It's not often that one meets a man who, at age 82, is trying to recapture something that he lost at 19. But Marty Reisman, as he'd be the first to tell you, is not a normal man. Just look at the guy, seated across the table at a noisy Chinese restaurant near the United Nations Building in New York City. Men in dashikis and turbans walk past the open windows, but it's Marty who turns heads – dressed head to toe in custom-tailored black, wearing both aviator sunglasses and a Panama hat indoors. Even in Manhattan, octogenarians don't typically leave the house dressed like Huggy Bear's Caucasian twin. They also don't introduce themselves by saying "I'm going to step around the corner to get one of those big bottles of beer. You want one?" If Marty didn't carry himself with the swagger of a champion, even a champion six decades removed from his greatest triumph, he'd be ridiculous.
Such is the paradox of life as Marty "The Needle" Reisman, ping-pong hustler. On the one hand, he styles himself as an athletic assassin, a killer ever alert for his next duel. On the other hand, his weapon of choice is a paddle that, stapled to a rubber ball and string, might be handed out at a child's birthday party. Nobody understands this absurdity better than Marty. He once described his illustrious career in table tennis as "a funny way to spend a life." Most sports that the average American male imagines he could, with a little practice, compete in professionally – golf, bowling, stock-car racing – are at least contested in manly, back-slapping environments. Ping-pong is played in the basement next to the clothes dryer. Even Marty admits that the game to which he's given his life tends to be seen as "the lowest athletic endeavor on the world totem pole, next to marbles maybe."
And yet here he is, talking faster than I can scribble, jabbering on about how he's still working the kinks out of his stroke, how he's sniffing around for a serious winner-take-all "money game," how in the past couple of years he has almost single-handedly sparked a renaissance in his beloved sport. He might even be right. After decades of slow decline, table tennis has staged a miraculous rally.
Despite American ping-pong's long hibernation, Marty was never one of those athletes who reach retirement age, crank the La-Z-Boy to full recline, and announce that upon further review, they wouldn't change a thing about their lives. "I've gone back and replayed every point in every match I ever played," Marty told me more than once during conversations we had over several months. (I was not, I quickly learned, the first reporter to invite himself for a visit into Marty's life only to find that there was no exit door.) Something about Marty reminded me of Johnny Cash, and not just his monochromatic sartorial taste. Both men realized early on that if a man devotes his life to his God-given talent and never abandons it, even when everyone else has moved on to other things, the world might just come back around eventually and admit that he'd been right all along.
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."
"Can you still get the ball to 115?" I asked Marty one day, over another Chinese lunch. He'd once been a partner in several Chinese restaurants in New York and has a nose for excellent, cheap food.
He points his chopsticks at my heart. "I've lost a little velocity," he says, "but my placement is better."
Marty credits his "insane, egotistical confidence" for keeping him going at an age when most men get their exercise unscrewing the childproof caps on their Lipitor. He not only talks about himself constantly; he even talks constantly about how he's always talking about himself. "It's not braggadocio if it's based on fact," he says. Perhaps you were wondering why Marty failed to win the 1959 U.S. Championships? Neither was I, but he tells me anyway: "I had the flu, Mark." His description of a $250 match against a pizza delivery guy in the late 1970s lasts through my soup and half my entrée. Marty's been rewriting and revising his autobiography for years, striving for more of what he calls "an Ambrose Bierce feel," so that future readers will know exactly what he was thinking during particular matches. Marty has always had a craftsman's pride in the elegant hardbat game he mastered, the skills that allow him to probe his opponent for weaknesses as he sets up his kill shot. The sudden popularity of sponge paddles after his loss to Satoh quickly transformed table tennis into a cartoonish sport of crazy spins and lightning-fast points. It had no rhythm. To Marty, it was offensive. To the rest of the ping-pong world, it was the future.
Every time I spoke to Marty – which soon became two or three times a week – he always had something hot cooking, whether it was Table Tennis Nation, his start-up company that sells custom paddles and organizes ping-pong events; or the British documentary team that absolutely couldn't wait to come over and film him; or his new scheme to set up a money game against a 17-year-old national champion. ("I want to play a match against someone young enough to be my great-grandchild!" he says. "That's a concept that's never been done before. It's got media legs. You might want to put that in the article.") During one afternoon phone conversation, he says, "I just got a call from a friend of mine, a skateboarder. His father's an ambassador. They're trying to set up a table-tennis event at the White House. He says it's a sure thing, but I'm not convinced." Another time he tells me that someone once sent him a monkey from the Philippines.
"What did you do with a monkey?" I ask.
"Are you kidding, Mark? For meeting women, a monkey is better than a Cadillac."
Inevitably, I began to wonder: Was Marty just a charming old codger out to hustle me?
"Marty . . . amplifies," says Tim Boggan, the official historian of American table tennis and himself no slouch with a hardbat, when I ask him about Marty's reality-distortion field. "He's powered by his imagination. He's had that same story since the 1950s about how the sponge racquet rattled him." The truth, Boggan says, is "the asses at the USTTA forever seemed to have it in for Marty" and kept him from playing against the caliber of opponents he needed to stay at the top of his game. "Marty's like Don Quixote: He makes his own challenges, builds them up, and never seems to get enough attention."
Marty's one-note horn solo is understandable. He's a peacock whose popularity began to fade long before his talent did. Had his career peaked 10 years later – or had he capitulated to the forces of sponge – he might have personally halted American ping-pong's slide with charismatic appearances on Wide World of Sports. Over the congealing remains of one of our Chinese feasts, Marty pulls out his iPhone, which he uses primarily as a digital photo album (hey, look, there's Marty with Hank Aaron!), and tries to explain why he spent those post-Bombay years living like a fugitive, clinging to his suddenly obsolete hardbat.
"In order to survive, you had to take chances," he says.
He put on exhibitions all over the Far East, "which was still like the Orient out of Rudyard Kipling's time," hopscotching between American military bases, catching rides with pilots who could land a plane while playing gin rummy. On one trip, he says, a Chinese businessman introduced him to a lucrative sideline, smuggling gold between Hong Kong and Bangkok using a specially fitted, eight-pocket vest that fit snugly beneath Marty's size-38 jacket. Back in New York, he was discovered naked hiding in a closet by an angry husband wielding a 12-gauge shotgun.
After Marty married his lover, he took the only straight job of his life, selling shoes at a Manhattan department store, but was fired after four weeks for sleeping on the job. ("No one has probably ever been less suited for regular employment than I was," he later admitted.) Marty, at the prodding of his manager, even signed up to play the 1960 U.S. Open with a sponge paddle, won the thing – "on one day's practice, Mark!" – and then vowed never to pick up sponge again.
Eventually, on the verge of his second nervous breakdown ("I was living a high-velocity life, drinking 14, 15 espressos a day – my eardrum was always clicking"), in 1958 Marty carved out his own ping-pong oasis at 96th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. That 100-foot-long cellar room amid the pinball tables and sweating pipes became the Mos Eisley of American table tennis, where world champions mingled with mafiosi and millionaires argued with welfare recipients over who was paying the last quarter on the table. Kurt Vonnegut came in to play and peppered Marty with existential questions, and the young Bobby Fischer played ping-pong with the same icy fury that he brought to the chessboard. Occasionally, well after midnight, the proprietor (who, judging from photographs, seems to have gone through an unfortunate turtleneck-and-beret period) emerged from his office to break a cigarette or play a money match that might last until dawn. When the U.S. team visited China for the ping-pong diplomacy matches that dominated headlines for a week in 1971, Marty was nowhere to be seen. He hadn't been invited.
Time plick-plocked by in Marty's cocoon until gentrification nudged him across the street, to a new location, and then out into the daylight for good in 1980. The former British Open champion tended his investments, made three fortunes (he got in early on barcodes and home-health-care stocks); lost three fortunes ("I didn't jump out of a building, obviously. It was just one of those things"); married his second wife, Yoshiko; and carried his hardbat paddle around to Manhattan's ever-dwindling number of ping-pong tables. Occasionally, he turned up on television, the proud defender of a lost cause, like one of those Japanese soldiers who supposedly hunkered down in caves and refused to surrender after World War II. Once, I told him I remembered seeing him perform his cigarette trick on Letterman a few years ago. Marty reacted with no more surprise than if I'd told him the time of day.
"No one else in the world is going to make that shot," he said.
A couple of weird things happened along what should have been Marty's road to geriatric oblivion. First, he came out of retirement in 1997 to win the new U.S. Hardbat Championship, at 67. "Maybe you saw the film of the semifinal, when I wiped one guy out 21–0?" Marty asks. "I was wearing pink." Actually, he was wearing a pink polo shirt with fitted salmon-hued trousers – and doing so, as he would say, with panache. A year later, Marty challenged the 27-year-old phenom Jimmy Butler to a $10,000 hardbat game and, according to Marty's slightly Reisman-centric recollection, lost by two points after "the longest match ever played in the history of table tennis." The event brought both Marty and ping-pong a reinvigorating dose of media attention.
Then, a few years ago, to the surprise of virtually anyone who wasn't Marty Reisman, ping-pong started to become cool again. It makes sense that a generation whose devotion to authentic stuff they never experienced – spiking a resurgence in artisanal pickles and hand-knit cardigans – would take an interest not only in table tennis but also in its most legitimate old-school practitioner. Suddenly I was seeing ping-pong everywhere: Arcade Fire challenging Pavement to a backstage throwdown; millennial literary It boy Jonathan Safran Foer and NBA MVP Derrick Rose gushing about their love of the game; NBC developing a ping-pong comedy with the director of one of the Fast and the Furious movies; the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog hawking a $45,000 ping-pong table inspired by the sport's "recent comeback among hipsters, families, and competitors alike."
The epicenter of this revival has been Spin New York, a nightclub-cum-ping-pong-parlor on Manhattan's 23rd Street that's co-owned by actress Susan Sarandon. Marty had agreed to take me to Spin for a lesson, since, by his own estimation, he is "the best teacher in the world." But a serious back injury had put him in the hospital. Then the phantom documentary team from Britain showed up – I can verify their existence because Marty dispatched them to my office to talk about him on camera – and ate up several weeks. Marty and I had first discussed a lesson in late spring. It was now autumn, and I had yet to see him hit a single ball.
Spin is, appropriately enough, a gigantic basement filled with ping-pong tables. (Though it is the first basement I've seen decorated with a life-size portrait of Marty Reisman wearing leopard-skin pants.) Skinny dudes in V-neck T-shirts were whacking balls at each other and sipping drinks brought by pretty waitresses in black cocktail dresses, all of whom smiled and said, "Hi, Marty," as we walked through the room. A flight attendant from Singapore who'd seen Marty on YouTube asked for his autograph. Marty and I sat down on a low-slung sofa near the bar and watched two muscular, twenty-something Asian athletes whale the ball at each other, leaping and diving around the table like fire dancers.
"You think you could take these guys?" I asked Marty.
"Oh, absolutely," he said, but with less bravado than usual. Marty seemed tired and was wearing a rubber surgical glove on one hand, à la Michael Jackson, to protect a nasty gash he'd suffered. For the first time since I'd met him, he looked like an old man.
Marty pulled two hardbats out of a brown paper bag, and we took our places at the opposite ends of the room's only empty table. Marty moved stiffly (arthritis? I wondered), with compact motions, as he gingerly guided me through the basic ping-pong shots, occasionally giving advice or encouragement. "Play by touch and feel," he said. "Don't force your shots." Plick-plock, plick-plock. "Stay to your left so you can set up your forehand. That's your money shot." Plick-plock, plick-plock. "You know, I think you've really got a talent for this game."
Within minutes we were volleying – Marty really is an outstanding teacher – and as he dropped one pinpoint shot after another with his elegant strokes, I thought I saw his shoulders starting to relax beneath his Savile Row suit. Ten minutes went by, then another 10. In the way that a ballpark full of fans will unconsciously turn toward the bullpen when a great relief pitcher starts warming up, people at nearby tables paused midserve to watch Marty in action. The more spectators he drew, the more gracefully he moved. The more gracefully he moved, the better I played. Before I knew it, we'd been in Susan Sarandon's basement for three hours, and I had to go home.
"You sure you want to leave, Mark?" Marty asked. "Things don't really get going around here until later." It was 9 pm. My arm ached.
We shook hands. Marty strutted off between the tables, hardbat tucked under his arm. I thought of something he had told me months before, how a man's ping-pong game reveals his character "better than handwriting analysis. This guy's reckless. That guy's careful. Cheap bastards are stingy players. A 10-year-old can understand it."
"So what does your game say about you?" I'd asked.
"Me? I'm an eternal optimist."