If you're one of those players who call table tennis "Ping-Pong," you'll get a kick out of this story. Until one emerges from the dingy cellars and poorly lighted garages of the Ping-Pong subworld, the fantasy of beating anyone of world championship caliber must remain unfulfilled. In the fall of 1948, though, I emerged from my basement just long enough to test a superiority complex developed from beating anybody who dared challenge me to a game on my dusty, pockmarked table with its sagging net—anyone willing to contend with lopsided balls, battered paddles and whitewashed stone walls that forestalled more than two backward steps.
Thanks to a not-bad forehand smash and quick reflexes, I had become a neighborhood champ (Kew Gardens, N.Y.), college fraternity champ (Dartmouth) and, while in the Army, a frequent winner in those Friday-night handicap tournaments held by the USO for soldiers.
But it was when I was a junior at Dartmouth in 1948 that my friends and I decided to try our luck at a tournament in Springfield, Mass. billed as the New England Open Table Tennis Championship. Though we'd never wandered very far from home in search of opponents, we'd kept ourselves abreast of what was what and who was who in world table tennis by subscribing to Table Tennis Topics, probably the only American publication devoted to the sport at the time. We knew, for instance, that Europeans always won the world championships (though they rarely played in the U.S.) and that the best of the American men were Dick Miles and Marty Reisman, both New Yorkers. At that time, we knew nothing about players in China or North Korea, the countries that now dominate the sport.
It was thrilling to read how Miles had won four consecutive U.S. titles (he eventually won 10 overall), using such a wicked chop that few opponents could consistently drive a ball against him. And we were enthralled by Reisman's arsenal of tricks, for example, using a Coke bottle as a paddle. Other great players we once idolized had faded somewhat, but weren't forgotten. They included red-haired Sol Schiff, an ever-smiling lefthander, and pint-sized Lou Pagliaro, who raced about so vigorously he wore out sneakers at an alarming rate. They were the demigods of the sport. Little did we realize that one of them, Reisman, would deign to enter the New England Open that year and that we'd get to see one of the sport's masters in person. That alone would have been worth the entry fee.
Because this was our first exposure to big-time table tennis, we were naturally quite excited that morning on arriving during a snowstorm at an armory in Springfield, where the tournament was being held. There were tables all over the place, and the clickety-clack of the celluloid balls was disconcerting to simple cellar-bred blockers like ourselves. Our fantasies quickly dissolved as we watched what appeared to be a hall full of potential champions blasting shot after shot without a miss or returning balls in perfect parabolas.
We had mailed in our entry fees, so there was nothing to do but register and get it over with. We looked at the draw sheet to see whom we would be playing. I stared at the sheet in disbelief. In the first round: "Keese-Reisman." I looked up at the seeding list. Sure enough, seeded No. I was "Marty Reisman, New York."
"Tough luck!" someone said, but before I'd time to panic, someone else made a quite logical observation: "Hey, I'd pay $10 just to practice with Reisman."
He was right. If I wasn't planning to win the tournament—and I wasn't—just being at the same table with a guy like Reisman was well worth the fee ($3.50, I think). And if Reisman went on to win the title, I could always say I lost to the champ. Suddenly, I felt a little better. We found a table and began warming up. The snow was still falling, and there wasn't much heat in the armory, so it took quite a while to find a groove.
The starting time of my match with Reisman was supposed to be 10:30 a.m. At 10:40, an official said that because of the travel conditions, first-round matches would be two of three games instead of three of five and that they had moved our starting time to 11 o'clock. It was easy to see they didn't want to lose their star attraction on a forfeit.
It was past 11 when Reisman appeared. Without bothering to take off his coat or scarf, he grabbed a bat from his bag and asked for his opponent. I was introduced, but I'm sure the tall and gaunt-looking Reisman couldn't have cared less as he swung his right arm several times to crank up for the slaughter, making wisecracks to spectators all the while. A crowd had appeared at our table. Suddenly I was nervous, more nervous than I'd ever been in my life.
To start our warmup, I served—and Reisman smashed the ball back for unreturnable winners. When he served, I would smash the ball at him, only to see him whip it back even harder for more winners. If he was trying to intimidate me, he succeeded. And he had yet to take off his coat and scarf. My knees could hardly support me.
Normally, early-round matches at tournaments below the national level are officiated by the players themselves. But because this was Reisman, the No. 2-ranked player in the U.S., an umpire had been summoned.
The umpire announced, "This is a first-round match, two out of three. Marty Reisman of New York will serve to Parton Keese of Hanover, New Hampshire. Play!"
Most of what followed was dreamlike, and I found myself playing each point on instinct. I barely knew the score and was primarily concerned not to make a fool of myself in front of the huge throng that by now had assembled to watch. I could overhear remarks such as "Who's that guy?" and "Do you think Marty will take his overcoat off?"
Amazingly, by the end of the first game (Reisman 21, Keese 10) my jitters had disappeared and so had Reisman's coat and intimidating attitude. Reisman had feelings, it turned out, and, seemingly aware of my predicament, courteously gave me every benefit of the doubt, several times declaring that a ball hit by me had nicked the corner on his side, even though no one, including the umpire or me, had heard it.
In the second game a curious thing happened. Instead of ramming the ball by me, as he had so easily proved he could do, Reisman began to drift farther and farther back from the table, setting up high shots that enabled me to slug the ball with all the strength I could muster. In big matches against his peers, Reisman's returns were notable for just skimming the net, but now he seemed to be enticing me to drive one by him.
I knew, of course, that he was using me as a guinea pig so that he could practice defense, but I didn't mind. Even though I was going to lose, the score might at least be more respectable this way. So with great glee I leaped to the attack, and, fed one setup after another, I forged a lead that not even Reisman could overcome. Not that he seemed to mind. On the final point of my 21-18 victory, he was still standing 10 feet back and sending up lob after lob for me to hit.
"Thanks." I muttered appreciatively as we changed sides for the third and final game, but Reisman just kept the same smile on his face that he had started play with. I knew it was going to be different now. but nevertheless I considered it a splendid gesture on his part.
To my surprise, however, we started out the third game the same way as the second. Reisman, declining to batter me with his unstoppable drives, continued to run around, float back my smashes and turn what should have been a dull rout into an exciting show. That was it. I thought. He's just giving the fans a thrill. Well, it's O.K. by me. Sure beats getting whipped 21-2 or something like that. So I continued my part in the charade.
Don't think, however, that these points were "giveaways" by Reisman. As easy as he was setting the ball up. he still returned practically everything, and no doubt he could have beaten me doing just that. But a show's a show, so besides lofting the ball back. Reisman often attempted to counter a drive of mine with one of his own. which is one of the most sensational tactics in the sport, especially when accomplished from 20 or 30 feet behind the table.
This exciting but dubious strategy kept me in the game to the end. which still sends chills up my spine when I think about it. I have to hand it to you, Marty. I thought as the score reached 18—all. You must have tremendous confidence in your ability...or else a pitiful lack of it in mine. Imagine a hacker like me three points away from eliminating Marty Reisman. All I needed was more luck.
Each point became so tense that the crowd's reaction was what it might have been at a U.S. Open final between Reisman and Miles. Still behaving as if he were totally oblivious to how close he was to defeat. Reisman continued to make acrobatic returns, taking the ball between his legs, behind his back or switching the bat from right to left hand in midpoint.
Incredibly, with the score 19-18 in my favor. Reisman took a big swing, missed and then recovered in time to retrieve the ball an inch from the floor. Overwhelmed by such guts. I banged the ball into the net. and it was 19-19. The crowd groaned, and I heard someone call out, "Hey, Marty!"
Then I got lucky. One of my smashes caught the top of the net and trickled over for a winner to give me a 20-19 lead. One more point! All I needed was one more point to achieve what I felt would be the world's biggest upset. Sweat poured from my brow. My right hand shook as if I had palsy. One more point, I said to myself. Stay calm!
The same voice called out again, "Marty!" and it must have been a familiar one, for Reisman, the smile still on his face, interrupted his serve to look around. Someone appeared out of the crowd and grabbed his arm. I could hear him say: "For chrissake, Marty, it's two out of three, not three out of five!"
For the first time since he had arrived, the smile left Reisman's face. "It's three out of five," he said. "I read the sheet."
"No, man! They changed it for the first round. Just before you came. It's two out of three now."
Marty looked at the umpire. "What is it? Two of three or three of five?"
"Two out of three, Marty," the ump said resignedly. "I announced that at the beginning."
"Get me the tournament director," Reisman ordered, putting his racket on the table and leaning against the umpire's chair. "They can't change the rules without informing me." He still seemed remarkably calm. Now it all fell into place for me. Reisman had been fooling around for the first three games, thinking he had two more to play. Most state and regional tournaments were three of five in every round. I could see how Reisman could've made such a mistake.
The tournament director and Reisman talked for 10 minutes or so, but there was little Reisman could do. Rules were rules, and it would be ludicrous to rearrange them at someone's whim, even a celebrity's. Reisman still refused to give in, though, and turned to me. "Would you agree to play three out of five?" he asked, putting the burden on me.
"C'mon, Reese, play three out of five!" said someone in the crowd.
"Don't let him con you, Keese!" said another.
I thought about the one point that lay between me and instant fame. I knew I'd never have another opportunity like this. It wasn't my fault. It had been announced. Could I help it if Reisman didn't hear it? I took a deep breath and said, "If it was announced as two out of three, Marty, I guess we'll have to play it that way." The voice sounded foreign to my ears.
"All right, let's go!" said Reisman, grabbing his bat. "19-20, my serve."
After wiping my face with a towel, I walked back to my position and waited. The umpire quieted the crowd. Reisman served a twisting, skipping ball that I dribbled into the net. Now it was 20-20. So much for an upset. In the next 10 seconds, Reisman rammed a ball that I never saw into the corner, then unleashed a top spin serve that struck my racket and bounded high into the crowd.
"Game, set and match, Reisman!" said the umpire. I don't think I heard him.
As we shook hands, Reisman said, "You nearly got me that time." He went on to win the title easily, never losing another game. I felt I had something to do with that.