The draw shot was perfect, sending the 9-ball true into the left bottom pocket as the cue ball spun backwards to stop just at the right place for the next shot.
“His heart must be beating like a big bass drum,” said Mark White on the live YouTube broadcast, and both he and his fellow commentator Tony Robles appreciated the gravity of the moment facing 25-year-old Aloysius Yapp at the table. Robles, in particular, was rooting for the Singaporean. After all, he’d just found out days earlier the small part he’d played in the young lad’s unlikely pool journey.
As he chalked his cue, Yapp broke into a nervous grin, and he stood up for a moment to compose himself, giving his face an absent-minded scratch as if to quell the jitters. A shot away from sealing a first career win outside of Asia, the Singaporean knew he could not linger as every ticking second would simply ratchet up the anxiety. As calmly as he could, he took aim and duly sent the final 10-ball home to seal victory.
Defeating Filipino Roberto Gomez 4-0, 4-2 for the Predator Michigan Open title in late September was just one of the highlights of a 10-week tour of the United States for the Singaporean, who arrived 19 August in Los Angeles as the world number 20 in the World Pool-Billiard Association (WPA) rankings and would leave from New York on 2 November as the world number two, after a brief stay at the top of the rankings.
In that two-and-a-half-month swing across North America, Yapp played in nine tournaments, cashed out in eight, and amassed nearly US$57,000 (S$76,600) in prizemoney. That sum was already three times what he’d collected in his previous best year in 2019. He made five semi-finals in a remarkable run that included third place in the Predator World 10-Ball Championship in Las Vegas and finishing runner-up to Filipino Carlo Biado in the US Open in Atlantic City – both regarded as majors for pool, and that win in Michigan.
Originally signed-up for seven events, Yapp was handed late invitations to two other tournaments, as organisers were keen to let the fans see more of the new Asian sensation. One of the invites took him to the 2021 American 14.1 Championships, as Yapp gamely took up the challenge of playing straight pool – a format completely foreign to him – and managed to make the final 16, after going through the round robin undefeated.
With team-mate Sharik Sayed and coach Toh Lian Han alongside him on the road trip, Yapp made it a proper coming-out tour for himself, one which established him as a genuine contender in future tournaments and also a potential poster boy for professional pool in Asia, a region long dominated by world-beaters from Taiwan and the Philippines. Compared to his last trip to the US in early 2020, when he played poorly in just one tournament before Covid-19 wiped out the rest of his schedule, this 2021 tour has been an unqualified success.
This campaign has also assured Yapp that he’s ready for the sport’s biggest competitions – that apart from skills, he finally has the mental tenacity to match up with the best in the world. If before he had questioned whether he belonged in this elite company, the left-handed player now knows he does. Becoming the first Singaporean to become world number one in pool has ticked another item off his career wish list. It has also strengthened his resolve to do even better when he returns to the States next year for another raid, even as he’s aware the target on his back has grown a lot bigger.
For someone who knew nothing about pool until he saw it on TV 17 years ago, the journey for Yapp so far has been rather remarkable.
How it began: The 2004 BCA 9-Ball Final, and toy tables
Another day at school was done for eight-year-old Aloysius in 2004, then an academically-average Primary 2 pupil. Mother Angie Tay says he was polite, affable and well-liked by teachers and classmates at St Stephens School in Siglap. He was mad about Lego, loved watching football and dreamt of playing for Manchester United. He also enjoyed watching WWE wrestling, and was toggling the TV channels as he always does after school, hoping perhaps to catch his favourite wrestler John Cena in action.
Instead, something else caught his eye, and he was riveted. ESPN – a channel now no longer on-air in Singapore – was showing the 2004 BCA Open 9-Ball Championship final between Tony Robles and Santos Sambajon. While history would record American Robles winning his career first major title by 7-2 over Filipino Sambajon, in a living room in Simei, Singapore, a young boy’s interest in pool had been ignited.
Not that Aloysius knew much about what he was watching while admitting to be instantly fascinated. “It was an eye-opening experience for me, my first time watching pool and something completely new to me. I don’t know why it clicked, perhaps it was the coloured balls and the sound they make entering the pockets that got me hooked.
“Right away, I started pestering my mum and grandma to let me try out the game. Grandma loves me a lot and I kept begging her, and I told her I wanted very much to play this game. And I also asked if she or my mum could bring me to a pool hall to try this game out.”
Going to a pool hall was out of the question. Apart from the age-restriction – those below 16 are still not allowed in public cuesports establishments – billiard halls and snooker parlours are generally not seen as places for healthy pursuits.
Mother Angie picks up the story. “He pestered us every day, so we got him a toy table from Toys “R” Us to placate him. It was a small one that you can put on a table and play, and Aloysius soon became very good at it, and he would challenge every family member for a game.”
When he outgrew the 20-inch toy table, grandma came to the rescue, heading over to Johor Bahru to get him a larger 3-foot* pool table, which was closer to the real deal. (*Pool tables are denoted by their length, with their width exactly half of the length. Hence, a 7-foot table measures 7ft x 3.5ft, and a competition 9-foot table is 9ft x 4.5ft)
Recalls Aloysius, “I couldn’t leave the table at all, I just kept playing all day. It was a toy table with a metal frame and the balls felt like plastic. But I loved it, it was the only thing I had.”
The boy who once built his version of Old Trafford with Lego bricks and went to football camps to cultivate his left foot was now head over heels into all things pool. It helped to have a doting family backing his interest – Grandfather made sure to record every pool programme that came on TV for Aloysius to watch after homework. When the 2004 World 9-Ball Pool Championship was carried live on ESPN Star Sports, he drank in every minute, from the opening round through to the last 9-ball sunk by Filipino-Canadian pool whiz Alex Pagulayan to complete a 17-13 triumph over Taiwan’s Chang Pei-wei.
“Every day after school, I would be watching pool while having my lunch, and after that I’d quickly finish my homework so that I can get back to watching pool. I enjoyed just seeing how the professionals play, and I would mimic them on my toy table,” says Yapp.
And it was important for young Aloysius that he should look like a pro, which meant having all the right pool paraphernalia – a proper cue, the chalk, a carrying case and even a rest stick for the awkward shots. The quest for that piece of equipment would lead him to the next point in his pool journey.
Meeting the mentor: How TheQshop became Yapp’s second home
Pool wasn’t exactly a game foreign to Angie Tay. The 57-year-old, who works in the civil service, recalls her father bringing them to the AA Club way back when, and even purchasing a small billiards table for her and her siblings to play back when they were children, which became a family bonding activity.
But Aloysius’ sudden and complete immersion into pool was on another level entirely, and it had surprised her. Flipping through the Yellow Pages for shops selling pool equipment, she found TheQshop and made her way there during one of her lunch times.
“I met Greg Pang, one of the shop’s proprietors, and he was curious why I wanted to buy a rest,” Tay recalls. “So I told him about my son who was really into the game and also asked whether he was aware of any school holiday training camps for pool, similar to what Aloysius had previously attended for football at the Fandi Ahmad Academy.
“That piqued his curiosity and he asked that I bring Aloysius down to the shop so that his father, Paul, could take a look at him and assess his talent, and see where to go from there.”
Paul Pang, now 71, recalls that first meeting 16 years ago differently. “Mother and son came to my shop looking for cues. He was a young boy, could hardly reach the table and was very shy. The only suitable cue for him is a 48-inch junior cue, which he’s able to hold properly. They took my advice and bought the Scorpion fibreglass Johnny Archer cue, black colour.
“Not long after that, they came back again looking for a coach. Because I’ve come across many young kids who are enthusiastic at first but never stayed long, I recommended that they contact my friend, a commercial coach, instead. They were soon back again, saying ‘Your friend doesn’t want to take on Aloysius because he’s too short, and asked us to come back next year when he’s taller.’
“At the time, TheQshop was at Bras Basah Complex, and I happened to have a 7-foot table in the shop, a coin-operated one on display, and also for my customers to try out the cues. I told Aloysius he could come to the shop on Saturday for a few hours to play because he couldn’t go outside (to the pool halls). I offered to teach him for free, just train here and I can help him out or my son can.”
There was also an instant affinity. “I asked him what school he went to, and he said St Stephen’s, which my son went to as well,” says Paul, who also noted that like him, Aloysius and his mother were of Christian faith.
“This young boy is totally different from the others. I don’t charge these kids, I just give them free coaching, and the best ones would turn up for at most one month before they stop coming. But not Aloysius, he just kept showing up. And he was always very punctual.”
Tay recalls, “He started going every Saturday to TheQshop after Paul had seen that Aloysius was really passionate about the game. So every week, I’d drop him off there, and my daughter Vanessa and I would go shopping at nearby Bugis for five, six hours before picking him up. Sometimes, we’d have to still sit and wait until he’s willing to go home.
“I was kind of surprised because he was so into soccer, and all of a sudden it was pool all of the time. He was either playing on his small pool table or watching video clips and pestering me to buy those billiard magazines for him to read up… it became everything pool and nothing else.
At the shop, Pang would keep an eye on him while he went about his business.
“I would watch him as he played, and I noticed he already could cue the ball. I didn’t have to teach him much for a start, I just had to monitor his progress and try not to alter his natural action. I told him to watch the videos and copy the good players.
Yapp’s hero at that time was Taiwanese teenage ace Wu Chia-ching who won the World 9-Ball Championship in 2015 at the age of 16.
“Aloysius only wanted to watch Wu Chia-ching, because he’s also a left-handed player, and he copied as much of what Wu was doing,” says Pang. “He started turning up at the shop on Sundays and Fridays as well, and eventually I started dropping him home because I too stayed in the East and his home was along the way. That meant he could stay a bit later as I’d often have to stay back to repair the cues that customers bring in.
“He never failed to come down to the shop, even during the school holidays. In fact, he refused to go on holiday with his family because he will have to miss out on playing pool, and he insisted that every spare minute needed to be spent at TheQshop, such was his obsession with pool.”
For Tay, leaving Aloysius at TheQshop gave her peace of mind. By then, she’d been widowed after her husband Vincent had passed away in 2005 from cardio-respiratory failure while working in Thailand
“I felt very safe to have Aloysius at The Q Shop under Paul’s guidance, as well as his sons and their like-minded friends. They were always helping him, playing with him and guiding him all the time,” she says.
“I remember Paul mentioning to me that Aloy had the aptitude to go far because of his passion, perseverance and hard work. Unlike others who stopped turning up after a while, he was surprised that Aloy never stopped showing up and even increased his visits to the shop. Paul was a fatherly figure, very patient and encouraging to Aloysius.”
Becoming better: Continuing his training and meeting his idol
At TheQshop, Pang imparted to young Aloysius the basic techniques such as the right stance and various ways of potting the balls. Soon, his young charge was challenging him to matches after work.
“He was always looking to play against everyone,” Pang recalls. “And he started to play against the customers and my friends who come down to the shop. It was quite a tough training for him too because some of the adults hated losing to this young boy, so they would try and mess with him, like pulling the end of his cue when he’s taking his shots. Some days, he would get really upset and would complain to me on the way home about those chaps ‘playing dirty’.
“I told him, ‘Look, this is part and parcel of your training, you have to focus, and if they disturb you, you cannot let them affect you’. I taught him how to react to those situations by standing up, going around the table, chalk his cue, then refocus and take the shot. From there, he learnt to shut out the distractions and learnt to play the shot when he’s ready.”
All through the 2000s, pool enjoyed great popularity, helped by a constant presence on TV. The WPA also sanctioned a popular and highly-competitive Asian 9-ball Tour which ran for six years, organised by ESPN Star Sports and sponsored in the early years by San Miguel, and later on by Guinness.
The Singapore leg of the Guinness 9-Ball Tour in 2007 was held at the Orchid Country Club, with TheQshop getting a sponsor’s booth as the dealer for Predator equipment. Pang took the opportunity to bring 11-year-old Aloysius there to meet his idol Wu Chia-ching. Says Pang, “Aloysius was very shy and he didn’t want to take the picture with Wu. I told Wu that one day this young boy is going to challenge you at the table.”
The shot he took with Wu draws parallels with another famous photo in Singapore sports lore – that of 13-year-old Joseph Schooling meeting his idol Michael Phelps in 2008 when the latter stopped over for acclimatisation camp in Singapore prior to the Beijing Olympics. Schooling would famously relegate Phelps and two others to the joint-silver medal position at the 2016 Rio Olympics when he grabbed a history-making gold for Singapore in the 100m butterfly. But to date, Yapp has yet to go toe-to-toe with Wu in a major final, although the skills gap between the two have narrowed considerably since that first meeting.
At the event, the organisers had also placed two pool tables at the foyer for fans to play pick-up games against the Guinness girls, and Aloysius promptly made himself a fixture at one of the tables, much to the annoyance of a group of serious local pool enthusiasts who made their feelings known on their Poolfanatic forum. Little did they know that this young boy whom they thought to have poor manners for hogging the table would go on to become a world number one.
Part 2 of the Aloysius Yapp story looks into his teenage years, tracking his continuing pool education.