SI Vault
Dick Miles
November 15, 1965
In table tennis jargon a sponger is not a freeloader, nor is chiseling cheating. You'll find out what they mean in the following story, a brief, humorous history of the game by a man who is 10-time U.S. champion and yet is in no danger of being recognized, except, perhaps, in Hong Kong
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November 15, 1965

Spongers Seldom Chisel

In table tennis jargon a sponger is not a freeloader, nor is chiseling cheating. You'll find out what they mean in the following story, a brief, humorous history of the game by a man who is 10-time U.S. champion and yet is in no danger of being recognized, except, perhaps, in Hong Kong

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King Alex had one tactical advantage: a fair attacking forehand. Prinz Paneth had no driving stroke whatever. His haughty, professorial manner suggested that he thought hard hitting unbecoming conduct. "So much a pusher Paneth is," says Alex, "he not even attack ven he practice." Gamesmanship began even before the players came to the table. While Prinz Paneth laced his sneakers, Alex ostentatiously announced he'd lay 4 to 1 he'd win. He spoke in Rumanian. "I bet everything," he told me, "the food, hotel, train. If I lose whole team valk back to Varsaw. Ven vee come to table for varmup, I attack. Backhand! Forehand! Very hard. Paneth, he is clever. He pretend he cannot return."

Paneth won the umpire's toss. Just as he prepared to serve, however, King Alex turned his back on his opponent, walked dramatically to the Polish bench and returned with his special chiseling bat. "So big around it is," Alex explained, extending his enormous hands to watermelon length. "It is very heavy, but for pushing never do I miss." Prinz Paneth glanced coldly at Alex' perfectly legal outsized bat and served contemptuously. Alex returned to the forehand, and Paneth returned to the backhand. Alex returned to his opponent's forehand, and Paneth returned to the backhand. Alex again insisted on the forehand; Paneth again insisted on the backhand. And so it went...and went...and went.

Even a small-time chiseler knows that winning a pushing duel requires doggedness more than skill. The first few points are crucial. The burden of catching up must be put on one's opponent. Then, when his own passivity becomes unendurable and his chiseling determination cracks, he overreaches himself and he's lost. Alex therefore played the first point as though it were match point, but 35 minutes later the electric scoreboards still read 0-0. Alex was undisturbed: he had a plan. If the Rumania- Poland team encounter went the nine-match limit, Paneth, Rumania's hope, would have to play Alex' two other teammates. Said Alex, "I not vorry. Perhaps I not vin match. But Paneth absolutely play no more. He need rest for six months. I keel him for my team."

Elapsed time: 70 minutes. Score: 0-0, first game. The pattern of play had become hypnotic. Paneth Farcas had begun the match as erect as a Rumanian aristocrat, but he had shriveled with every return and now looked like a hunchbacked robot. Pools of perspiration had formed at the feet of both players, and Alex remembers wondering when Paneth would finally wear out. Alex himself had a problem. The extra weight of his chiseling bat had begun to tire his arm. His remedy was extraordinary. After one return, he deftly switched his bat and continued the point left-handed. Farcas didn't notice. He simply kept pushing the ball to that same spot on the table—except now Alex' switch had turned the match into a forehand-to-forehand struggle.

With a sudden twitch the umpire stopped following the ball and glared at Alex. The King was unnerved. "At first I think he is Rumanian. Then I see the trouble. His neck! Forth and back it had go for 85 minutes and now it lock in this position. So new umpire come in vile vee still play point. Now two Austrian players come back to hall. They are surprised vee still play. They had go to movies after vee begin, and now they think electric score machine must be kaput. It still say zero-zero! And soon also vee lose second umpire. His vife had make dinner and he must absolutely go home." Alex switched the bat back to his right hand. "And now I see Paneth seem veaker. Soon, I think, I attack and vin. But not yet. I had svore on my lips to my captain I attack not vun ball till Paneth is absolutely dead, and I see he still have forces."

Meanwhile the tournament committee panicked. Alex and Paneth had started at 7 p.m., and it was now 8:40. The angry hecklers had left and only a few dozers remained, but not a point had been scored, and the finals, scheduled for the following night, no longer seemed distant. So they called an on-the-spot emergency meeting of the International Table Tennis Federation. Through the loudspeakers the delegates were summoned, and they convened in a special room behind the stands. The first order of business was the roll call. " America?" "Here!" " Austria?" "Here!" And so it went until the chairman called, " Poland?" No reply. " Poland," he insisted. No reply. Suddenly everyone realized that the delegate from Poland was the King of Chiselers himself! Since no decision could be legal without his vote, the delegates picked up their chairs, marched down to courtside and arranged themselves near the barrier on Alex' side of the table. Sometime during the second hour, to keep his man relaxed, Alex' captain, Jakob Gorski, had set a chessboard on a table near the sideline and had started a game with Alex. Between returns Alex would sneak a glance at the position and whisper his moves to Gorski. When the delegates arrived the chess game was necessarily abandoned. "But I have rook for knight and a vinning position," protested Alex. "Vile vee play, there is meeting," Alex went on. "Delegates ask first if vee agree to a draw. I say no. Paneth also say no. Then they ask if vee agree to five-point games. Paneth now say yes. But again I say no. I am stronger, I say. In five points perhaps I lose. But in tventyvun points, never! I vill push him into ground! But vile I speak, Deek, I not take notice, and so it happen I push just vun ball to Paneth's backhand. Now you see, Deek, for two hours tvelve minutes had Paneth pushed forehands. Ball had crossed net more than tvelve thousand times—tvelve thousand times, Deek, and not vun ball had I give to backhand! So ven I give him backhand, Paneth scream! I look. He is helpless! He cannot move his arm to change! It push forehand by itself! But ball go right through backhand side! And so first point become mine. And now I give it to him, Deek. I say to him, in Rumanian, of course, 'Paneth, I am sorry this point over. I vaz just beginning to enjoy it. You are much better pusher than I thought, Paneth. Perhaps it is possible you vill even vin this match. But remember, Paneth, I am not best pusher of my team. Against the others you vill have to be more steady.' "

The match ended abruptly. When the second point had gone a mere 20 minutes, a member of the Polish bench behind Alex began to feel hungry. Without realizing the psychological effect it would have on Paneth, he reached down into an equipment bag and pulled out a knife, a long loaf of bread and a two-foot Polish sausage. He started slicing sandwiches. Another player filled cups from a huge coffee thermos. Paneth, who could see all this from his position at the table, must have assumed that the Poles were prepared for a winter siege. He began to mumble—soon Alex could pick up the words. "He vaz saying over and over, 'He not make me crazy, he not make me crazy, he not make me crazy.' " Then it happened. For the first time in his career the Prinz of Sitzfleisch attacked. Ferociously! His first drive, incredibly, went in. Alex returned it. Paneth smashed again, even harder. When that one came back too, something snapped. With one grotesque windup, a holler and a swat that sent ball and bat together sailing wildly over the King's head, the Prinz of Sitzfleisch ran screaming off the court.

I thanked Alex for the story. The arena buffet in Ljubljana, where we still sat over coffee, had become crowded. The World Table Tennis Championships bring together more countries than any other sporting event except the Olympics, and this year 444 players and 123 delegates from 49 nations attended. At one table the representative from Ghana was trying to explain to a tournament official his desire to rent an electric heater, and at another a gentleman I'd met in Pnompenh was violently stroking his bat through the air demonstrating somebody's backhand. In the process, he upset a tray carried by a waitress who passed just as he took his backswing, and some astonished North Koreans were showered with scrambled eggs. Two Oriental photographers, Chinese and Japanese apparently, were discussing in painfully slow English the most desirable apertures and shutter speeds for table tennis. Some off-duty ushers asked me to autograph their programs and, in mufti as I was, the recognition was unexpected. It could not have occurred in the U.S., which, for a table tennis star, is a bleak, demilitarized zone between Europe and Asia, where the major tournaments are held. Indeed, so untroubled is the anonymity of an American champion in his homeland that one could be ranked first by the FBI and first by the U.S. Table Tennis Association and pursue both careers successfully. Some years ago a splenetic editor of the New York World-Telegram inserted my picture in the crossword puzzle and demanded for 1 across, "pictured U.S. Table Tennis Champion." Thereafter I was the butt of jokesters at my table tennis club who twitted me about indignant letters to the editor protesting the difficulty of the puzzle. But once, while sharing a ricksha with Mr. Chung, chairman of the Hong Kong Ping Pong Tong, I was greeted deferentially by a passing coolie, "Ah! Mr. Miles! You back Hong Kong now?"

From the buffet Alex Ehrlich and I could see the playing floor with its 20 tables. It was a splendid, colorful sight that contrasted vividly with the cellars that house Manhattan's two table tennis clubs. But the matches, however fast, were depressing.

To the unaccustomed eye a topflight modern table tennis match might well appear a game played in the recreation room of an asylum by two berserk patients. The days of Good King Alex are gone. Rarely nowadays does the ball cross the net more than five times on any point. Standing close to the table, both players trade drives with increasing speed and spin until one or the other commits an error or scores on a kill. The game, in fact, has become so fast that in 1955 Japan's Tanaka won the world singles championship in a final three-game match that lasted 12 minutes. This frenetic style, introduced by the Japanese and perfected by the Chinese, has, say some experts, reduced a sport to a game, but they agree it is not madness, merely winning percentage. Spectacular, long-range defensive play is obsolete. In many ways the changes in the game parallel those in lawn tennis, a sport many people feel has been ruined by the big-serve-and-volley style.

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