Hometown hero seeks to avenge countrymen
by Mason King Jul 18, 2004, 1:29 AM EST
As of a week ago, Taiwan's Pei-Wei Chang was hardly a recognizable figure in his home country, let alone on the international pool circuit. By Sunday night, he could be known far and wide as the best pool player in the world. In a turn of events reminiscent of Thorsten Hohmann's unexpected ascension at the 2003 World Pool Championships, Taipei native Chang flew under the radar here as his more heralded countrymen, including the resurgent Fong-Pang Chao, garnered all of the attention. Chang snuck into his quarterfinal match Saturday evening against two-time world champ Johnny Archer and stealthily built an 8-4 lead with a highly unorthodox, compact stroke and pinpoint position play. He withstood an Archer charge and then showed nerves of steel with the match tied at 10-10, running out after Archer failed to sink any balls on his break. In his semifinal match later Saturday night, Chang fell into a 6-1 hole against Sweden's Marcus Chamat but then strung together four consecutive racks and then another five to reach the hill, 10-8. A Chamat scratch in the next game cemented Chang's trip to the finals.
In a match beginning at 9 p.m. Taiwan time and televised live throughout Asian, the virtually untested Chang will face off against wiry and wily Alex Pagulayan, who came up short against Hohmann in the 2003 WPC finals. The situation here will be similar—the world's most charismatic and talented player without a major title facing off against a complete unknown. In fact, to call Chang's shocking rise a Cinderella story is an understatement. The lithe and somewhat gawky 25-year-old has only been playing pool fulltime for four years, and has never won a major tournament as a solo player. His one appearance on the San Miguel Asian 9-Ball tour this year—a spot on the Singapore stop earned with a qualifier—ended in the first-round loss. The most he's ever won in an event was $5,000, his share of his team's $25,000 prize at the 2002 Continental Cup. His proudest moment to date was his bronze medal at the 2003 Asian Pocket Billiard Union 9-Ball Championship.
After bombing out of the group stages at the 2003 WPC in Great Britain, Chang needed to win a qualifier to gain entry into this year's event. After doing so, he promptly lost his first two matches in the group stages, 5-0 and 5-2. Through an interpreter, Chang told BD that another player noted his exceptionally short, poking stroke—Chan'™s forearm and bicep are at a 30-degree angle before he starts his backswing—and suggested that he put a little more power into it. That might have been the adjustment he needed, because Chang ended the group stages with a 4-3 record and barely made the cut for the knock-out rounds.
With the dispassionate and economical style common among the Taiwanese players, Chang calmly dissected some legitimate opponents. In the round of 64, he surprised Filipino ace Warren Kiamco, 9-7, then trumped Norway's Raymond Hague, 9-6. A convincing 11-5 win over Filipino Dennis Orcollo led to the quarterfinal match with Archer.
As for his title bout with 26-year-old Pagulayan, Chang told a group of Chinese journalists that he wanted to avenge countrymen Chao and Po-Cheng Kuo, both of whom had fallen to the spiky-haired Canadian in the quarterfinals and semifinals. After dropping behind 10-5 to Pagulayan, Chao nearly reeled off six straight games for the win, but ended up snookered in the hill-hill break. Capping a white-knuckle safety battle, Pagulayan nailed a risky table-length bank on the 1 to seize control of the match and then survived a treacherous runout to seal the victory. Still juiced from his big win, Pagulayan then whipped baby-faced Kuo, 11-4, at about 1 a.m. local time.
"I want to play the final right now," said Pagulayan, known for his staggering stamina and late-night heroics as an action player.
Not lacking confidence, Chang rated his game right on par with Pagulayan's, although he conceded the Canadian had the edge in experience.
For his part, Pagulayan planned to avoid the mistakes that might have doomed his title hopes in 2003. "Last year, I got drunk the night before the final, but not this time as I'm going to give myself every chance," he said.
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