Dave wasn’t athletic. He had been overweight as a kid, and never understood his own body. He didn’t pay attention in gym class, and played most sports as if no one had ever taught him anything. In basketball, he would attempt to grab rebounds by lunging forward, throwing his hands out waist-high, and waiting for the ball to drop.
Normally, something like this would have been a deal breaker; I always insisted on dating athletes. Nevertheless, there was one sport Dave could play better than anybody else I knew. Ping pong.
The first time we played at his parents’ house in Michigan, our sweaty basement session went on for hours, until we were too hungry to continue. The points were long and intense, and I can still picture Dave’s definitive backhand wrist snap. It usually sent the ball spinning past me before I could even react. When he played ping pong, his hand-eye coordination was astounding.
I lost to Dave more times than I care to count, which was particularly humiliating because I considered myself something of a ping pong prodigy. Having grown up with a table, I would beat just about everybody I knew. I won amateur tournaments from England to Panama. My friends nicknamed me Smashley. I took my paddle everywhere.
I packed my paddle for New York City, the ping pong capital of America
The only thing more fun than beating just about everybody, though, was being at the table with Dave. He had also grown up with the game, and played nearly every afternoon during high school. I was in awe of his skill, and I never quite got over it. Eventually long distance split us apart, and he married a designer who doesn’t even play ping pong. But to this day, I am hopelessly drawn to men who can defeat me.
This winter, I packed my paddle for New York City, the ping pong capital of America. I had heard that a bunch of new venues had popped up there, including a glitzy ping pong night club founded by actor Susan Sarandon, and I planned to spend several weeks immersing myself in the scene. I had also learned that a ping pong dating trend had emerged: people were apparently reserving tables for tennis rather than dinner. Ping pong groupies were scoping out players at tournaments. Bets were often made for beer and the removal of clothing.
It seemed like the ideal environment in which to do some ping pong dating and see how I measured up. Upon arrival, I placed an ad on Craigslist:
“Hi there. I’m a single, 31-year-old woman looking for a man to play ping pong and drink beer with. I am particularly interested in men who believe they might win. If you have no backhand or don’t know the rules, I will not find this cute. I carry around my own paddle. I’m 5’9, 135, blond, fast and long-limbed, which means I can return what you were sure would be a winner. If you are up for this challenge, drop me an email and let me know where you like to play in New York City. We can meet there. Loser pays for beer.”
Within six hours, I had more than 40 responses.
I published my ad at 9:40 a.m. on a Sunday. At 9:53 a.m., I received my first response from “a fit, educated, easy going and fun” guy named Amit Amit. He also mentioned working in finance, but nothing about ping pong.
Correspondence from purported corporate attorneys, executives and ex-models soon followed, as did a proposal for a “business-marriage arrangement.” Most men requested photographs. One asked if I “also bring [my] paddle around for S/M !”
There were some semi-normal responses as well, from men who reminisced about growing up with tables and longed to play again. Some insisted that they were up for the challenge and even offered to buy the beer regardless of who won. A guy named Paul P caught my attention.
“I laughed out loud at your ad,” he wrote. “You sound like a ton of fun and I would love to take you out for a night of ping pong. I’m sure I can hold my own and more importantly, I could use the free beer … I’m 5’10, Korean, medium build, and pretty fast myself.” He also mentioned he lived near Susan Sarandon’s club, SPiN NYC.
I wrote back and tried to setup a game for that afternoon, but Paul P wasn’t available. So I headed for to West Village dive called Fat Cat to see whom I might meet.
On Christopher Street near 7th Ave., down a flight of stairs, I found a dim basement jazz bar that I wanted to live inside. Ping pong and pool tables abounded, as well as stacks of board games and bar tables with Scrabble, checkers and chess boards inscribed on the surfaces. There were a total of 10 ping pong tables, each partitioned off by a floor-to-ceiling net to block balls from flying across the premises.
The bartender told me the place had opened in its current incarnation in 2005, but over the past several years, ping pong had become increasingly popular. “We always had a waiting list [for ping pong], so we started disassembling pool tables and getting more ping pong tables,” he said.
There were a few people playing that afternoon – a group of young guys, a guy and girl seemingly on a date, and a solo guy hitting serves to nobody. He was very tall in a white T-shirt and a buzz cut. His serve had crazy spin. He was sweating.
“Hi,” I said. “Are you just here to work on the serve, or do you maybe want to hit?”
“Oh, I’ve got friends coming,” he said, but then he invited me in and agreed to a game or two.
We started chatting about ping pong, and I mentioned that I was working on a story about the scene in New York. He immediately started throwing out names of venues he liked and offered to show me around. He had played all over the city, and had even worked as a photographer for a famous old club in Chinatown called New York Table Tennis Federation (NYTTF), that closed down about a year ago. Currently, he was working on his own ping pong photography project.
I checked out his gear and it became clear he was serious. He held a Tibhar Samsonov paddle, named after the famous 6’3 Belarusian player Vladimir Samsonov. He wore Yasaka shoes, built light and thin-soled specifically for the game of ping pong. As we hit back and forth, I noticed that he hit forehands with an arm bent like T-rex and moved his feet a lot. His backhand had that expert wrist snap, and his serve was all but unreturnable. I was feeling bold, though.
“Do you want to play a game?” I asked.
He said he did. Then he took the ball, placed it on the centerline and pushed down on it with a finger, sending it spinning back toward him. Beneath the table, he placed it in one hand, then separated his arms and asked me to choose. I pointed at his left. Empty. His serve.
Standing in the far right corner, he tossed the ball high, and then seemed to shield it with his body before cutting it with strange spin. Unfortunately, it spun right into the net. I took the first point. His second serve did the same thing. 2-0.
Although I was used to playing the old way – game to 21, with five serves for each player – he didn’t seem open to that option. We would be playing like the pros, to 11, with just two serves each. (The International Table Tennis Federation [ITTF] changed this rule in 2001 to make the games more exciting, but I always preferred the old way).
I won both my serves after he hit unforced errors, the ball zipping over the table and into the net. Then he landed a serve that died on my paddle, but he lost the next five points. 9-1.
The two serves he won to make it 9-3 were pretty much irrelevant, and I beat him 11-3. He didn’t seem disappointed. I couldn’t tell if it was because he didn’t care, or he didn’t want me to have the satisfaction. Either way, his invitation to show me around stood, and he handed me his card. “I’m Mike,” he said, and shook my hand.
Meanwhile, Mike’s friends had arrived, and so had my friend Amy, who happened to know three guys in the bar. Amy and the guys had gotten their own table in an opposite corner, so I headed over and watched for a bit.
Jordan was playing Clay. The two had actually met while working for a venture capital firm in Boston that had a conference table roughly the size of a ping pong table. They bought a net and snuck in to the room between meetings for games.
“What I can tell you is, I’m better than him,” Jordan said upon losing. “I’m just out of practice.” Then he threw his paddle.
The other guy, a high school principal named Ward, challenged me in a game to 21, and he apparently didn’t see the need to put down his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I picked up my own PBR and easily won, beer in hand. I then played Clay, who claimed to have been some kind of champion in sixth grade. He seemed nervous, and at 16-14, he fell apart. I won 21-15. My next opponent, Jordan, slammed his first forehand right at me and won the point, but he didn’t get many more.
Ward wanted another shot, and this time he put down the PBR. So did I. He took an early lead of 7-3, and I fought back to 14-11. Once warmed up, he proved more consistent than I had realized. Soon he was up 20-14, and I made a silent vow that somehow I would not lose this match.
I won eight points in a row. A frustrated Ward went home. I was still undefeated (and dateless) in New York City.
Of course, nobody goes undefeated in New York City – at anything – for long. That’s always been part of the allure, the city’s reputation for being a complete meritocracy. And there is no exception for ping pong, or as plenty of professionals who play around the city prefer, table tennis.
New York is replete with ping pong clubs regularly packed with ranked players, up-and-coming contenders and hardcore enthusiasts. If you wanted to, you could hit a different ping pong venue each night, and play several amateur tournaments a week.
On Monday nights, the amateur tournament at Susan Sarandon’s Spin NYC is the place to be. The Academy Award winning actress initially got into the game through her son, Miles, and then began to hear about other aficionados. Some filmmakers with a loft in Tribeca held a ping pong event that Salman Rushdie, 50 Cent, the Beastie Boys and Jimmy Buffett all attended. When Sarandon teamed up with the filmmakers to open Spin – where the tables and players are Olympic caliber but patrons can also grab after-work drinks – they brought ping pong to the city’s nightlife scene.
they brought ping pong to the city’s nightlife scene
On Sundays, an art space and four-table ping pong haunt called PIPS holds a doubles tournament. On Tuesdays it sometimes hosts a “Best in the ‘Burg” tournament, and Thursdays are reserved for the “300 Dollar Tourney,” a single-elimination war for $300, which the winner receives entirely in dollar coins.
Fierce competition also takes place at a variety of clubs in Queens and uptown Manhattan. Friendlier meet-up groups assemble at Fat Cat on Monday evenings and a new Soho club called King Pong on Sunday afternoons.
It makes sense that social groups have sprung up around ping pong when you consider its origin. Initially called “wiff-waff,” it first became popular as an after dinner game for the upper class in Victorian England, played with cigar box tops for paddles, rounded wine bottle corks as balls and books as a makeshift net.
Trademarked in 1901 as “Ping-Pong,” the game soon spread internationally. The first world championship was held in 1926 and the game migrated to the United States. Although some considered ping pong a competitive sport, it was more popular as a simple pastime played among friends.
The game’s usefulness as a social lubricant was underscored in 1971 when an American table tennis player in Japan for the World Championships, accidently wound up on a bus of Chinese players. The players exchanged gifts and soon the U.S. team accepted an invitation to the People’s Republic, leading to a thaw in the relationship between the two countries and, paving the way for Richard Nixon to become the first U.S. president to visit China. Historians and journalists called it ping pong diplomacy.
“It’s very connecting for people,” Bill Mack told me one afternoon at PIPS, a club in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn that he opened this year. He was one of the filmmakers who helped Sarandon and the others open Spin NYC in 2009, and he had played competitively in amateur tournaments around the U.S. for more than six years. In the end, though, he was more interested in promoting the social aspects of ping pong at a laid-back venue.
PIPS is pretty much the perfect setting for a first date. Unlike dinner, a ping pong date doesn’t feel like a job interview. And unlike a movie, the pair must face each other and learn about each other’s personalities. “With ping pong, you are communicating with each other just by the way you move,” Bill said.
PIPS recently got an email from a dating service called HowAboutWe.com, inquiring about sending couples to PIPS for dates. The company began in 2010 as a website for singles to suggest dating activities, which others could then agree to, explained HowAboutWe.com media director Erin Scottberg. As the company evolved, though, it also designed dates for couples using ideas from what the singles had been proposing all along.
“Ping pong was the number one date suggested,” Scottberg said.
When a hurricane comes through, there are two kinds of places to be stuck: those with ping pong tables, and those without. But it turns out that the ones with tables aren’t much good unless they also have power.
Sandy shut down nearly all of the venues I was hoping to visit with potential ping pong dates – which sort of bungled my Craigslist experiment. However, she did spare PIPS in Williamsburg, where I suggested Paul P meet me on a Friday night. He said yes at first, before he learned the L Train was still out of commission. Then he backed out. Clearly, Paul P was not as dedicated as I was. Mike from Fat Cat, on the other hand, was thrilled to meet me there.
I biked to Williamsburg to have a pre-ping pong dinner with friends, and actually wound up leaving before the main course. (The hostess had told us our wait would be 30 minutes, which somehow became an hour and 30 minutes. Obviously, I had no choice.)
When I arrived, Mike was sitting in the corner, untying his ping pong shoes and glistening from what had to have been hours of play. When he saw me, he immediately retied the shoes.
“Sorry I’m so late,” I told him, and explained the hostess’s miscalculation.
“Skipping dinner. I’m impressed,” he said.
“So how’s it going here?” I asked.
“Good,” he said. “And by good, I mean I am having a good time.” What it really meant was that he was losing repeatedly. I picked up a paddle, and we started hitting around.
He was more consistent than I remembered from Fat Cat. Perhaps the warm-up had served him well. As we hit, we talked about how we got into the game. For Mike, it had started as a way to quit smoking. “It was really physically demanding, the way I was approaching it,” he said.
We also discovered that we both have two younger brothers and had both lived in San Francisco (where I moved into an apartment building specifically because it had a ping pong table in a common area).
I told him I was planning to enter the amateur tournament at Spin on Monday, and he tilted his head uncertainly. “Listen,” he said. “If you are planning on entering any tournaments there is something you should know.” He paused. “Your serve is illegal.”
Was he making an excuse for losing so badly at Fat Cat? Or was he just trying to be helpful?
He came over to my side and demonstrated what a proper serve looked like. Apparently, I wasn’t tossing the ball high enough. It has to go six inches above the paddle, he informed me. I was tossing my ball pretty high, but I also was bringing my paddle up with it, narrowing the gap to less than six inches.
I began serving correctly, and it was a bit more difficult. Mike slammed my serves back at me. We continued hitting for about half an hour, then the lights flickered. PIPS was closing and we hadn’t started a game.
It seemed better that way. It had been fun, and I was feeling a little thrown off by my crash course. I also had made up my mind that over the weekend, before I entered the Spin tournament, I would take my first professional ping pong lesson.
Entering Spin NYC on 23rd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues on a Sunday afternoon, I was surprised to find nearly all the tables taken. Orange balls zipped and clinked on the Blue Optimum 30 tables, illuminated by bulbous lighting fixtures above. Ball boys scurried around picking up after everybody, and the back of one’s shirt said, “Balls are my business.”
I had signed up for a one-hour lesson with Mieczyslaw “Matt” Suchy, a 6’2 pro in Stiga shorts and intense eyes behind dark-frame glasses. His father had begun teaching him to play ping pong in Belsznica, Poland, when he was 7. When Spin needed a pro in 2009, Matt jumped at the chance and moved to the U.S. I would have found him sexy even if I didn’t know he was a Polish ping pong champion.
The first thing Matt did was take away my paddle. “This is old,” he said. He reached into his Joola bag and pulled out one of his own paddles, a Tenergy with rubber padding made for more “dwell time,” which essentially means more spin but less control.
The paddle felt heavy in my hand. When he started hitting me balls, I nailed them over the table each time. Matt came to my side and took my arm. He bent it like a T-rex, angled my paddle down, and demonstrated that the twisting motion of my torso was where I should generate my power. Nowhere else.
When we moved on to backhands, I once again had to relearn everything. A standard backhand included only a simple forward motion of the arm and a flick of the wrist. My stance, which resembled that of a tennis backhand, also had to be corrected.
Matt had me hit a bunch of backhands and forehands, and I thought I was improving. But apparently not. Matt said I moved too much, and then sometimes, not enough. I wasn’t following through. My footwork was awkward. Was I doing anything right?
When it came time to practice slams, I found out that with this new forehand technique I could hit as hard as I wanted and somehow the ball stayed in. I was amazed. Less amazing was when Matt hit every one of my slams right back. “Harder,” he instructed.
At the end of the lesson, he challenged me to a game. He won the first seven points handily, even though he seemed to be moving at half-speed. I was nervous, and I made error after error. Finally, I got a point off my serve when he hit it long, and then he missed a serve. The final score: 11-2.
Being at the table with a pro was nothing like playing with Dave. Or even with Mike. Sure, I admired Matt’s skill, but that was trumped by embarrassment at my own failings. On my way out, I showed my old paddle to one of the other pros, just to get a second opinion. “I would burn that,” he said.
Matt agreed to let me keep his paddle for the next nights’ tournament at Spin, where Paul P had agreed to meet me. We had planned to warm up beforehand, but he never showed. Instead, I warmed up with a Chinese guy with spiky hair, whose topspin forehand became increasingly difficult to return as he got comfortable. It didn’t bode well for my chances in the tournament.
When it began, I quickly lost to an older woman who laughed maniacally each time she slammed the ball past me (which was nearly every point). I wasn’t out yet, though, because the first several matches were part of a friendly round robin. So I also had the pleasure of losing to a guy wielding a beer and using a broken paddle. Finally, when we began the elimination round, a sporty man from Iran absolutely crushed me, but allowed me win a few points so I wouldn’t feel bad.
Leaving the tournament early, I returned Matt’s paddle to the front desk and biked across town in the cold. However much the wind stung my face, my inability to compete in New York stung more. Why had I even tried play ping pong at a higher level when I was perfectly content beating novices in basement bars? I had heard about a casual ping pong Meet Up event at Fat Cat, and I now understood that this was where I belonged.
At Fat Cat, most of the people from the Meet Up event had taken off. Left were the diehards – the Meet Up leader, an erratic Indian player with lots of spin, and a 5-foot-nothing woman who called herself “T-Bone.”
She asked if I wanted to play a game, and just as I agreed, I noticed that she was wearing an apron for holding ping pong balls. All the guys wear baggy shorts and can hold the balls, she said, but she hadn’t found any similarly fashionable attire. So she went online and ordered a carpenter’s apron, then dressed it up with white felt circles cut to resemble ping pong balls. “You want to look cute playing ping pong, of course,” she said.
As we started to hit, T-Bone started talking about all the ping pong dating she had done. “Why do you think I’m here?” she said. As it turns out, the love of T-Bone’s life was also a player.
She told the story of how he got her gifts for each night of Hanukkah, even though he wasn’t Jewish. On the eighth night, when he presented her with her final gift, she also presented him with a Christmas gift. They had gotten each other the same, brand new ping pong paddle.
The relationship had only lasted a year, and that was 12 years ago. So for more than a decade, T-Bone has been going on ping pong dates. On dating websites, she makes it clear that this is her idea of a good time, and plenty of men challenge her. “There hasn’t been one man who has beaten me,” she said.
T-Bone’s friends tell her that maybe she should let somebody win, that it could lead to more second dates. But she’s not interested in throwing matches. Furthermore, she likes to see how people lose.
On one date, the man got angry, and he slammed his paddle. “I said, ‘never again,’” T-Bone recounted. “He had a temper and it showed very quickly.”
T-Bone likes a man who can take defeat gracefully. “If I beat a man – well – when I beat a man,” she said chuckling, “I like him to say, ‘thank you. I appreciate it. You taught me something.’”
So for more than a decade, T-Bone has been going on ping pong dates
When the Indian guy came over to see if we would like to play doubles, T-bone asked, “Have you ever been in a relationship with a woman who was really good at ping pong?”
“No,” he said. “That would be a double whammy.”
It was election night when I saw Fat Cat Mike again, and we had a hard time deciding what to do. Should we go out to Queens to check out a ping pong hall? Or should we stay in the city and hit at King Pong?
We opted for King Pong, as the location made more sense with our respective election plans. (Although we both love ping pong, we agreed that finding out who would be the next president was also important).
As I entered King Pong, I took note of the favorable lighting, wood floors and spaciousness. There were a few people hitting, but it wasn’t crowded, and really, the only problem was my attire. In skinny jeans, boots and a sheer button down, I stood out. Everybody else was in workout clothes.
Mike was already there, of course, and when he saw what I was wearing, he shook his head. Then he said it was okay, because refusing to wear workout clothes was part of being “basement-style.” I instantly felt better. As we started to hit, I realized I was also feeling pretty good about my old paddle, and not at all like burning it. I was doing my best to forget everything I had learned in my lesson and simply to play my game.
Mike started practicing serves, and once again I was having a tough time returning them. I tried to chop back his sidespin, and the ball went into the bottom of the net. Other times I lifted the ball, and it sailed over and out.
“You need to get lower,” Mike explained. “Then wait for it, and just keep watching the ball.”
Although this was difficult in my boots, I took his advice, and he was right. When I was at eye level with the ball, I was somehow able to read it better. My serve returns steadily improved, and Mike was impressed. “These returns are as good as anybody I’ve played against,” he said. I beamed.
He was also hitting really well, and finally I couldn’t hold back. I suggested we play a match. He agreed, then rolled the ball backwards from the center line. I guessed left, wrong again. His serve.
He gave away the first two points with unforced errors, and then a few more. Eventually he connected with a smash backhand, and it was pretty. However, there was no way he’d be able to win like this. I was consistent, and he was beating himself.
“It looks like he’s playing boyfriend pong.”
I won two games straight, then two more, then two more (matches are best of three). In our fourth match, Mike took his first and only game off me, but I came back and won two games for the win. After I won the last point, eliminating his best chance at a victory, he smiled at me. Then he switched sides. It reminded me of my games with Dave.
When we used to play in that basement, Dave always seemed focused improving his game, not beating me. On the few occasions that I did win, he would also smile and switch sides, just the same as when he won.
So what if I was a much better ping pong player than Mike? He passed the T-Bone test. And there was no doubt he loved the game as much as I did, if not more.
Toward the end of our session, the owner of King Pong came over and whispered in my ear, “It looks like he’s playing boyfriend pong.” Although I was pretty sure that wasn’t true, I still liked the sound of it.
When we finished our last game, I found myself asking Mike if he wanted to come to an election party I had heard about. He said yes. We walked out of King Pong and down the block to his car. “I can give you a ride,” he said. I accepted, and we tossed our paddles into the car.