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The Hustle Never Stopped for Ping-Pong Legend Marty Reisman

He even tried with photographer Manny Millan on a $1 bet during a shoot.

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Back before the digital age, photographers had to carry actual film. Each roll came in a box, maybe an inch wide and an inch and a half high. When Manny Millan shot Marty Reisman for a 1977 feature in Sports Illustrated, Reisman had him place a box on a Ping-Pong table, then unfailingly knocked it off with a powerful shot.

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By then, the dashing Reisman, who owned several world table tennis championships, was firmly established as one of the best hustlers around. He operated out of his club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Riverside Table Tennis Club, where people from all walks of life competed not only against one another but also with Reisman, who limited himself by spotting huge leads or by playing with his shoe instead of a paddle. Reisman was a character: When he played overseas exhibitions he would do anything he could to make a little extra money. “He was a hustler,” says Millan. “He smuggled gold out of Southeast Asia. He would say that he went into the country weighing 135 pounds and then he had a special coat belt to slide bars of gold in and he left the country weighing 185 pounds.”

That sort of audacity made him a great photo subject. “We shot a posed picture of him smoking a cigarette,” says Millan. “And, you could see his racket was pretty beat-up. He disliked the foam rackets. He thought they really destroyed table tennis because you get so much spin out of it. So he was a traditionalist. He played with a racket that had like a rubber face.”

During one session, Reisman–who died in 2012, at 82—offered to give Millan an 18-point head start on a $1 bet. “His hustles were amazing,” says Millan, who, recalling his flying film boxes, turned down the offer. “It’s not like a one-time thing where he’d play somebody and just beat the hell out of them. He would get a person to say, ‘I just lost.’ And then they’d come back for more.”

(A version of this piece appears in the October 2021 issue of Sports Illustrated.)

Full Frame is Sports Illustrated’s exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI’s photography.

To get the best of SI in your inbox every weekday, sign up here. To see even more from SI’s photographers, follow @sifullframe on Instagram. If you missed our story on how Olympic skiers are prepping for the upcoming games, you can find it here.

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