The New York Times
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November 27, 2008

Back-and-Forth Sport Is Back Again


THE evening usually starts with an unmarked door, poorly lighted stairs and a familiar popping sound.

Table tennis.

Wally Green, 29, from the Marlboro Houses in Coney Island, picked up the game after losing money to pool hall hustlers. Susan Sarandon, the actress, discovered the game through her son Miles, 16. She and Mr. Green find themselves at the same events sometimes.

“There was no table tennis over there,” Mr. Green said of the Marlboro Houses. “There was a lot of bullets going over, but no table tennis.”

Ms. Sarandon was not running from pool hustlers or bullets when she became interested in the game. “I started finding out that there was this subculture of Ping-Pong and all these people that you wouldn’t expect are serious about it,” she said. “I just worked with Ed Norton, and he’s so committed that he trained in China while he was shooting a film there.”

Mr. Green and Ms. Sarandon are part of a growing number of players in New York City and beyond who are meeting in clubs, apartments, art galleries and even laundry rooms that have a table, brought together by their fervent, almost evangelical love for the game — known generically as table tennis but often called Ping-Pong (a trademark) by its devotees.

Now, it seems, this secret society may soon emerge from behind unmarked doors: the trickle of places in the city that serve up the sport is becoming a flow. Some billiards halls are removing pool tables to make way for the sport. Fat Cat, a sprawling shabby chic spot featuring jazz and games in the West Village, added three table tennis tables over the summer, and plans to add more to the 10 it now has.

“We just have a lot more people who want to play,” said Noah Sapir, 32, the owner. “Every night of the week we have a waiting list.”

Slate, a hall with 16 pool tables near Madison Square Park, reports waiting times of an hour for its six table tennis tables. Ocean’s 8 at Brownstone, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, added its first five tables this year because customers using its 33 pool tables kept asking to play.

A tournament in the spring in Brooklyn, at the Powerhouse Arena, a gallery, attracted 32 corporate teams representing entities like Google, MTV, Red Bull and Comedy Central. There were lines out the door, said Khairi Mdnor, the organizer.

Grand Opening, a glass-fronted gallery space between tenement buildings on the Lower East Side, has old Chinese men playing hipsters on its table despite the language barrier. “People can communicate through their game,” the owner, Ben Smyth, 27, said.

Soho House, in the meatpacking district, has a tournament every other month. On Gramercy Park, the 110-year-old National Arts Club, complete with wood paneling and portraits of esteemed members, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, now regularly echoes with the sound of the game.

USA Table Tennis, the sport’s national organizing body in the United States, said it has had a steady increase in membership of just below 10 percent since 2006. There are 457 Yahoo groups related to the sport, including ones for collegiate players (almost 2,000 members, 53 new ones in a recent week) and regional groups of about 500 members.

Three filmmakers, Jonathan Bricklin, Bill Mack and Franck Raharinosy, have teamed with Andrew Gordon, a former investment banker, to open a 12,800-square-foot table tennis and social club on Park Avenue near Madison Square Park. The filmmakers became accidental promoters when they put a table in their loft office for their own amusement a couple of years ago.

“People would come over all the time to play us,” said Mr. Mack, 35. “Our then-girlfriends got tired of it and made us limit it to one night.”

That night became an unexpected hit, attracting the likes of Owen Wilson, Salman Rushdie, 50 Cent, the Beastie Boys, Jimmy Buffett and as many attractive people as there were lightweight hollow balls.

They decided to build on that success and convert a former Mattress King into a large club. Spin New York will open in March.

“It’s the sport of the future,” said Mr. Bricklin, 31. “It’s so simple that there’s no barrier to entry. And it has a carnival game-esque mind trick that makes you think that you could win at any possible moment. On any given Sunday you could beat someone who is potentially much, much better than you. That element is very exciting and addictive.”

Other theories on the appeal of the game, which started in England at the end of the 19th century as an after-dinner amusement, include its fast pace, the unique sounds of the game, its health benefits and, paradoxically, the fact that you can play while drinking or smoking.

“The matches aren’t that long, so they get very emotional very fast and then they’re over,” Ms. Sarandon said. “You can come and go as you please and still feel satisfied.”

Even if you don’t want to play, you can read about the game in a new magazine called Celebrity Ping-Pong, in which famous people converse over a game. Plans for the second issue are said to include literary fans of the game, like Mr. Rushdie and Jonathan Safran Foer.

In contrast to the large, luxurious club being planned, bare-bones clubs exist for hard-core players: a Russian outpost in Coney Island; two clubs across the street from each other in Flushing, Queens; a cluster of them on the Upper East Side.

At the New York Table Tennis Federation, a no-frills club on the border of Chinatown and SoHo, the only drinks come from a Coke machine. The place is unmarked, and you have to walk through the foyer of an apartment building and decipher a sign in Mandarin to find it.

On a recent Friday night more than 40 people packed the basement. Some played mah-jongg and ate peanuts as they waited to use one of the 10 tables for $9 an hour. Others watched Boson Wu, a 12-year-old, beat a succession of older players. He wants to compete in the Olympics for the United States in 2012 and trains twice a week at the club.

Wong Ming, 64, known as Mustache Ming by the other players, runs a steam press in a clothing manufacturing company. He cannot understand mixing hedonism and table tennis. “I used to drink and smoke,” he said, with a fellow player interpreting, “but I gave them up for Ping-Pong. It’s a serious health thing. You want to feel good when you come out.” He said he was now addicted to the mental and physical benefits of such an active sport, and would never drink and play.

“It’s different strokes for different folks,” Marty Reisman said. “If you want to have a drink, have a drink. If you don’t want to have a drink, don’t.”

Mr. Reisman, 78, is the godfather of New York table tennis. He has been a professional player since he was 11 and hustled for nickels and dimes on the Lower East Side during the Great Depression. He is now trying to get the sport more exposure on television with the help of Jeff Bogatin, a venture capitalist.

Mr. Reisman practices, for two hours a day when possible, on the table of his friend, the writer and editor Harold Evans, 80, who has played since his youth. They battle in the laundry room of the Upper East Side building where Mr. Evans lives with his wife, Tina Brown.

“His skills are genius level,” Mr. Evans, out of breath from an implausibly fast game, said of his opponent. Mr. Reisman was the United States men’s singles champion in 1958 and 1960 and the hardbat champion in 1997.

Mr. Evans and Mr. Reisman favor the hardbat, the purist’s paddle, free of the spin-inducing spongy coating of modern rackets, which, many say, ruined the game. Mortimer B. Zuckerman, owner of The Daily News, sometimes stops in for a game, as do various writers and editors, as part of a collective they call the print and paddle club.

Mr. Reisman has seen celebrities come and go. He said he played with Jesse Owens and some of the Harlem Globetrotters as a young man and with Matthew Broderick in the 1980s. And he has seen the game rise like this before, too.

“Ping-Pong is a game that I think really thrives during tough times,” he said, referring to the 1930s and ’40s. “It’s easy to play and it’s cheap to play, and it seems that historically every time it’s really thrived has been a time of depression.”