Chess in shorts: The thrill of table tennis

It's as subtle as it is sublime; as quick to learn as it is slow to master. Next week, table tennis gets top billing in Britain for the first time in a generation. Lifelong fan Howard Jacobson explains what makes it the king of sports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's more than 30 years since table tennis was last played at the Royal Albert Hall – a statistic which is unlikely to move to tears a nation grown indifferent to this most deft of sports. But when it does return to Kensington next Monday for the Dunlop Masters 2008, the occasion will be charged with sentiment for the thousands who have kept the faith, converging from all ping-pong-playing corners of the country. Not simply because of the reinstatement of table tennis to a once popular venue – many will not have seen it played there before – but because there is hope that this will initiate the return of table tennis in the wider sense. It's not a loud or much voiced hope; table tennis players by their nature don't go in for vociferousness or optimism. We play in cramped conditions, practise the astute but gloomy wit that characterises the game, and are used to stifling our emotions. But it's a hope all the same. Certainly I feel it rising in my chest. Could table tennis be coming back? So the question has to be asked: where has table tennis been?

It's a double-sided question. Where has the game been as spectacle? Once upon a time crowds would pack not only the Albert Hall to see the world's greatest players, but Wembley Arena as well, where they would sit in their raincoats and chain-smoke to calm their nerves, table tennis, like darts and snooker, being one of those games that are watched best through a tobacco fug. And where has it been as a humble, grass-roots sport played wherever there was a sports or social club with a room big enough (or small enough) to put up a table?

The second is easier to answer. Prosperity happened, television happened, good times, eating out, binge-drinking, the internet happened. When I played table tennis in the Manchester and District League in the 1950s – long before those other distractions had been invented – there were four divisions, the third divided into north and south, the fourth into north, south, east, west and central, plus two women's divisions. Each division had about a dozen teams, each team fielded five players, not counting reserves, hangers-on, drivers, tea-makers, ball-fetchers, and those who just wanted some of the glitter of the game to rub off on them. Multiply that by the number of towns and districts in the country and that's half the adult population who played competitively. You only had to go out into the street holding a bat and someone would challenge you to a game. Now they knife you for your bat, or they would if they knew what the bat was for.

But it also has to be admitted – and this links the second of my questions to the first – that the game changed radically, too. Technologically, it grew more complex, more sophisticated, and at last more specialised. The only progression you needed to make in the early days of table tennis was from the sandpaper bats with which you thrashed your mother on the dining-room table, to the rubber pimples on plywood with which, without changing it in the slightest, you could go on to become world champion. Sometimes, even in the higher divisions, you would come across a canny veteran who was still effective using sandpaper. We were blithe about our equipment then, as we had every right to be: it was our brains we played with. Then, in the mid-Fifties, the sponge bat appeared like a new planet from the East. Hiroji Satoh, of whom no one had then heard, stole the world title from under the noses of the Europeans and the Americans using a hand-held mattress.

The beginning of the end, or the beginning of the beginning? Soon afterwards, anyway, table tennis fell under the spell of a host of petro-chemical surfaces which themselves took considerable mastering even before you came face to face with an opponent. But once you had mastered them, they did the winning for you. That was how it looked to the great American showman Marty Reisman, one of those fancied to win the World Championships the year sponge, and Hiroji Satoh, nicked it. "Satoh's racket did the work for him," Reisman wrote. "Probably no one in the history of sport ever won an international title more easily. No one could give him – or rather his racket – any competition."

Sour grapes? No. Still alive, still playing competitively, still in possession of the most exquisitely musical hard-bat forehand, Reisman continues to feel he was cheated of that World Championship by a wodge of sponge. But it's for the sake of the beauty of the game – the beauty of it in itself, and as spectacle – that he goes on campaigning, more than 50 years after sponge appeared, for a return to the old "penny-ante" bats. It's a losing cause, but a noble one.

With sponge, the sound, and thus the dialogue, went out of table tennis. It was like playing with a foam pillow; you didn't so much play the ball as smother it half to death. The glossier sandwich bats that followed, as the game struggled to keep up with the diabolic ingenuity of equipment manufacturers, shone like iced-over mirrors. The ball slid off at speeds the eye could not detect, each player's spin serve was unreturnable, rallies which once upon a time, had lasted so long (two and a half hours for a single point was the record set in Prague in 1936) that the authorities had been forced to introduce a time limit, were now over before they had begun. Hurry entered the hitherto timeless terrain of table tennis.

For many of us who'd grown up pimpled, like Reisman, the change, not just in the tempo but in the atmospherics – the sound, the mood music, the clothes even – little by little turned us off the game. It had been a sort of chess in shorts originally. Part sport, part game, part conversation. We wanted to win, of course, but winning had not been everything; we enjoyed the companionable exchange of discourse, endeavouring to out-think, even to out-philosophise one another, on the table, the net a sort of proposition, our bats the power of our minds to address it. And we hadn't been in any rush to win and then be gone, because we had nowhere else to go to.

From the start, table tennis had attracted deracinated intellectuals, thinkers, depressives, sun-avoiding contemplatives and melancholics. The first official world champion was Dr Roland Jacobi, a Hungarian attorney. Note the doctorate. In photographs I have seen of him, he plays without removing his cardigan. No sweat. His nationality, too, I take to be significant. If you discount the Englishman

Fred Perry – as accomplished in table tennis as in tennis, and founder of that empire of casual clothing you wouldn't want to be seen dead in outside a golf house – every world champion for the next 25 years came from one dejected outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or another. In 1926, the Hungarian Maria Mednyanszky won the first of her five consecutive world titles. In 1930, Victor Barna, also from Hungary, won the first of his. Seven years later, the Viennese-born Richard Bergmann became the youngest player ever to be World Champion. Vienna, Prague, Budapest – those were the game's great breeding grounds. I discovered table tennis at the same time as I discovered Richard Tauber. The boys I first played with were no different. Win or lose, we'd walk home from a match singing "I'm in Love with Vienna", or the "Blue Danube" waltz. On the face of it we lived and played in Manchester, but in our hearts we were in the Vienna Woods.

After the Nazis invaded Austria, Bergmann fled to England and eventually became a member of the English team. But he remained Austro-Hungarian in his stroke play, specialising in winning from losing positions, defending so far back from the table that his opponent could barely see him, scraping up balls only inches from the floor, an exhibition player even in the midst of the most intense competition.

One of the last great matches played at the Albert Hall was between Barna and Bergmann. Barna backhand-flicking to every corner of the table, Bergmann retrieving sometimes from as far back as the steps of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens. Barna's backhand was perhaps the greatest stroke the game has ever seen. Certainly, in its laconic and disdainful wristiness, it quintessentialised table tennis for me. He didn't charge around the table, he didn't throw his whole body into every shot, he picked his moment imperiously – you could say as though intending to swat a fly, except that he knew precisely which part of the fly he intended to swat – and turned over his wrist. A simple flick, and that was the last the person opposite ever saw of the ball, unless he was Richard Bergmann.

Once every 15 years, on the few occasions I still play – and when I do I play with an old-fashioned, kerplock-kerplock hard bat – I find the Barna flick I spent the best years of my youth trying to emulate, and then I understand what the mystics mean by perfect stillness. The bat, the ball, the will to succeed, become fused in an arc of supreme effortlessness. And for that one moment it is as though the hand is the pure instrument of one's will, boneless, fluid, lethal. It is not another player one has got the ball past – the other player, strictly speaking, is an irrelevance – it is impediment itself, frustration, obstruction, everything that usually stands between you and happiness.

Hard to explain why the joy of that can never be recaptured, at least for me, with any instrument other than the pimpled hard bat. Do it with a modern racket and the ball flies off flatter, faster, too, of course, but the velocity has less to do with insouciance or the perfection of your timing than the reversed rubber with 2.1mm of sponge and the speed glue with which you've affixed it to the blade of your bat. Because, yes, glue too is what the game is now about, glue having been discovered to affect the characteristics of the rubber, its capacity to hold the ball back as well as increase its devilish spin and speed.

The solvent fetishism of modern table tennis is a source of comedy to those of us who bought our bats ready made-up and never did a thing to alter them except perhaps replace the tape around the handle once or twice in the whole of our careers. Now, you peel off the rubbers after every match, what you know of your next opponent determining the rubbers you glue back. For this you must carry around in your sports bags not only sheets of rubber and pots of glue, but scissors, penknives, emery paper, edging tape. When speed glues were first invented, some were so toxic that members of the audience fainted when a player changed his rubbers at the table or fanned his bat in their direction. Since then, safety guidelines have been laid down and players must glue-up in rooms assigned for that purpose. If you didn't know that these were table tennis players recreating the perfect bat, you would take them for model ship or aircraft enthusiasts, cutting and gluing in monastic silence.

Fascinating though they are to those on the inside, these developments in the technology of table tennis have, over the past 20 or 30 years, given the game a sort of secret language, barely known to those who don't play competitively and thus driving a wedge between players and their audience. Where you don't know the language, you can't be expected to appreciate the artfulness. This, of course, does not hold true for Asian audiences who took to table tennis from the moment Hiroji Satoh changed its science and its geography. The new fast game suited the physiques and temperaments first of the Japanese and then the Chinese. And they brought to it an athleticism it had never known or needed previously. While the game turned more and more in on itself in Europe, in China, whose players have been all but unbeatable for decades, it became the national sport. No event will be watched with more fervency by the home crowd in the coming Beijing Olympics than table tennis.

Perhaps part of the guarded optimism that table tennis is ready for a return here is anticipatory of the effect of televised Olympic table tennis this summer. Perhaps, too, the time is right. We old diehards of the thinking hard-bat game must concede, finally, that though it is not what it was, what it is can be astonishing to watch. We are not without European players, either, who can mix it with the Chinese. The greatest of them, for decades now, has been the Swede Jan-Ove Waldner, whose breathtaking close-to-the-table inventiveness won him world titles in 1989 in Dortmund and 1997 in Manchester. I watched him win in Manchester, his style a perfect synthesis, to my eye, of old and new – depressed, cold-climate, introverted European, and coiled, spiced-up lightning-fast Chinese, locked away in the mind somewhere, but exuberant at the moment that the racket hits the ball. No one interested in sport should not have seen Waldner commanding a table tennis table, making that little space an everywhere. And he will be playing at the Albert Hall on Monday.

But the real driving force behind this event and its associated excitement is Matthew Syed, not long ago the English No 1, now a well-regarded journalist and a supreme activist for table tennis. I loved Syed's game. Had I been born born 30 years later and not wanted to be Barna or Bergmann, I'd have wanted to be Syed. He was the last of the great defenders, never quite going to Bergmann's lengths of retrieving from another room, but no less astonishing in his defensive instincts, knowing just how much time was left to him before the ball hit the floor, and just how long it was going to take to wear down his opponent's patience. In competition, it was always Syed who drew the biggest crowds. And the biggest sighs if he lost. People love to watch defensive table tennis. It keeps a game alive, it brings the best out in an opponent, and it gives the illusion – at the heart of the game, I think – of perpetual motion. The most heart-stopping player is not the one who hits so fast that the ball becomes invisible, but the one who can never be passed. I used to dream of such a figure, inhabiting the darkness at the far end of the table, returning everything I threw at him. What I could never decide was whether he was God or the Devil.

Well, for those who care for the future of table tennis in this country, Syed is not the Devil. Had he played before sponge he would have been impregnable. But the modern game favours the hitter. Think of defending against speed-glued rubbers as like playing the roulette wheel: yes, you will have your successes, but in the end the odds favour the person doing the spinning. His indefatigability serves him well, however, as an inspirational entrepreneur for table tennis. He knows how to sell it to the players. He knows how to sell it to television. And he knows how to drum up the sponsorship. Above all, he knows what it is going to take to prise the game out of its parochialism in this country and restore its damaged self-esteem.

Instrumental to that ambition is the Greenhouse Schools Project that will be the beneficiary of Monday's Dunlop Masters showdown. The Greenhouse Schools Project aims generally to "transform the lives of young people aged 11-16 by engaging them in sports and arts activities". Table tennis is one of those activities. It is hoped that 20 children will be sent to China to attend the Beijing Olympics, where they will be coached at a special training camp from which they will return, if not champions, then at least happy, if a happy table tennis player is not a contradiction in terms.

That the experience will transform them, one way or another, I don't doubt. Not just the travel, but the game itself. Table tennis certainly transformed my life. It took my shyness and dejection and found expression for them. It socialised me. It married grandiosity to modesty. This is the great benefaction of table tennis. Because of its homely origins – played on kitchen tables and in the basements of seaside boarding houses, played wherever there's a hotel or holiday camp, a works canteen, a Conservative club, a prison – everyone believes they can play. And everyone can, a bit. Unlike pole-vaulting or polo or lacrosse, it is within the reach of all peoples of all ages and incomes.

So when you see it at its spectacular best, as on Monday, what you are watching is just yourself gone up a notch. Or two.

The Dunlop Masters 2008 is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on Monday (

Kerplock! A beginner's guide
By Justin Gayner

*It is thought that table tennis was invented by British Army officers in the 19th century, using cigar boxes as bats and champagne corks as balls. At least 40 million people play it competitively, according to the IOC.

*The sport has been known by many names, such as "flim-flam", "whiff-whaff", "Gossima", "pim-pam", "pom-pom" and "Tennis de Salon". "Ping-Pong" is actually a brand of table tennis equipment and is a registered trademark.

*In 1971, the US table tennis squad were the first Americans allowed into China since the Communist takeover in 1949. Exhibition matches between the two countries were known as "ping-pong diplomacy".

*All tournament games are now played to 11 points, not 21. Serves now alternate every two points (instead of five). Players must hold a two-point margin to win the game.

*Balls may be white or orange. The glue used to attach rubber sheets to the bat's blade is known as "chack".

*There are two main types of grip – the "shakehand" and the "penhold". The shakehand is popular in Europe and is similar to the way you hold a tennis racket. With the penhold, the favoured technique of Asian players, the bat is held like a pen, and players use only one side of the bat.

*Playing styles tend to fall into three main camps. "Attackers" play close to the table and hit the ball hard and fast with topspin. "Blockers" also stand close to the table, using the other player's spin or pace. "Defenders" specialise in backspin, often standing far behind the table.

*There are two main ways to deal with spin on the serve. First, hold the bat lightly. Second, watch your opponent's paddle closely as they serve. If they spin the ball to the right, aim your bat to the left, and vice versa.

*There are plenty of ways to put off your opponent. Try staring them out, or changing the tempo of the game by re-tying your shoelaces. A misplaced fart can always work wonders, too. Don't lose your temper, though: it's not the done thing.

*Celebrity fans of table tennis include Charlie Chaplin, Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, Yasser Arafat and Philip Green. The website has 714 pictures of celebs playing the sport.

Justin Gayner is a presenter on and plays for London's Karmarama Table Tennis Club. He once took three points off the former UK number one Matthew Syed