Marty Reisman, Ping-Pong Hustler
Credit: Dario Cantatore / Getty Images
"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.