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]

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The Khao San

All this month, Dim Sum Dialogues will be bringing you stories from the road. The first destination: Thailand – from Bangkok to Ko Phan Ngan…to discover the hype behind the legendary Full Moon Parties.

It’s approaching midnight fast, and the immigration lines in Suvarnabhumi Airport are long. Walking through the modern, sprawling airport, I remind myself not to touch anything in the Duty Free stores, thanks to a Gadling article that I read a few weeks prior to my trip.

The immigration official examines my passport. “First time to Thailand?” he asks. I nod my head. He points a small, futuristic Logitech camera in my direction, presses a key on his keyboard and waves me through. I skip baggage claim. All I’ve brought is a backpack, a camera, and a sense of adventure – my ideal vacation.
Once outside the airport, I scan the sidewalk for the signs advertising the A2 Airport Express – which I had been told would take me to a place called Khao San Road. Everybody recommended the area. “It’s really the only place you want to stay in Bangkok”, friends had told me.

I find the bus at the last minute, pay my 150 baht and find an empty seat among a few young people that look well-traveled. I settle in to the large seat and stare out the window as the bus merges on to a large, elevated highway. The cleanliness and engineering quality of the highway takes me by surprise. I had heard that Thailand was a developing country, but the bright LED lights that adorn the skyscrapers seem to suggest that Thailand is a little more prosperous than the other developing countries I’ve been to. But then again, the view from the highway can be deceiving.

After 45 minutes of driving through the expansive city, the bus rumbles to a stop at the end of a busy street in the Banglamphu neighborhood. I step out of the bus and am immediately overwhelmed with the amount of activity buzzing at this hour on a weeknight. Hundreds of people are milling around one long street that’s lined with neon signs and advertisements for hostels, bars, and restaurants. Vendors peddle goods out of small road side stalls and mobile carts: t-shirts, hats, pirated DVD’s, fake driver’s licenses, jewelry, souvenirs, falafel, pizza, beer, pad thai, even fried insects – crickets, beetles and worms are all available for purchase.

A boom of tourism in the 1980’s gradually made the area known as a place for cheap accommodation with easy access to the Grand Palace and temples that are popular with tourists. Now it’s a destination in its own right, touted as “The Gateway to Southeast Asia”.

The first few hostels I wander into are fully booked, but there’s a seemingly unlimited number of options in the area, and I’m able to find a basic room with a fan, a bed, and not much else. I set my bags down and head outside to explore the rest of the scene. Every type of traveler imaginable is represented. The street is full of dreadlocks, tattoos, Havaianas sandals and oversized backpacks. New arrivals look lost and overwhelmed. They blearily rub their eyes while thumbing through guidebooks in search of a place to sleep.

Taxi & tuk tuk drivers are everywhere, discreetly offering passengers rides to ping-pong shows or late night clubs. As the night gets later, they all seem to be offering rides to the same place – a late night club called “Spicy”, which apparently pays taxi drivers commission to wrangle tourists to the club with a cheap fare, so they can command an exorbitant cover charge upon arrival. I wander down the road frequently stopping to chat with welcoming groups of people sitting on the curb of the road. They sip large bottles of local brews – Chang or Singha – and swap stories of their recent adventures of tubing in Laos, trekking in Chiang Mai, or diving off Ko Phi Phi.

An especially engaging American tells me about a 3 month motorcycle trip he just finished. He bought a Russian Minsk in Hanoi for $400 USD and rode with a friend through the north of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, eventually selling the motorcycle for nearly the same price when they had reached their destination. The following month he plans on riding a bicycle through India & the Himalayas.

Patrons of the sidewalk bars are momentarily interrupted from conversation by a young Thai girl that begs them to buy roses so that she can go home for the night. She can’t be older than 8 years, but is already an expert saleswoman – offering to place bets on a game of thumb-war when the roses are declined. A few moments later, an old woman with a bag full of cheap Thai souvenirs comes and places a funny hat on a tourist. Everyone laughs and takes pictures, but no transactions take place and the woman moves on down the road.

I’m completely taken in by the stories, the laughter, and the energy of the place. It’s a paradise for backpackers with a passion for meeting new people and making spontaneous travel plans with new friends.

Things begin to quiet down around 2.30 in the morning, and I decide to call it a night. Several people around me have made plans to go to the full moon party – and we exchange phone numbers, promising to find each other when we get to Ko Phan Ngan. If that plan fails, then we agree to track one another down on Facebook so we can be best friends for the rest of our lives…