Marty Reisman, Ping-Pong Hustler
Credit: Dario Cantatore / Getty Images
If I were a betting man like Marty, I'd wager that almost no one reading this has seen ping-pong played for stakes higher than having to chug the plastic cup of Miller Lite into which a ball has just kerplunked. Competitive table tennis, once a serious spectator sport, no longer draws much interest outside of the Far East because the modern game is, in Marty's words, "totally boring." In a typical exchange, player one serves with a paddle engineered for maximum speed and velocity, player two returns the lightning serve, and player one quickly smashes the ball back for a win. (Both players are almost certainly Chinese; China has ruled table tennis since Chairman Mao declared it to be the national game of the new People's Republic in the mid-1950s.) All of this transpires in about one and a half seconds; following the action is like trying to watch a jai alai match conducted on a racquetball court.

That's not Marty's game. Marty plays classic hardbat ping-pong, with a hardwood paddle covered by only a thin sheen of rubber. ("Table tennis" and "ping-pong" are just different names for the same sport.) This is what Marty calls "the witty game," an urbane dialogue between two players that unfolds like a chess match, as hardbat grandmasters set up their winning shots several moves in advance. Games can stretch on for hours to the hypnotizing, metronomic plick-plock of the plastic ball, as soothing as rain on a tin roof. Hardbat bears about as much similarity to modern table tennis as "Folsom Prison Blues" does to "Achy Breaky Heart."

Hardbat saved Marty's life. He was a neurasthenic kid from New York's dicey Lower East Side, who by the age of 10 had survived the collapse of his parents' marriage and a nervous breakdown. "We were in a school assembly, right after singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and about to say the Pledge of Allegiance," Marty recalls, "and I was overcome with panic that I was going to die. I let out a tremendous scream in the middle of the assembly." A nightmare month in the infamous Bellevue mental hospital followed. At 11, Marty picked up a paddle at a local community center and discovered his hidden talent. "I have no memory of ever playing poor table tennis," he says. His wicked 115-mile-an-hour forehand kill shot would be dubbed the "Atomic Blast" by the ping-pong press. (Yes, such a thing once existed.) There was no Nick Bollettieri academy for promising pongers; Marty cut school to play 10 hours a day for nickels and dimes against shady characters in city parks. One notorious pedophile would bet boys double-or-nothing, until the only way to pay off the wager was through a noncash transaction. Marty quickly picked up the cardinal rules of the ping-pong hustle. Never suggest the game yourself – let the mark do it. Ditto on the price of the wager, in case the sucker senses he's being set up. Keep the score close so that your winning looks like a fluke. By 14, Marty was supporting himself financially. "I only bet on a sure thing – myself," he says.

"Table-tennis players have to survive by their own wits," Marty wrote in his entertaining 1974 memoir, The Money Player, which reads a little like the Soul on Ice of ping-pong. "Top players were either gamblers or smugglers." Marty showed early promise as both. Playing in the national championships at age 15, he mistook the president of the stodgy United States Table Tennis Association for his bookie and handed the man a $500 bet on himself. ("After the match, I was escorted from the hall by a uniformed policeman," he later recalls proudly.) On Marty's first transatlantic crossing, in 1948, his luggage bulged with a cache of contraband nylon stockings to sell to the hosiery-deprived women in postwar England.

A black-and-white newsreel from the 1949 British Open shows a toothbrush-thin Jewish kid with slicked-back hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and pants hiked up to his rib cage, reaching the finals of the second-most-prestigious competition in table tennis. (To put this into the context of sporting history, the Yankees were then scouting an Oklahoma high school senior named Mickey Mantle.) Wembley Arena is filled with 10,000 hushed Englishmen, at least 9,995 of whom appear to be smoking unfiltered cigarettes. The first minute of play unfolds like a distillation of Marty's career, a hybrid of brilliant athleticism and extreme hot-dogging. Victor Barna of Hungary – the Babe Ruth of table tennis, a stern-faced, balding, five-time world champion – serves. Marty, vibrating with teenage excitement, returns the shot behind his back. Barna, as if accepting a challenge, returns that shot behind his back. Marty leaps and returns the ball between his legs. Barna follows suit. The crowd rises to its feet, cheering. Marty returns the shot with his foot, which Barna, now smiling, returns likewise. Marty finally slams home the point, and 10,000 Englishmen erupt into a two-minute ovation. Marty declines to return Barna's second serve to even the score at 1–1, so that the real match can begin. He wins the match three games to two. The London papers, enchanted by Mary's antics, proclaimed him the "Danny Kaye of table tennis."

As Marty was pirouetting into the ping-pong record books, however, he was also shooting himself in the foot. Miffed by their third-rate accommodations – "the room was the size of a closet, and the decor was awful," Marty says – the new British Open champion and his teammates charged first-class hotel rooms to their hosts. The USTTA, appalled by Marty's behavior, fined and suspended him from competition indefinitely.

For the next three years, in what should have been the prime of his career, Marty found himself more or less blackballed from major events. Even as a ping-pong refugee, though, his fame continued to grow. Stymied in his quest for a world championship, he lined up a gig traveling with the Harlem Globetrotters, in whose halftime show he performed with his partner, Doug Cartland. Each night they played "Mary Had a Little Lamb" by volleying with pots and pans. Ever the crowd-pleaser, Marty developed a signature trick of breaking a cigarette in half with his forehand smash. He briefly fell in love with a Brazilian girl in Rio de Janeiro, but after considering marriage, he left for a tournament in São Paulo and never saw her again. He played exhibitions in Rangoon, Taipei, Singapore, Jakarta, and Hong Kong, a sleepy colonial port where no building rose above six stories. Everywhere Marty stopped, he hustled a game with any local champion or overconfident businessman willing to play for money. On the day he became eligible to vote back home, Indian newsboys hawked their daily editions wearing sandwich boards that read "Marty Reisman is 21."

Marty schemed his way into the 1952 World Championships, held in Bombay. At age 22, after three years on the run, he was ready to claim the title the bureaucrats had cheated him out of. He blazed through the pairings to the semifinals, where he found himself standing across from an unranked, knock-kneed Japanese player holding something that looked like a tambourine on a stick. The opponent, Hiroji Satoh, was playing with a paddle coated on one side with three-quarters of an inch of sponge. Satoh's shots, eerily quiet, defied the laws of ping-pong physics. They alternately floated like knuckleballs or spun like tops. The plick-plock backbeat was reduced to a torturous drip, drip, drip. The harder Marty whacked his shots at Satoh's contraption, the faster they ricocheted back at him. He took the first game, 21–18, then lost the next three.

In Marty's oft-told version of the tragic decline and fall of table tennis, his loss to Satoh and his sponge is always the moment the serpent slipped into the garden and ruined everything. "Demand for that racquet grew exponentially," Marty says, shaking his head slowly. "You couldn't stop it. It was like a tidal wave."