The Man Booker Prize winner profiles hardbat ping-pong champ Marty Reisman, who never lost his taste for winning
Howard Jacobson was a ranked junior table tennis player in England. He is also the acclaimed author of, among other works, Kalooki Nights and The Finkler Question, which won the Man Booker Prize.
As he describes in his Tablet Magazine interview, Jacobson’s many years “standing at the table” at youth clubs and basements in his native Manchester—and the foibles of its working-class Jewish inhabitants—became the material for his 1999 novel about a ping-pong aficionado, The Mighty Walzer. His research for that novel also brought him in contact with the great American champion Marty Reisman.
Jacobson’s 1999 profile of then-69-year-old Reisman—nearly 40 years after his last U.S. men’s singles championship—appeared in Table Tennis News, the now-defunct publication of the English Table Tennis Association. Today, at 80, Reisman is still massacring Marlboros. This is the first U.S. publication of the piece.
The big question for those of us jaded with the modern game of ping-pong—the oof-plock, oof-plock of devious sponge, no rally lasting longer than the cramped spin serve, the dabbed return, and the silent kill—was whether the great Marty Reisman, just one grey hair short of 70 but still refusing the rest owing to old age, was far enough advanced on his comeback trail to lift another U.S. Open Hardbat title.
Hardbat? The antiquated three or five ply wooden paddle covered with rubber pimples. Elegant and audible. Kerplock-plock.
The smart money was saying no. “The guy’s driving me fucking nuts ringing me up every hour of the day telling me how well he’s playing,” Tim Boggan confided to me on the first morning of the Open in Fort Lauderdale. “But he’s living in a fool’s paradise. Sure, he’s practising, but against the same opponent. Steve Berger. Always Steve Berger. He isn’t tournament-hardened. My heart says yes. But he’s got no chance.” You listen to Tim Boggan. Himself one of the game’s old hardbat lions, he is American ping-pong’s most impassioned historian, a one-time English professor at Long Island University whose specialty was Romantic and Victorian poetry but whose true love was always table tennis; a grizzled, exasperated man with an icy beard, dreaming thwarted dreams, another mariner chasing the gleaming margins of the untraveled world. So you listen to what Tim Boggan’s heart says, as well.
But then whose heart doesn’t say yes to Marty? He is the fatal Odysseus you have to follow beyond the sunset. Succeed or fail, just one more voyage. Opinions differ as to whether Marty Reisman was America’s greatest ping-pong player ever, but he was certainly its boldest adventurer, lifting the prestigious British Open title when he was only 19, enlivening a doleful postwar European ping-pong community with Lower East Side effrontery, an extrovert belligerent with one of the loveliest and most lethal forehands you could hope to see, a natural who seemed to be inventing the game anew every time he played it. And now here he is, over half a century since he first became United States National Junior Champion, wanting another shot at another title. Of course the heart says yes.
Attend to Reisman himself and it’s in the bag. I too have been in receipt of some of those phone calls that have been driving Tim Boggan nuts. “Howard, I just gotta tell you my table tennis has been super great stuff recently,” he told me when I rang him from London a week before the Open. “I’ve gone to a new plateau. I’ve tapped in to a vast reservoir of talent. I’ve zeroed in. New strokes are evolving. I’m better than I’ve ever been. I feel my life is just getting started.” The ravings of a geriatric lunatic? Well, the description is his. You can’t tell Marty Reisman anything about himself he doesn’t know already. But when he shows up at the Convention Center, indifferent to the oof-plocking in progress everywhere in the antiseptic hall, an ostrich in a bookie’s cap, he is still the braggart. “My game is elevated to such a level,” he says before we’ve even shaken hands, “I’ve completely discouraged Steve. I slaughtered him last week. I have him in my back pocket now.” Tim Boggan’s words of earlier in the day din in my head: “Steve Berger. Always Steve Berger.” Is Marty basing his estimation of his form entirely on the thrashing he gives his only sparring partner, a lively player but not the toughest opposition in the world? That’s if he is thrashing him at all—because that too has to be weighed in the balance: the Reisman hyperbole. Either way, are reality and Marty on any sort of speaking terms at present?
There is an air of other-worldy confidence about him. “I’ll tell you, Howard, I’m playing strokes I didn’t know I had,” he says. He is talking about digging into the mother lode of his experience and rejoicing that what he seeks abides there yet. This overblown serenity may partly be because the singles event isn’t until tomorrow. For the moment he has only the doubles to think about. And he isn’t thinking too hard about that. His doubles partner, of course, is Steve Berger. When a message arrives saying that Steve has missed his plane and will not be able to compete, the landscape of Reisman’s countenance undergoes an extraordinary transformation. He looks beatified suddenly, as though chosen to be the site of God’s refulgence. Is the On-High whispering promises to him? Is Steve’s not coming a sign? “I’m not gonna let that wipe me out,” he says. “I got bigger fish to fry.” I express surprise that he isn’t even minimally disappointed. A game of doubles is a handy workout, after all. A nice loosener. But there is no dimming his radiance. “I hate sharing the glory,” he laughs. Except that it isn’t a joke—isn’t only a joke.
So what is it, then?
Marty wasn’t joking when I first met him at the Ninth World Veterans Table Tennis Championships in Manchester 12 months ago. He wore a wild beard then and looked unaccustomed, unsure whether he’d come to the right place and what sort of reputation preceded him, like a leftover Beat poet about to read to a bunch of contemporary kindergarten kids in a non-English speaking country. He was carrying a shoulder-bag containing press-clippings going back 50 years. Everything you needed to know about Reisman, dated and filed, in multiple copies, there on his person. A walking data base of the self. Before I’d known him 10 minutes I was in possession of a hundred sheets of photocopied magazine and newsprint, all celebrating—more or less—his genius. He needn’t have tried so hard; there was already great excitement about his presence. Those who travel the world playing veterans ping-pong have long memories, and they all remembered Marty Reisman with the sort of sweet remembrance people reserve for the summers of their early youth. He belonged to the Golden Age of table tennis, when players resembled philosophers of linguistics and prided themselves on the elegance, variety and of course the sagacity of their strokes.
Not everyone recognized him immediately. You’re not looking at other people much when you’re battling arthritis and want nothing else on earth but to take a ping-pong trophy home to Vilnius to show your grandchildren’s grandchildren. But when he began to play, competitors around him stopped to watch, first one table, then another, until finally all 100 tables were quiet, and even the most sponge-committed of the veterans—oldsters with sprung sponge mattresses in their hands, who could stamp-serve and twist themselves around the ball in the requisite Quasimodo manner of the young—had to admit that table tennis played by a master of the old game was a beautiful sight to behold. And more than that, brought back to us why players and non-players alike had once been excited by it, and no longer were.
For table tennis, in the West, is in crisis. No one watches. Television doesn’t want it because the ball travels too quickly, because points are over too soon, and because there are no charismatic personalities in the game. Although it embarrasses people to put it this way, table tennis has also become too Asianized for Western taste. First it was the Japanese, now it is the Chinese who are invincible. They are wonderfully athletic players whose speed around the table is breathtaking. But they play as though there is no room to play. They have reduced the confines of the game to a nutshell. And they play as though the world is about to end: not just winning the point but winning it immediately. So gone from the Asianized ping-pong of today are the slow, probing, witty cat-and-mouse encounters between the great lugubrious European players of the thirties and forties, lovers of labyrinthine prose and existential narrative, readers of the secrets of another’s souls—what Marty calls the “dialogue” of ping-pong, the classical drama that has a beginning, a middle, and a resolution. Once upon a time they turned up in their thousands to watch attrition table tennis, in which a single point could last an hour. In excess of 5,000 smoking spectators saw Reisman beat Viktor Barna through a tobacco mist in the 1949 British Open staged at Wembley. At this year’s equivalent tournament, held in Hopton-on-Sea (Hopton-on-Sea!—not even the English know where that is), just about the only spectator was me. And it’s me again, solus, at Fort Lauderdale. And I’m only here to write a lament for the game.
In one sense, the lightning-quick and deadly-silent ping-pong of the modern sponge era is only fulfilling an impulse buried deep in the game’s nature. Ping-pong is for the diffident. It seeks solitude. It is a touchy, thin-skinned person’s pastime. Gossima, it was once called—something insubstantial as a moth’s wing. A good name for a condom you don’t notice you’re wearing. Otherwise whiff waff—blow on it and it’s gone. It was already suffering a crisis of self-confidence when I started playing it seriously in the north of England in the early fifties, a tissue-paper boy drawn to the introspection of the game and the easily bruised natures of its devotees. There was something never fully assured at every level of ping-pong, from the agonies of individual players, embarrassed equally by their own incompetence and the smallness of the arena in which it showed, to the defeatism of administrators, who squabbled ineffectively over rules and equipment and finally allowed every last spectator to drift away, bored by the absence of plot and the lack of adventurism. Anyone in advertising could have told ping-pong it had an image problem. It was perceived to be inglorious. Hence the importance of Marty Reisman, hustler and jester, who more than any other player made a public gift of his genius, refusing to distinguish between the table and the stage. Why, in that famous 1949 final at Wembley, he not only returned Barna’s first serve behind his back but retrieved balls as though he were Nijinsky, with a leap and a pirouette. For a ping-pong masochist like me, playing in a shadowland of shame, belittled by the very sport I loved, and playing it precisely in order to be belittled, Marty Reisman offered a salvation of the sort many Englishmen before me have found in Americans. The salvation of magniloquence. Marty aggrandized what he did. He made a hero not a coward of himself. And for me he turned ping-pong from doggerel to epic.
These are the grounds on which I, like many others who cannot decide whether they love him or just suffer him, forgive the omnivorousness, and sometimes even the callousness (poor Steve!) of his triumphalism. The comedian Jackie Mason, who grew up poor with Marty, makes no bones about the self-obsession. “Marty’s a tremendous egomaniac,” he told me, “but a loveable egomaniac. He can’t get over the fact that he’s a sensational player. He’s still intrigued with himself after 47 years. Like a kid with a new toy. But I never saw him do a bad thing to anybody in his life. If being obsessed with yourself because you’re good at ping-pong is the worst thing you ever do—is that so terrible?’
Besides which, the braggadocio isn’t quite what it appears. In the end, the person who is meant to be persuaded by Marty is Marty. What Reisman is riding is the come-back trail to himself.
It’s a journey he has been on all his life. Back he has had to come, again and again, from one ping-pong fiasco or catastrophe after another—dust ups with the authorities, suspensions, inexplicable slumps in form, emotional collapses, to say nothing of that cold-hearted passage of time that has put to bed most other athletes his age. Now it’s an operation on his playing arm he’s recovering from. In a little Japanese restaurant, where he had taken me to meet his wife Yoshiko, he showed me the cicatrice—a single, silvery, horizontal stigma marking the place of the surgeon’s intervention. When was that, I wondered. He turned to his wife: “The date of my operation, Yoshiko?” Not a fraction of a second’s hesitation. “November the 23rd, 1998,” she said. A good wife bears the dates of her husband’s operations like battle scars. Especially a Japanese wife, whose lineage is undiluted Samurai. Though I have to say that as she painted word-pictures with her hands in the spaces between Marty’s ruminations on his form, it was the wives of novelists she most reminded me of, and the wives of quite a few poets I could think of as well. She had that grand, devotedly obliterated look that comes with living in the company of distinguished self-absorption.
Marty’s operation was for a floating tendon. Now it’s back where it’s meant to be, attached with two titanium screws. And now Marty’s almost back where he’s meant to be as well. “When my game kicked in after my operation,” he told me, “I realized what a rare skill I had. I woke up in the morning and I started to cry with pure joy.” Another question for Yoshiko: “You remember when I came home and I told you ‘It’s back!’ ” Oh yes, she remembered. I didn’t doubt she remembered the very hour of the very day.
Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson talks about English anti-Semitism, ping-pong, and the seriousness of Jewish jokes