SI Vault
Ray Kennedy
November 21, 1977
But it isn't a lullaby on New York's Upper West Side where Marty Reisman hustles all comers to the mesmeric plickety-plock-plick of Ping-Pong balls
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November 21, 1977

A Little Night Music

But it isn't a lullaby on New York's Upper West Side where Marty Reisman hustles all comers to the mesmeric plickety-plock-plick of Ping-Pong balls

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Still, he says, the one-shot haul has its allure. Like in a factory loft in Omaha. Adhering to his old adage, "If the money's right, I'll go anywhere," Reisman went to Omaha at the behest of a well-to-do mattress manufacturer who called long distance one day to say, "I'd like you to help me win back $80,000."

Reisman's client, it developed, had lost the money over several months to a local sharpie named Al. Leaving behind his Pierre Cardin wardrobe, Reisman showed up in a baggy seersucker suit, the better to fit his role as a visiting baby-crib salesman. When all was in readiness—net loosened to pick up a dribbler when needed, half a dozen Hock Specials scattered about—the client invited Al over for another go-round in the loft.

"The first rule of hustling is to let your opponent suggest the match," says Reisman, "and when he does you mustn't seem too eager." And so, all but whining and kicking, Reisman ended up behind the table, pleading for a big spot and feigning that he did not know that his client was betting heavily on the outcome. Losing a few, winning a few more—all by close scores and with an array of "lucky" shots—Reisman lured his fish ever deeper into the net.

"The idea," says Reisman, "is to make your opponent think he is hustling you. That's why I've developed a special 'hustler's grip.' I hold the racket the way a thirsty truck driver holds a beer bottle. That way every winner you hit looks so crazy, so completely accidental that the guy is willing to bet anything that you can't do it again."

The Omaha connection netted Reisman $20,600, or one-third of what he won. He also earned a gratifying compliment. "You lucky bastard!" Al snarled at him, just the way Marty hoped he would.

Reisman began compiling his hustler's handbook on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Off and on, his father Morris was a taxi driver, a bookie and a numbers runner. Full time he was a gambler. Once the owner of a fleet of 17 cabs, he lost them all shooting craps and playing cards. Reisman remembers, "I saw my dad lose six taxis during one session of poker." Reisman's mother, a Russian �migr�e, left his father when Marty was 10, and it was shortly thereafter that he got hooked on table tennis at a neighborhood settlement house. At 13 he was the city junior champion and a past master at hustling adults whom he met in the parks. He lived with his mother until he was 14, then moved in with his father and became a regular at Lawrence's Broadway Table Tennis Club, a second-floor forerunner of Reisman's I. The bullet holes in the wall behind table No. 5 had been filled in but the action was as whizbang as when it was a speakeasy run by Legs Diamond. The main attraction was the famous Friday night tournaments. As freewheeling as cockfights, they attracted the top players and a gang of high rollers who could zero in on the point spreads as deftly as they did on the brass spittoons.

"It was the best training possible," says Reisman. "The gambling sharpened you, forced you to correct the distortions in your stroke and throw out all the garbage that didn't work. Because if you didn't, you were busted for the night."

Not all the lessons learned were acceptable to the straight world. At the 1945 U.S. championships Reisman advanced to the quarterfinals and then went looking for his bookie. "I'd been laying with the same guy on the tournament all week," he says. "I didn't have much time so I walked up to this guy who looked like him and handed him $500 and said, 'Put it on me.' It was Steenhoven!" Graham Steenhoven, the very proper—and very shocked—president of the United States Table Tennis Association. Though Reisman's tender years—he was 15—saved him from being suspended from the USTTA, he was escorted from the hall by two uniformed cops.

At 16, the "bad boy of Ping-Pong," as Reisman came to be known, won the national junior title and a year later qualified for the three-man U.S. team at the 1948 world championships in London. When he stepped off the Queen Elizabeth , he was hardly an innocent abroad. His bags were stuffed with nylon stockings. And while he unloaded the contraband for five times what he paid for it, it was a mere drop in what was to become a very big bucket.

"Smuggling never bothered me," Reisman says. "Table tennis players have to survive on their wiles. A player who depended on exhibition fees could starve. The top players were either gamblers, smugglers or both. I had already won more than 175 trophies but I couldn't eat them."

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