Table Tennis With The Crossword Champion

At six points into the game I’m absolutely crushing the ball with my racket. It’s taking the entire mass of my body to return each shot, but somehow they keep coming back. Finally, three points later, the right ball falls at my backhand and an errant slice lumbers awkwardly across the net.

“Good!” my opponent says, soothingly, meaning “finally!” and then he rockets the ball over my shoulder.

I’ve heard that voice before though, that same voice, used in that same playful tone. It’s the puzzle master, Will Shortz from NPR, that same voice that shepherds lost radio listeners through the weekly puzzle challenge, the same mind behind the New York Times Crossword. An eight-letter word starting with “T” and describing your skill at table tennis. Good!

Only this time, Mr. Shortz isn’t working on puzzles, he’s casually returning the missiles that I’m firing, one after another, across the table, four feet behind the line, tap-TAP, tap-TAP, tap-TAP, tap-TAP. If the sandwiches that I brought for lunch were nearby, I think he’d be snacking on them to pass the time.

That same voice happens to own a table tennis club in Pleasentville, New York, the Westchester Table Tennis Center, where rows of tables symmetrically divide players along columns of furious play. When David and I reach the center late that morning, two young men are lounging behind the front desk, rackets in hand, watching YouTube videos of famous players and games. We take the hour to warm up.

Will shows up at 1 p.m. precisely for our game, trailed by his friend and business partner Robert Roberts. The two have been collaborating in this space for just over a year, and were subject to a recent documentary about their journey here and abroad. For them, table tennis isn’t a localized sport. It’s about visiting community clubs, finding comfort in a foreign place and having a game in any corner of the world. So far, Mr. Shortz has been to 154 clubs around the country in 39 states as well as 46 clubs in 19 other countries. He was only one game short of playing for 365 days straight last year, and this year he hopes to beat that. An anagram for “acted died” starting and ending with the letter “d”. Good!

Which, when you think about it, is a pretty impressive task. As he recounts to me over lunch, the business of puzzles – both for the New York Times and National Public Radio — and table tennis is a time consuming affair. For a trip to China for a puzzle championship, Shortz and Roberts had to get up early to play at their club in Westchester, scramble to the airport and then fly across the world for a quick game just after landing – just to get in two games in two days.

This is what happens when passion intersects a busy schedule. Packaged in the right way, it’s always possible to take happiness on the road. I ask Will about this as we sit watching David and Robert sparring over a few points. He is happy here at the Westchester Table Tennis Club, surrounded by developing talent, built on an empire of crosswords and Sudoku. Abroad, in Greece, in Alaska, that joy is just one more club away, one more trip to an underground club in Dakar or to the massive training halls in Shenzhen. A four-letter word for a place of origin. Good!

Westchester Table Tennis Center: 175 Tompkins Ave, Pleasentville, New York. Registration is still open for the January 19th Beer Pong Tournament.

[Photo Credits, Grant Martin and David Farley]