Then the Master began working the ball from side to side, gradually sharpening the angle until the Kid was lunging and panting heavily. When the Kid retreated, the Master hit wicked drop shots that kicked back into the net. When he charged, the Master bounced bullets off his chest. Diving for one shot, the Kid lifted a soft looper that ticked the net and dribbled over. The Kid 20, the Master 16.
Going for broke, the Kid leaped to his left and hit a veering smash that caught the Master going the wrong way. Without breaking stride, the Master dipped and hit the ball behind his back for a clean winner.
Then, circling under a high lob, the Master swung mightily—and missed. The Kid, stunned and near exhaustion, stumbled backward, skidded and fell. And the Master, reversing his swing in a whippy figure-eight sweep, caught the ball an instant before it struck the table and put it away with a quick backhand slap. Final score: the Master 22, the Kid 20.
The stake money safely pocketed, the Master clapped his arm around the Kid's shoulder and, all sweetness and smooth talk now, offered to sell him the last remaining copy of his book, The Money Player: The Confessions of America's Greatest Table Tennis Champion and Hustler, at "cost"—$6.95. As the Kid dug into his jeans, the Master scribbled on the flyleaf, "18 points any time, any place—you name the stakes. Best wishes always, Marty Reisman."
No matter that the Kid later found a sales slip in the book showing that it was bought at an author's discount of $4, or that the supposedly rare volume came from a stockpile of 1,500 "last remaining copies." Unlike many of the fleeced, the Kid knew he was taking on the game's most celebrated hustler. And to take that plunge is to play by the first rule of the streets: what's fair is what works. Indeed that is part of the lure; if nothing else, the Kid could go away knowing that he had been worked over by the best, that for a few heady moments he had costarred in a hit sideshow that has been running off-Broadway for nearly 20 years.
For Marty Reisman, winner of 17 national and international table tennis titles—and hundreds of big-money bets—the performance served a different need. Like many professional gamblers, he insists that neither the pay nor the play is the thing. Rather, he says, it is the risk, the intrigue, the danger that exhilarates. "Though I need it to get the adrenaline flowing, the money is nothing, the excitement everything," he says. "I never played a game for fun in my life."
Spoken like a true gunslinger—or is that the wily hustler talking? One can never be certain about a "mythic figure," which is what Tim Boggan, editor of the bimonthly Table Tennis Topics, calls Reisman.
"No one plays with the same classical �lan," says Boggan. "No one carries the same aura. And no one for sure dresses the same as Marty Reisman. He adds dignity and class to a game that has no dignity and class. Yes, there is the cat burglar side, but he is a Cary Grant cat burglar, the kind of person who operates on both sides of some laws and makes it all seem right because he does it on his own terms. There is no comparable bravado figure in the game today. He is the James Bond of table tennis."
A string of victims extending from Baltimore to Bangkok attests to that. And that's the rub: where once Reisman could set up a mark by posing as a gullible klutz ("Is this the way you hold the paddle?"), his notoriety eventually threatened to become detrimental to his health.
Now 47, Reisman went underground at 96th and Broadway in 1958, the year he won the national championship in both singles and doubles, and holed up as the proprietor of the first of two dungeonlike retreats more formally known as the Riverside Table Tennis Club. And there he has reigned ever since, a subterranean Sultan of Swat who lets the world come to him to be taken.