The Amateur: The Hardbat Challenge

The Amateur: The Hardbat Challenge ↵There are a lot of sports in the world. Spencer Hall is bad at all of them. He played in the open invitation Hardbat Classic Table Tennis Tournament this past weekend in Las Vegas. This is what happened. ↵
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↵THURSDAY ↵

↵9:29 p.m. The Las Vegas Strip's light hits more pavement than it might have three years ago. Then Californians and others rolling in real estate money would come here and flood the sidewalks on even a night like this Thursday night, when the stored heat of the day still radiates from the pavement and a few guys in t-shirts flap stacks of business cards for escort services at the thin crowds. Now, after the crash, you can play ten dollar hands of blackjack at the Bellagio on Thursday night, drink strong vodka tonics in their weighty glass tumblers all night, and bump down the Strip without having to elbow your way through a sea of people. It's actually quite pleasant. ↵

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↵A woman selling bottles of Wal-Mart brand water out of a cooler on the sidewalk talks loudly to a bystander. The bystander asks her if she's afraid of being harassed by the police for selling goods on the Strip without a vending license. ↵

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↵"I'm wanted on an assault with a deadly weapon charge and a probation violation. I'm not worried about selling water on the strip. They. Can't. Touch. Me." ↵

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↵So, about an hour into the night before I play in the bottom bracket of the Wimbledon of table tennis, and already I'm finding easy inspiration on the streets of Las Vegas. Other players have things like "hand/eye coordination," or "skill" and "experience." I have just bought water from a woman who, for all I know, may have tried to kill someone with a shovel in her sleep one night in Reno, and hopefully have just absorbed some of that murderous mojo in the exchange. When you've played table tennis as often as I have -- maybe less than three hours total for my entire life -- you take whatever edge you can get. ↵

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↵Also, you prepare for the rigors of the tourney by staying out until five in the morning. It worked for John McEnroe. ↵

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↵FRIDAY ↵

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↵3:08 p.m. The Hardbat Classic is lurching to life in the Sands Expo Hall attached to the Venetian Casino and Hotel. Over 700 contestants of wildly varying skill levels and commitment dither around the hall, peering at the walls for the tournament draws. They are not up, and won't be up for a while: the Hardbat's structure is tiered, and the open registration in the "Basement" bracket seems to be wreaking havoc on the organizers. The other divisions are Bar, Pro, and All-Star. I mention this to point out the awesomeness of an athletic event with a division named "Bar" that isn't even the lowest bracket. ↵

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↵Take that term literally, please: the Bar players came out of bars where Table Tennis tourneys yielded free trips to Vegas for players who, after a thorough soaking in liquid courage, ripped their way through the competition in watering holes across America. Blake is a Tulane student who entered a New Orleans bar tournament after he had a few drinks and took up a dare from his friends. The dare got him into the Hardbat, and got his friends to Vegas as an extremely well- lubricated cheering section for him. A few hours after hitting the ground and they've already found the twin weapons of budget Vegas ↵drinkers: yard-long drinks and cheap tall boys of domestic beer stuffed into heir hip pockets. They look as happy as puppies who've found a half-rotted pigeon on the ground at the dog park. ↵

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↵3:45 p.m. I'm told to come back at 5:15 p.m. when they'll allegedly have the numbers and times of the Basement bracket sorted out. I then settle down to figure out the rules of the Hardbat. I do this by walking the eight hundred yards down the hallway -- past the "Wayne Brady Theatre" -- and thinking long and hard about my vast pingpong experience while walking toward the blackjack tables at the casino at the Venetian. ↵

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↵3:47 p.m. Arrive at blackjack tables at Venetian, order beer, immediately consider Hardbat Classic the greatest sporting event ever conceived. ↵

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↵3:48-5:00 p.m. Receive various beatings and humiliations at hands of sadistic dealer. At one point I believe the dealer stops handing out cards, and instead slaps the four seated players for ten minutes straight with a telescoping blackjack. ↵

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↵5:01 p.m. Return to tournament to receive lesson from Austin Preiss, 14-year-old table tennis prodigy and Hardbat competitor. What the lesson is for me isn't clear: Austin is a perfectly pleasant kid, but obviously possessed a degree of skill and hand-eye coordination I couldn't approach after multiple injections of crystal meth and rage hormone. ↵

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↵His second shot off serve to me is a between the legs return; if I didn't get the point the first time, he does it again the following time, and then again, and then finishes off the point by winding up for a smash, and then dropping the ball just over the net. ↵

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↵Me: "So, any advice for me in my matches to improve my game?" ↵

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↵Austin pauses: "You should try to keep the ball on the table." ↵

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↵Me: "Children used to work in mines, you know." ↵

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↵5:45 p.m. Our draw is up, and I'm on table 31. Six players are scheduled to play at our table, but only three show. Alan is here because his brother won a Bar tournament, and he took the free hotel room, bought a plane ticket, and came out to try his luck in the tournament. He is clearly not messing with the formula that got him and his brother here out of the bar competitions, and is sipping a Bud Light in an aluminum bottle while he warms up with me. ↵

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↵Louis is the other guy who actually showed up in our bracket, a local who signed up after seeing a story about the tournament on the news the day before. Louis is a bit more serious, and by "serious" I mean "not drinking while playing." He's the only one in our group not imbibing while playing. ↵

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↵6:35 p.m. Our group begins to play. If you're into analogies, calling the Hardbat the Wimbledon of the table tennis world is slightly accurate. The average length of an Olympic table tennis match is 1.6 seconds, a hardcourt tennis game between two crushing servers from the men's side. The Hardbat slows the game down by using hardbat paddles, which unlike regular ping-pong paddles have little rubber nubbins -- the technical term is "pips" -- designed to turn the blipping game of Olympic table tennis into a longer, more spin-heavy game of protracted serves and more dramatic points. ↵

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↵This is evident as I'm playing Alan, who hits looping, curving shots from all angles of the table. In response, I do my level best impression of a complete bleeding disaster: I use multiple grips on the racket, I short balls, I hit several shots off my thumb and fingers, and in the most embarrassing moments of all, miss a few easy returns completely by whiffing on returns. ↵

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↵This was against the guy who was drinking, mind you. Louis is stone sober, and after two points or so notices that I'm not only horrible, but that I'm horrible and have someone taking pictures of me for posterity's sake. The remainder of the match is Louis using the hardbat paddle to send whirring curve shots flying off the table away from me for maximum effect, shots so wobbly I have no idea how to return them. I hit a feeble shot off the back of the table to concede match point. Louis doesn't even look happy about this. ↵

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↵This would all be quite fun if you could play -- which I can't at all, but even then it's a large sporting event located within trotting distance of gaming tables and cocktails, which instantly makes it a remarkable event. I thought I'd get to watch the rest, relax, and perhaps enjoy some more of Nevada's fine gaming opportunities, but the three no-shows in my open bracket group meant that even with two losses in my only matches -- which I lost by a combined score of 42-15 -- the three forfeits put me in third place and advanced me into the second round. I promptly lost three matches in a row in something like 15 minutes later that night against the next tier of competition, a trio of extremely nice men who played the part of a tree shredder while I played the part of Steve Buscemi's leg from Fargo. ↵

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↵Still, I can say a few things for certain. One, that Biba Golic, the Serbian professional table tennis player, is extremely attractive. She and Anna Kournikova were at the party, and lovely though Anna may be, Biba was absolutely stunning in person. Two, don't ever play an old man in table tennis for money: one of the finalists was an 82-year-old guy wearing suspenders, and he was positively savage. (There's hope: ↵If I practice for the next fifty years, I could in theory work my way into the finals in 2059.) Three, don't stop believin', y'all, because the winner of the $100,000 cash prize came out of the bar division and walked away with all that sweet luchini because he spent a lot of time hanging out in bars playing pingpong. America is back, and this is the proof. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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