Ping pong crazy: Three writers explain their lifelong addictions to table tennis

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Riding high on a resurgence in table tennis, three writers – our own Booker-winning columnist, one of America's brightest young talents and one newspaper legend – pay homage to the enduring allure of the game, its philosophy, its poetry and its unique innocence...

The life pursuit by Howard Jacobson

I have never met an ex-table-tennis player. Once you've played table tennis you go on playing no matter how old you are or how long it's been since you competed seriously.

This needn't mean that you actually wield your bat or climb back into your shorts, though veterans table tennis is going strong throughout the world and there are many players who go on competing into their eighties and beyond – strapped up, patched and bandaged, but still fighting for every point. Nor do I mean retrospectively, though retrospection is intrinsic to the game – the narrow margins you lost by, the humiliations you suffered, the chances you squandered, staying with you all your life. Of course you remember the victories too, though victory counts for less in table tennis than in most other sports, and you will remember the times you lost more often than you remember the times you won, even if that means bending the truth to your disadvantage. Only recently, at an entirely unassociated event, I met a person I hadn't seen for more than 40 years who remembered losing to me 22-20 in the final game of a three-set match that decided the winner between Oxford and Cambridge. I, too, remembered the match and score, only I recalled losing to him. We are still arguing over it by email, each of us continuing to claim a famous defeat.

But this is not what I have in mind when I talk of the game staying with you. I mean philosophically. Table tennis, once you have played it with any purpose, becomes the very model for experience itself. In its quick-fire, ironic music – the ball coming back at you faster than thought – you hear the rhythms of reflective conversation and the best exchanges of wit when minds are alert. Table tennis lowers expectation and teaches you to live with disappointment as a necessary function of human engagement. But from the shapeliness of the game, its amused defeatism and quiet undemonstrativeness, you draw consolation too.

In hours of sleeplessness I go through games I played decades before, trying to win matches I lost, hoping that with the experience of age I can now outwit those to whom I suffered a crushing or an unjust defeat. So far I have not yet played a single point any better than I did at the time, or overturned a single decision. Where I was beaten I go on being beaten. Where the net intervened in my opponent's favour, it still intervenes in my opponent's favour; where my down-the-line forehands just failed to clip the table, they go on missing by the same fraction. It is an interesting question why I don't remember the games I won. But then where would be the point of replaying those? Best to leave well alone. I don't want suddenly to be losing to people I thrashed.

It is a masochistic sport. Perhaps not for the Chinese, who these days rarely taste defeat and who play at a far more frenetic pace than the great American and European players ever did. But for even the greatest European and American players of today, who labour to keep up with the Chinese, the game is more about loss than success. And for those who play at a more modest level, loss is of the essence.

When Roger Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open Tennis Championships in 2009, he wept like a baby. Not only because he'd lost this match, but because he realised his impregnability was over. I cannot say for certain that no table-tennis player in a similar position would do the same, but it is against the spirit of the game. Of course one loses. Of course the illusion of one's impregnability is gone for ever. We choose the game – I don't say consciously – because we accept that defeat is inevitable, and we play to reconcile ourselves to its bitterness. You could say that we play because we know we have lost at something else already.

In this it is like art. The well-regulated rarely take up art. Why would you remake the world if it were already fine in your eyes? The artist is ill at ease in the world and must make it differently. If history is written by the winners, art is made by the losers. I don't mean that derogatively. You can be a loser and still triumph. But the sphere in which you triumph is not truly valued by the mass of mankind for whom success in the world as it is is what counts.

Table tennis is to sport what art is to finance or politics. There have been great sportsmen and women who have succeeded at table tennis and lawn tennis – lawn tennis being a quintessentially conventional pastime. Fred Perry prospered in both. Ann Jones the same. But they are rare. Normally the temperament necessary for the one makes the other unattractive and unavailable to you. Lawn tennis is in all its essentials an extrovert sport. You play in the daylight. The strokes you play are expansive. You raise the racket above your head. You leap for balls. You cover distances, you dash, you dive, you fall. Your body is on display. Not for nothing are many tennis players noisy breathers, exclaimers and ejaculators. In tennis, nothing remains within your body, private to you. You don't hide your feelings. You are on display. You punch the air. You weep. You are the property of the crowd. And on that understanding crowds come to watch you. In every sense lawn tennis is public and you must be something of a publicity-seeker to play it well.

Table tennis could not be more different. The shy are attracted to the game the moment they see it being played. No one is watching – so you do not have to fear exposure. You can play close to yourself, the bat never an extravagant extension of you as a tennis racket is, your arm moving in immediate response to a private thought. Although you are closer to your opponent than you are in tennis, the introversion of the playing conditions reduces intimacy. Opponents rarely eyeball one another in the course of a game of ping pong. You look only into yourself, at your bat when it lets you down, at the table when the other person does something remarkable. It is not uncommon to wipe the table, though there is nothing on it, like Lady Macbeth vainly trying to wash away the memory of evil. In table tennis you do not shout at yourself as other sportsmen do, nor would you think of querying the decision of the umpire; you remonstrate, if you must, quietly, as befits the cramped conditions in which you play. You are on formal, stilted terms even with yourself. If you don't notice you are out there, perhaps no one else will notice either.

All the important players of the early era of the game, dating from 1926 when Dr Roland Jacobi, a Hungarian attorney, became the first world champion, understood this introspection. For them the game was closer to chess than sport. These players were intellectuals and philosophers. They played cat and mouse with each other, waiting for an opening in the other's argument. Occasionally this mental contest was so evenly matched and exhaustive – in one famous instance it took two hours to decide a single point – that a time limit had to be imposed. But that was rare; mainly such intellectual jousting made for great entertainment, much greater than anything the modern game can offer – where most points are over in three shots.

One of the darlings of the pre-sponge game was Richard Bergmann, who defended so far back from the table his opponent must have wondered if he'd left the arena; but he wasn't a scrambler, he retrieved balls because he still had something to say. Victor Barna would suddenly unloose an exquisitely lazy backhand, a mere flick of the wrist with which as often as not he would finish the point because he could listen to your nonsense no longer.

That was the shot we all aspired to when I was a boy player in Manchester in the 1950s. It had an argumentative scorn that seemed to belong to literature. Socrates would have enjoyed table tennis, leading your interlocutor on until he comes to see the logical weaknesses in his own game. The American champion Dick Miles was known to read Ulysses between matches.

Both Bergmann and Barna, like Jacobi, were from what remained of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the exception of the Englishman Fred Perry, every world champion for the first 25 years of the game's history came from that crumbling corner of Europe. If table tennis has always been a game that suits people of an introverted nature, it is only a short step to understanding why it flowered where it did. Those who played it best in those days were of necessity deracinated solitaries with mournful expressions and quick minds.

Ever since Hiroji Satoh won the World Championship with a sponge bat in 1952, an argument has been quietly advanced for the game he played not being table tennis at all. Once the bat changed from rubber pimples to sponge, some say, the game changed from table tennis to something else. Whatever lawn tennis players think of the technological changes to their equipment over recent years, they go on playing without complaint. Tennis is tennis is tennis. This is an unphilosophical position. Table tennis, true to its dissatisfied, enquiring nature, goes on probing its own status and validity. This is why those of us who play, actually or in our minds, retain such an intense attachment to the game. There is always one more point to replay in our imaginations, always one more question to ask. The game is never over because we cannot decide who really won, and we cannot decide who really won because we are still pondering the nature of victory.

Howard Jacobson is the Booker Prize-winning author of 'The Finkler Question' and a columnist for 'The Independent'

Thoughts from home by Jonathan Safran Foer

Birds do not sing, they communicate.
Humans are the only animals that sing. Or play ping pong.

It is a mistake to think about where your shot will go.
But it is a mistake not to think about it, also.

To rhyme words on a page is not to write poetry.
To hit a ping-pong ball across a ping-pong table
with ping-pong rackets is not to play ping pong.

The student asks, "Why should I hit with spin?"
The teacher says, "Because you cannot spin
the universe around the ball."

A serve is not a way of starting a point, but ending one.

You cannot know your limits at ping pong,
because that is one of your limits at ping pong.

There is no need to apologise
when the ball hits the top of the net and falls over.
And there is no need to apologise
when a shot nicks the edge of the table
and is redirected at an impossible angle.
Only thoughtless shots need to be apologised for.
And shots derived from thought.

Despair says, I cannot hit with the speed of my opponent.
Happiness says, I do not need to.

Experience teaches the ping-pong player
what won't ever happen,
which is nothing.

At the moment of the serve,
the point is entirely unknowable.
But as it happens, it begins to seem explainable.
Once it is over, it could not have happened otherwise.
Next point.

Clouds keep the sun from our eyes.
Low ceilings prevent lobs.

As a child I wanted to be right about my ping-pong
abilities. Now I want to be wrong.

The best way to have your opponent
play into your hands is not to care
about what you want him to do.

If I didn't spend so much time playing ping-pong,
I would have a much fuller life.
But I would have no life.

Jonathan Safran Foer was named among Granta's Best Young American Novelists in 2007 and is best known for his 2002 novel 'Everything is Illuminated'

Out of fashion by Harold Evans

They came out of prewar Eastern Europe with their magic names: Zolan Mechlovits, Miklos Szabados, Stanislav Kolar, Viktor Barna, Ivan Andreadis, Bohumil Vana, Richard Bergmann... They were in their slim teens, mostly, when they showed the world how to play table tennis, the thrillingly classic game with hard-pimpled rubber before the spongers ruined it all. (The exception was 240 pounds of dancing dynamite called Ferenc Sido.)

The names from Hungary, Austria, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were reminiscent of those attached to famous chess matches, and that's what they were psychically. The manoeuvres around and beyond the table, probing for weaknesses in defence, were as intense in their concentration, and as inventive in combining elements: one thinks of the corner-to-corner topspin drives as bishops striking along the diagonals, the angled push shots as acquisitive pawns.

The domination of the East Europeans was really broken first in 1949 by that 19-year-old American kid, the Needle, as he was called on the Lower East Side, Marty Reisman. In a five-set English Open final, he beat the elegant Hungarian Barna, five-time world champion, wowing Wembley Stadium's 10,000 spectators with the fastest forehand kill in the world.

But that's not his greatest distinction. He is the real hero of table tennis because he has pretty well single-handedly kept the classic game alive. Alone among the greats, he did not switch to sponge when it swept the world after the 1952 world championships in Bombay. Hiroji Satoh, only an alternate on the Japanese team, became world champion on the strength of his new secret weapon: resilient foam rubber that imparted unreadable spins. Reisman tested his own skill in a match in Osaka against Satoh that convulsed Japan. He stuck to his hard-pimpled rubber panel and before an astounded capacity crowd beat Satoh fair and square.

Sponge should have been banned when it first infiltrated. It was like a boxer climbing into the ring with iron filings in his gloves. The president of the International Table Tennis Federation, the Hon. Ivor Montagu (an eccentric English aristocrat and a Communist), thought sponge might be a great equaliser that would open the sport to novices. He prevailed: sponge was legalised. The effect was the opposite of Montagu's egalitarian intent. It closed off the sport. Technology ran amok. About 900 bewildering varieties of sponge came into use. The glue was also found to have an effect on spin and speed. Players started changing glue mid-match, cooking up their concoctions in a break.

The lunacy took the fun out of playing and killed table tennis as a spectator sport. The sponge players who followed Satoh are much better athletes, but the games they play have been generally unwatchable – basically trick serves then a fast loop which either wins or loses the point. The typical sponge point is won after only three or four exchanges, by contrast with 10, 20, 30 or 40 in a classic game. The monotony of sponge matches – wham, bam, thank you ma'am – is the reason why, the Olympics apart, finals that once attracted thousands average only a handful of aficionados. And for the beginner, the trickiness of the sponge racket is the reason why table tennis has not until recently sustained the interest of the millions of basement players as it once did.

When sponge devastated the sport, I stopped playing regularly in the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, the first sign of a thaw in Sino-American relations was of course the invitation of the American table-tennis team to play in China. I invited the China office to play a table-tennis match against a team of five at The Sunday Times. I practised with the unfamiliar sponge with the county star Alan Sherwood. On the night at The Sunday Times office, the newspaper team beat the diplomats. The Chinese asked for a return match. They'd scoured Europe for a completely new team. It all came down to the last game of the night. I led 18-17 when my opponent had service. His first serve looked straightforward enough. My hit went off the side 18-18. I put the second off the other side of the table, 18-19. I put the third in the net, 18-20, and the fourth off the table again. My opponent had saved up four freakish sponge services. By the time I'd worked out the convolutions of the varied spins, it was too late. I'd lost.

I don't grumble: the mysterious newcomer won fair and square. I played a few more times with my new sponge racket, but it wasn't half as satisfying. Then, a few years ago, Reisman came into my life. I met him by chance in New York as he celebrated his 73rd birthday. "Why don't you start playing again?" he asked. I showed up at a gym with the paddle I'd used against the Chinese and he played with his paddle of hard-pimpled rubber. Taking my punishment, and hearing again the sound of celluloid on hard bat, my imagination retrieved slow-motion images of those graceful East Europeans. I abandoned sponge.

The classic game would have been lost but for Reisman. "I was so disgusted with what had happened to its innocence," he says. The icon kept the embers of the sport alive by betting his last buck on himself in challenge matches – one for $10,000 against Jimmy Butler, 42 years his junior. Watchers were mesmerised when they saw quicksilver Reisman – and heard his patter, for he's a showman, a wise-cracking reciter of Shakespeare, who upends a slim cigarette on one end of the table and splits it in two with a ball from a precise forehand.

Players began to return to the classic game in the late 1970s. In 1997, a national hardbat championship was staged. The 67-year-old Reisman demolished the field and recaptured the US national title he had won 38 years before.

The insurrection Reisman started has continued to grow. At the age of 79, he has redesigned the simple sandpaper racket. "The sandpaper paddle," he says, "affords the purest reflection of a player's innate skills." The $100,000 hardbat championship in Las Vegas in 2009 was the brainchild of Reisman. As well as restoring the classic game, they're piquantly restoring the classic name; the sandpaper group is now planning the $200,000 Ping Pong World Championships.

Let the trophy for the winner be known hereafter as the Reisman: Bergmann was the game's greatest retriever, but Reisman, the kid from the Lower East Side, has gone one better: he has saved the whole sport.

Harold Evans was editor of 'The Sunday Times' for 14 years and is now editor-at-large of 'The Week'.

The book from which these essays have been extracted, 'Everything You Know is Pong', is published by HarperEntertainment, priced £16.99

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