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]

Off-beat travel experiences people actually pay for: 6 worst vacation ideas

When it comes to yard sales, there’s an adage “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure.” When it comes to vacation experiences, you might say the same thing.

Some folks can’t seem to get enough of a Disney theme park, while others wouldn’t step a foot in one. Being willing to fork out cash for Disney–or not—is a run of the mill vacation choice. Here are other options that fit the unusual to the downright weird.

Tom Barlow, my pal over at Blogging Stocks and Wallet Pop sent me this link to the “6 Worst Vacations People Actually Pay for” at Jason Moore’s round-up includes one experience we’ve written about here at Gadling.

Jason lists a stay at the Ice Hotel in Sweden as his number two worst vacation idea option. Frankly, I’m with Jason on this one. I’m sure it’s fascinating and beautiful, but too cold for a relaxing night of slumber. Ruben Laguna, who snapped this pic has several others which gives me the impression I could be wrong. Still, it does look too cold for my taste.

Jason’s number one choice of bad ideas is the one where people shoot farm animals with rocket launchers. WHAT!!! Isn’t there a grim film called, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? In this case, horses aren’t on the menu, but you can shoot chickens and cows. The place is near Siem Reap, Cambodia. Here’s a link to that weirdness.

Moore’s other bad idea choices are:

  • Tour the sewers of Paris
  • Illegal Border Crossing Experience
  • Ghetto Tours
  • Crossword Puzzle Cruise

The Paris sewer tour does sound interesting to me. The crossword puzzle cruise? Not so much. Check out Jason’s post for more details on each option. You can find decide for yourself what’s trash and what’s treasure.

Click the images to learn about the most unusual museums in the world — from funeral customs, to penises, to velvet paintings, to stripping.