eyes in the streets.”
“Cat-eyes,” Doc says disdainfully, “they’re passé.” Smith chuckles at this remark — he used to love the cat-eye marbles when he was a kid. Doc begins to piece together a memory of playing marbles at school, and his mind wanders back to his childhood in Montana. He speaks in a slow, deliberate voice, as if he were sitting on a back porch, passing time.
“I can remember, as a youngster in the ’40s, carrying my marbles in my bib overalls. We would play at school. And we carried them in a tin — a tobacco tin. And if you happened to win something that was really attractive, say while out at recess break, and you made the mistake of opening that tin to look at it in the afternoon during geography class, you’d feel a touch on your shoulder. And that would be the teacher. And suddenly, that tin of marbles would be out of your possession and you wouldn’t get it back until the end of the school year. When people look at the tins in my display, I jokingly tell them that it took me a while to learn that lesson, you know.”
Smith has his own memories. “We used to shoot marbles every day when I was growing up in New York City in the 1950s, in Harlem and the Bronx,” he says. “We would play on the dirt. We would run the dirt through a grinder and turn it into dust and then wet it and make it hard, and then grind it up again until we made a perfect playing field. We used to play all kinds of street games. There were cat-eyes in two sizes, and the bigger marbles were the targets. We used to shoot with the smaller marbles. Now it’s reversed. And we’d actually keep the marbles we won.”
At the qualifying rounds for the county fair, held in La Jolla, both Doc and Zang were touched by the enthusiasm of the younger children who came out to play marbles.
“A girl came up to me and said, ‘I won 90 marbles!’ ” says Zang. “It meant a lot to her, and I thought it was cute. It’s great that there is still interest in the game.” Doc also described how he was pleasantly surprised by the excitement of the 5- to 15-year-olds, and especially the girls.
“Everyone in my chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America thought I was completely out of my tree for trying to organize the tournaments. They said, ‘You know, Leavitt, you’ve gone over the wall this time. It’s impossible for us to interest the youth of today in marbles, when the only thing they are concerned about are Xboxes and iPods and video games.’ And I said, ‘It’s worth a try.’ ” A friend of Doc’s, George Prather of Escondido, helped put the whole thing together and raise the necessary funds.
“At the La Jolla qualifying rounds, there were 11 players over 60. To watch them, you’da thought we were back in a schoolyard, back in the 1940s and ’50s — ’cause the only thing missing was the fistfights. Everything else was the same — they were arguing with one another about whether or not their shot was good,” recalls Doc, with a grin on his face.
At the Del Mar fair, Zang indulged in a breakfast of champions that included a round of ribs, giant corn dogs, and fries. He lured his contingent in flip-flops to play in the tournament, along with him and his two brothers. The youngest brother, Sang Duong, is a recent San Diegan. And Bang Duong, with some of his buddies from Philly, flew out for a weekend vacation.
It is the final round for the 30- to 59-year-old division. There are several games underway, but most of the fans vie for a view of this particular table. Zang moves deftly around the circle, impressing the crowd with his skills, even after all these years. A few members from Vietnam Veterans of America who run the tournament look on, beaming with delight as they watch the charismatic Zang elicit cheers for winning yet another match.
It is Zang’s turn again in the final match of the final round. The crowd is uncharacteristically silent. He puts his thumb and knuckles to the table. Gripping the marble tightly, his hand shakes, the way it does every time he shoots. His signature vibration emits a bolt across the felt circle. All eyes watch as Zang’s glass rocket hits one marble out, then backspins to hit another out, and then slows to stop, still inside the ring.
“I used to knock them all out my first turn,” Zang says. “I did that 61 times one tournament — won the match on my first shot. I beat kids with mustaches.” He laughs. “I still can’t grow a mustache.”