Alex Ehrlich was the King of Chiselers, and the noblest aspirant to his throne was Paneth Farcas, Prinz of Sitzfleisch. When King Alex and Prinz Paneth finally tangled, it produced the most remarkable point of table tennis ever played. In table tennis a chiseler is not a cheat, but the term is an equally opprobrious epithet for a stubbornly defensive player who refuses to attack, pushing rather than smashing even the juiciest "meatball." In those leisurely days of the mid-'30s when King Alex reigned, if two good chiselers met only impatience or exhaustion prevented their pushing the ball back and forth forever. The King was a strapping Job, but the Prinz of Sitzfleisch was as patient as a penguin.
I saw King Alex recently in the unlikely city of Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, where I had come to watch the 28th World Table Tennis Championships. During a slow afternoon's play we shared a table at the arena buffet and chatted about old times. Alex is an erect, 6-foot-4 Pole with a small, unorthodox head and absurdly long arms. He can scratch a knee without stooping. In general, international table tennis stars are a band of sophisticates who can count to 21 (but not higher) in a dozen languages, order Ch�teau d'Yquem by vintage and recommend a cheap hotel in Taipei or Rabat. Although less polished, Alex speaks 15 languages—but he mutilates them, I'm told. Nonetheless, at big tournaments he is beset by players without a common language who huddle around him to exchange the sport's ultramontane news. With me, Alex usually starts talking in whatever language he happens to be thinking in at the moment, until he realizes his mistake and raps his forehead to reset the wheels. The ensuing English is often memorable. Once, commenting on a player's sportsmanship, he said, "I should have the money how dishonest he is," and again when I told him a certain unpopular player had married he asked ingenuously, "Against who?"
The King of Chiselers' long point, is as famous in table tennis coteries as Tunney's long count is at Ring magazine. Quite literally that single point changed the game—changed it as much as the calamitous introduction of the sponge racket was to do 16 years later. The tale, however, through countless retellings, has collected an apocrypha not easily pruned, and King Alex himself had never told me the real story. So at the buffet in Ljubljana I asked him about it. He began by deprecating the entire affair.
"Never believe it vaz three hours, Deek, like maybe you heered. I look at vatch ven first game begin, so I know exact. Vee play only two hours and tvelve minutes."
"Oh, I see, Alex," I said. "Well, how long was the second game?"
"Vee not play second game, Deek. It vaz first game."
"Ah! Now I see! It was the first game that took two hours and 12 minutes. Well, then, how long was the long point?"
"Nein! Nein! Deek. Es war die erste...le premier!" Alex was excited. Sputterings of Hungarian and Swedish came out. He rapped his forehead in exasperation. "Deek! Deek! Whole match only vun point!"
I knew if I asked one more stupid question Alex would have a fit, so I sat back and let him tell it.
A Prague arena, 1936, the World Championships, 3,500 spectators. Rumania vs. Poland: a crucial match in the Swaythling Cup, the Davis Cup of table tennis. When the sealed team lineups were opened, Alex Ehrlich, Poland's King of Chiselers, and Paneth Farcas, Rumania's Prinz of Sitzfleisch, were brought together in the first match.