From sundown until the last wino bites the pavement, the intersection of Broadway and 96th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side is like Dodge City on a Saturday night. Subway cowboys spilling out of the bars whoop it up on the street. Painted ladies and panhandlers lurk in the shadows, hissing and beckoning. Thumping music, shattering glass, mad laughter, shouts—the night sounds rumble and clatter through the high-rise canyons like those of a wagon train rolling in from the Bronx.
And when the blood is running hot and the stakes are heavy, there can even be a shootin' match right out of the Last Chance Saloon.
This was the case late one recent night when a grim young stranger and his sidekick appeared at the crossroads of the wild, wild West Side. Down a flight of cement steps on 96th just off Broadway, through a battered swinging door and into a crowded, cavernous cellar they came, spoiling for a showdown. The sidekick ducked into a back room where a group of men were playing poker. Speaking in hushed tones, he flashed a roll of bills. One of the men rose, fingered the money and nodded.
"He's game," the sidekick whispered to his young companion, helping him remove his leather jacket. Then, from a folded copy of the Daily News, the young stranger unsheathed his weapon—a table tennis paddle.
November 21, 1977
Instinctively the onlookers gathered around championship table No. 1, buzzing with the news: the Kid was challenging the Master, the deadliest, most legendary sharpshooter of them all.
And suddenly there he was, the Master himself, emerging from the back room like a dark avenger. He was wearing black razor-creased trousers tucked into black riding boots, a black silk shirt with billowing sleeves, black-rimmed glasses and, his talisman, a black cap rakishly cocked over his right eye. The ensemble hung on him as if it was still on the hanger—at six feet tall and barely 135 pounds, he had the beaked, bony look of a bird of prey, an eagle coldly eying a plump pigeon.
Calling for his "bat," a black antique Hock Special, the Master served a warmup ball that the Kid eagerly smashed past him with a big muscular forehand drive. Impassive, the Master kept hitting to the same corner, and the Kid kept smashing away. The suspense was too much for one spectator. "How many ya gonna give 'im?" he cried. With an air of lofty indifference, the Master muttered, "Oh, 18 sounds about right."
"Eighteen points!" the crowd gasped. The Master was spotting the Kid 18 points!
And so the shoot-out began, the Master winding up to serve just as he had in the warmup. Same stance, same motion, same top-spin flick. Aquiver with anticipation, the Kid rolled to his right and cocked his forehand. Only this time the serve shot to the opposite corner and bounced twice before the Kid could untwist himself. "The old Pavlovian setup," snickered one onlooker. Score: the Kid 18, the Master 1.
Wary now, the Kid chopped the ball back until he could position himself for his roundhouse right and then—bam! Instantaneously the Master short-hopped the smash and, like a recruit snapping off a smart salute, drove it back before the Kid had finished his follow-through. The harder the Kid slammed the ball—bam! bam!—the harder it came back. Flustered, the Kid hit a desperation shot that nicked the edge of the table and fell away at an unreturnable angle. The Kid 19, the Master 9.
Then the Master began working the ball from side to side, gradually sharpening the angle until the Kid was lunging and panting heavily. When the Kid retreated, the Master hit wicked drop shots that kicked back into the net. When he charged, the Master bounced bullets off his chest. Diving for one shot, the Kid lifted a soft looper that ticked the net and dribbled over. The Kid 20, the Master 16.
Going for broke, the Kid leaped to his left and hit a veering smash that caught the Master going the wrong way. Without breaking stride, the Master dipped and hit the ball behind his back for a clean winner.
Then, circling under a high lob, the Master swung mightily—and missed. The Kid, stunned and near exhaustion, stumbled backward, skidded and fell. And the Master, reversing his swing in a whippy figure-eight sweep, caught the ball an instant before it struck the table and put it away with a quick backhand slap. Final score: the Master 22, the Kid 20.
The stake money safely pocketed, the Master clapped his arm around the Kid's shoulder and, all sweetness and smooth talk now, offered to sell him the last remaining copy of his book, The Money Player: The Confessions of America's Greatest Table Tennis Champion and Hustler, at "cost"—$6.95. As the Kid dug into his jeans, the Master scribbled on the flyleaf, "18 points any time, any place—you name the stakes. Best wishes always, Marty Reisman."
No matter that the Kid later found a sales slip in the book showing that it was bought at an author's discount of $4, or that the supposedly rare volume came from a stockpile of 1,500 "last remaining copies." Unlike many of the fleeced, the Kid knew he was taking on the game's most celebrated hustler. And to take that plunge is to play by the first rule of the streets: what's fair is what works. Indeed that is part of the lure; if nothing else, the Kid could go away knowing that he had been worked over by the best, that for a few heady moments he had costarred in a hit sideshow that has been running off-Broadway for nearly 20 years.
For Marty Reisman, winner of 17 national and international table tennis titles—and hundreds of big-money bets—the performance served a different need. Like many professional gamblers, he insists that neither the pay nor the play is the thing. Rather, he says, it is the risk, the intrigue, the danger that exhilarates. "Though I need it to get the adrenaline flowing, the money is nothing, the excitement everything," he says. "I never played a game for fun in my life."
Spoken like a true gunslinger—or is that the wily hustler talking? One can never be certain about a "mythic figure," which is what Tim Boggan, editor of the bimonthly Table Tennis Topics, calls Reisman.
"No one plays with the same classical élan," says Boggan. "No one carries the same aura. And no one for sure dresses the same as Marty Reisman. He adds dignity and class to a game that has no dignity and class. Yes, there is the cat burglar side, but he is a Cary Grant cat burglar, the kind of person who operates on both sides of some laws and makes it all seem right because he does it on his own terms. There is no comparable bravado figure in the game today. He is the James Bond of table tennis."
A string of victims extending from Baltimore to Bangkok attests to that. And that's the rub: where once Reisman could set up a mark by posing as a gullible klutz ("Is this the way you hold the paddle?"), his notoriety eventually threatened to become detrimental to his health.
Now 47, Reisman went underground at 96th and Broadway in 1958, the year he won the national championship in both singles and doubles, and holed up as the proprietor of the first of two dungeonlike retreats more formally known as the Riverside Table Tennis Club. And there he has reigned ever since, a subterranean Sultan of Swat who lets the world come to him to be taken.
Reisman's first club, the original house that ruse built, was never strong on the niceties. Interred beneath a movie house and a luncheonette, the motif was sort of Early Subway Station, sweating pipes and all. The floor was so uneven that pieces of broken paddles had to be wedged under the legs of the seven tables.
Little else seemed wholly on the level. Grifters of all stripes hung out at the place, peddling everything from hot diamond rings to a surefire tip on the fifth at Yonkers. Reisman got his slice by running a flea market out of the back room—one big seller was a truckload of the last remaining Mexican bullhorns this side of Tijuana. Caught up in the swim, even the most casual of players turned would-be shark. Newcomers were greeted with cheery greetings like, "I'll give you six points, fish, loser pops for the tab."
The quality of play at Reisman's was intense, the addiction total. There was little human discourse, only the mesmeric plickety-plock-plick, plickety-plock-plick of batted balls. There were no clocks, no windows, no cleansing rays of sunlight. Sweating and grunting in an eerie fluorescent glow, the inmates flailed away like Dante's accursed until someone noticed that the cracks in the door were turning pink. Only then, at dawn's first beckoning, would they leave or, in some cases, bed down on one of the tables.
The mix of players was markedly heterogeneous. If the Melting Pot of the World had an underbelly it was Reisman's. Orientals and Eastern Europeans were predominant, for in those countries table tennis is a major sport, but it helped to know how to keep score in Hindi, Yiddish and Afrikaans as well. Social distinctions were virtually nil. Gauche was measuring the net with a $100 bill (the net is 6" high, a bill 6‚⅛" long); chic was wearing a clean pair of sweat socks. Reisman's had to be the only sporting club in the land where a millionaire shirt king arrived by chauffeured limo to play a barechested black on welfare. Whatever ideological differences Louie the Commie had with the Marquise de St. Cyr, who was the terror of the luxury-liner Ping-Pong circuit, were expressed by their appearance. Louie toted a bag emblazoned PEOPLE NOT PROFITS, the Marquise wore a full-length mink and sneakers.
Housewives traded backhands with U.N. diplomats. Schoolboys took on retired stockbrokers. Cabbies battled paraplegics in wheelchairs. And Reisman, never to be outdone, once played a chimpanzee that wore short pants and stood on a chair. "That ape had a lot of native ability," says Reisman.
The appearance of other celebrity primates—Dustin Hoffman, Art Carney, Bobby Fischer, Walter Matthau, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Zero Mostel—added occasional glitter. Yet for all that, for all its rich Runyonesque flavor, what made Reisman's truly special was not its role in Broadway folklore but its contribution to the game.
In its own wonderfully grubby way the Riverside Table Tennis Club afforded a very vital sense of community to a disenfranchised sports minority. Down in that timeless, all-embracing netherworld, a country that dismissed table tennis as a mere rec-room diversion seemed very far away. The lower depths were symbolic of both that neglect and the irrepressible desire of a group of skilled athletes to excel against the worst of odds.
In time, in fact, Reisman's obscure basement became a Taj Mahal of table tennis in the U.S. On any given night a dozen or more of the nation's top players could be found there. Through a wide range of younger whips right down to the small fry who would just as soon demolish their elders as look at them—if the kid could see over the table—the club was a proving ground for the best table tennis talent in the country. Tim Boggan, who teaches English lit at Long Island University, Brooklyn Center, when not editing Table Tennis Topics, likens the nurturing process at Reisman's to taking a graduate degree in life. "There was the very real feeling," he says, "that you never had to leave that Ping-Pong parlor to find the whole world."
That world came crashing down under the wrecker's ball three years ago, and Reisman suddenly found himself back in the real world. For a year he scuffled around the neighborhood, squeezing the tomatoes at Murray's Market just like the workaday folks and living off a killing he made by importing and selling 96,000 dozen Chinese table tennis balls. He took up golf. Accustomed to rising at 3 p.m., he discovered that his new avocation not only imposed disorientation—i.e., regular hours—but also resulted in a strange affliction, sunburn.
"I didn't mind losing my fluorescent tan," Reisman says. "What hurt was that our whole subculture had disintegrated." A nightshade among sunflowers, he realized. "I had to return to my roots."
Suddenly, early last year, the word was out on the street: Marty was back in action. He simply walked across 96th Street, from the north side to the south side and descended into a remarkably similar sunken chamber beneath a supermarket. He turned on the lights—"Ah, the old fluorescent glow felt good," he says—set up his tables and within a few hours, plickety-plock-plick, the place was swinging.
To reclaim the class players, most of whom had become fixtures at a club of rival stature on West 73rd Street or at a new spot on West 56th, Reisman dusted off his trusty Hock Special and announced that he would take on all comers for as long as will and wallet survived. Dodge City was never more wide open; there were midnight raids, ambushes at dawn and shoot-outs that lasted 18 hours or more. And when the smoke cleared the old Master was still standing, 73rd Street had become a drug rehabilitation center and 56th Street had sold its tables—to Reisman.
Reassuringly, Reisman's II is Reisman's I all over again. Oh, there is a window that extends above street level but not so intrusively as to dispel the old subterranean feel. The trappings are the same right down to the waste can that catches the drippings from the overhead pipes. The walls are adorned with the same faded blowups: Marty and Pope Pius XII, Marty relaxing in front of a pagoda in Hanoi, Marty on a camel before the great Sphinx of Egypt. And the undercover peddlers are not only back in force, but they also have a hot new specialty item hidden under their coats, cut-rate jars of Maxwell House coffee.
Chinese waiters still battle math professors. Richard Holman, editor and publisher of the Wall Street Transcript, is still trying to master the loop drive. And there is still the impressive array of talent, ranging from fiftyish Leah (Ping) Neuberger, a former world mixed doubles champion, to top-rated whizzes like Roger Sverdlik and David Philip, a recent intercollegiate champion.
And of course there is Marty, wheeling, dealing, devilish Marty. No host is more accommodating. What's your pleasure? Depending on your skills—and bankroll—he will play you straight or sitting in a chair. He aims to tease. Casting aside his Hock Special, he will play you with a trash-can lid, a book, a Coke bottle, a light bulb, his horn-rims, his shoe, your shoe—anything that is handy. One skeptic with $500 to burn did not believe there was a man alive who could beat him playing with that electrical conduit cover lying over there. He was wrong.
If Ping-Pong palls, there is always gin, poker, chess, backgammon, Scrabble. You name it and Reisman will produce one of the house specialists, killer sharks all. Arm wrestling has been temporarily suspended because the resident crusher is on a leave of absence necessitated by a three-year prison sentence for bank robbery.
Note to aspiring challengers: the minimum required to get Reisman's "adrenaline flowing" is $100. (Also, beware the coin-tossing dodge. This is not merely the usual and primitive up-against-the-wall stuff. Reisman and crew throw their coins whole blocks, from manhole cover to manhole cover on Broadway between 96th and 97th.) If you are lucky, Reisman will do some of his exhibition routines, like standing a cigarette on end at the far side of the table and then blithely breaking it in two with a forehand smash.
That is a number Reisman perfected while touring with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1949-50 as a halftime attraction. Sergio Osmena Jr., the governor of the island of Cebu in the Philippines, was not aware of Reisman's trick skills when he invited him to his estate for a series of friendly money matches. Otherwise he surely would not have agreed to a divertissement in which the only way Reisman could score was by knocking off a matchbox set up on the governor's side of the table. Compared to the cigarette the matchbox was as vulnerable as J. Arthur Rank's gong, and in no time Reisman rang up a $3,500 lead.
Then Reisman learned a lesson about greed. During a break for a snack of dried monkey meat, one of the governor's aides drew Reisman aside and suggested that, ahem, it might be better for international relations if the host's sporting nature was not taxed to the extreme. Reisman agreed and discreetly threw a few games without endangering his $3,500 bundle.
Afterward, Reisman recalls, "Sergio was almost happy and insisted that I return. Which I did, several times. Take a little, leave a little, I always say. It makes for a longer life and some good long-term investments, too."
Still, he says, the one-shot haul has its allure. Like in a factory loft in Omaha. Adhering to his old adage, "If the money's right, I'll go anywhere," Reisman went to Omaha at the behest of a well-to-do mattress manufacturer who called long distance one day to say, "I'd like you to help me win back $80,000."
Reisman's client, it developed, had lost the money over several months to a local sharpie named Al. Leaving behind his Pierre Cardin wardrobe, Reisman showed up in a baggy seersucker suit, the better to fit his role as a visiting baby-crib salesman. When all was in readiness—net loosened to pick up a dribbler when needed, half a dozen Hock Specials scattered about—the client invited Al over for another go-round in the loft.
"The first rule of hustling is to let your opponent suggest the match," says Reisman, "and when he does you mustn't seem too eager." And so, all but whining and kicking, Reisman ended up behind the table, pleading for a big spot and feigning that he did not know that his client was betting heavily on the outcome. Losing a few, winning a few more—all by close scores and with an array of "lucky" shots—Reisman lured his fish ever deeper into the net.
"The idea," says Reisman, "is to make your opponent think he is hustling you. That's why I've developed a special 'hustler's grip.' I hold the racket the way a thirsty truck driver holds a beer bottle. That way every winner you hit looks so crazy, so completely accidental that the guy is willing to bet anything that you can't do it again."
The Omaha connection netted Reisman $20,600, or one-third of what he won. He also earned a gratifying compliment. "You lucky bastard!" Al snarled at him, just the way Marty hoped he would.
Reisman began compiling his hustler's handbook on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Off and on, his father Morris was a taxi driver, a bookie and a numbers runner. Full time he was a gambler. Once the owner of a fleet of 17 cabs, he lost them all shooting craps and playing cards. Reisman remembers, "I saw my dad lose six taxis during one session of poker." Reisman's mother, a Russian émigrée, left his father when Marty was 10, and it was shortly thereafter that he got hooked on table tennis at a neighborhood settlement house. At 13 he was the city junior champion and a past master at hustling adults whom he met in the parks. He lived with his mother until he was 14, then moved in with his father and became a regular at Lawrence's Broadway Table Tennis Club, a second-floor forerunner of Reisman's I. The bullet holes in the wall behind table No. 5 had been filled in but the action was as whizbang as when it was a speakeasy run by Legs Diamond. The main attraction was the famous Friday night tournaments. As freewheeling as cockfights, they attracted the top players and a gang of high rollers who could zero in on the point spreads as deftly as they did on the brass spittoons.
"It was the best training possible," says Reisman. "The gambling sharpened you, forced you to correct the distortions in your stroke and throw out all the garbage that didn't work. Because if you didn't, you were busted for the night."
Not all the lessons learned were acceptable to the straight world. At the 1945 U.S. championships Reisman advanced to the quarterfinals and then went looking for his bookie. "I'd been laying with the same guy on the tournament all week," he says. "I didn't have much time so I walked up to this guy who looked like him and handed him $500 and said, 'Put it on me.' It was Steenhoven!" Graham Steenhoven, the very proper—and very shocked—president of the United States Table Tennis Association. Though Reisman's tender years—he was 15—saved him from being suspended from the USTTA, he was escorted from the hall by two uniformed cops.
At 16, the "bad boy of Ping-Pong," as Reisman came to be known, won the national junior title and a year later qualified for the three-man U.S. team at the 1948 world championships in London. When he stepped off the Queen Elizabeth, he was hardly an innocent abroad. His bags were stuffed with nylon stockings. And while he unloaded the contraband for five times what he paid for it, it was a mere drop in what was to become a very big bucket.
"Smuggling never bothered me," Reisman says. "Table tennis players have to survive on their wiles. A player who depended on exhibition fees could starve. The top players were either gamblers, smugglers or both. I had already won more than 175 trophies but I couldn't eat them."
Dubbed the Needle because of his build—or lack of one—Reisman and his kill shot were quite literally the big hit of the tournament. Once clocked at 115 mph, the forehand kill was part of a new style of high-speed attack—slamming the ball an instant after it struck the table—which Reisman developed at Lawrence's. He called the new offense fast-hit; the postwar London press called his slam the Atomic Blast.
Though he lost to Britain's Richard Bergmann, the five-time world champ, in a spectacular final before a crowd of 10,000, the acclaim convinced Reisman that at 17 there were worlds far beyond the bounds of Lawrence's to conquer. As a finishing school, however, Lawrence's had international stature. For the 1949 world championships in Stockholm, the U.S. team was not only wholly composed of Friday night all-stars—Reisman, Dick Miles and Doug Cartland—but was also ranked No. 2 in the world.
In between hawking ball-point pens and stocking up on Orrefors crystal to smuggle back into the U.S., Reisman made it all the way to the semifinals of the Stockholm world championships, a feat equaled by only one other American, Lou Pagliaro, a fellow Lawrence's graduate. A week later Reisman went to London's Wembley Stadium and, hitting an occasional ball between his legs, became the only American ever to win the British Open.
Reisman's showmanship served him well when he and U.S. teammate Doug Cartland spent the next three years touring with the Globetrotters. At one-nighters in Alabama, where the Trotters were forced to ride in the back of a bus, and before 75,000 people in West Berlin's Olympia Stadium, the Reisman-Cartland act was a smash, for never before had anyone seen two men play with five balls at once or, using pots and pans as paddles, bang out the melody of Mary Had a Little Lamb.
But that was strictly amateur-hour fare compared to the show-stopper performed by a Japanese trickster at the 1952 world championships in Bombay. He was Hiroji Satoh, a small, unassuming, pigeon-toed man. First the great Bergmann and then Reisman lost to Satoh by humiliating scores, completely befuddled by a new paddle covered with a one-inch slab of foam rubber. Slams rebounded off Satoh's sponge racket as if fired from a slingshot, whiffleballing every which way with all kinds of bewildering spins. More confounding still, the novel racket was a weapon with a built-in silencer; it made no sound whatsoever.
"Like Willie Mays taking off at the crack of the bat," Reisman explains, "we were all conditioned to react to the sound of the racket hitting the ball. But with Satoh that was impossible. Suddenly, we were all deaf-mutes in a game that required dialogue."
Satoh won the 1952 world championship and Reisman the world consolation round. But the game was forever changed and there was no making up for that. Or was there? It took some maneuvering but during the next few months Reisman and Cartland pursued an elaborate scheme of revenge.
They were the original odd couple. Reisman, just 22, was already into his $100-silk-shirt mode. Cartland, 15 years older and a drawling North Carolinian, was of a more frugal bent. "Doug lived on scrambled eggs and water," says Reisman. "He was always arguing with waiters, bellhops and taxi drivers about money, always saving his laundry until we got to Kuala Lumpur or somewhere because the prices were cheaper there. Once, when I forgot to bring my sneakers to a match, Doug gave me an extra pair of his—for a 50¢ rental fee."
By hook and a little crook the dauntless duo worked their way from Bombay through the Far East playing exhibitions, hustling when they could and going hungry when they couldn't. Eventually, they had the wherewithal to fly to Tokyo and publicly challenge Satoh and Nobi Hayashi, a world doubles champion, to a U.S.-Japan showdown. Promoted by a Japanese manufacturer who paid the Americans to endorse a line of Reisman-Cartland balls, the match was held on the stage of a movie theater in Osaka. There were 50,000 requests for tickets but only 5,000 fans were able to squeeze in. The matches, which were broadcast over a national radio hookup, were decided by the final encounter in singles between Reisman and Satoh.
Pushing the ball back to minimize the ricochet effect of Satoh's sponge, Reisman picked his slam shots judiciously and split the first two games. The third game seesawed dramatically until Satoh, trailing 17-15, sent Reisman racing back 20 feet to return one, two, three banzai slams in a row. But when Satoh missed on his fourth put-away attempt, his concentration snapped and Reisman ran out the game to win 21-15.
Satoh, suffering from a bad case of lost face, was driven to sake and never appeared again in international play. Reisman and Cartland rolled on, first and most expeditiously to Taiwan where they sold 200 gross of their dual-signature balls for a $5,700 profit.
What started out as a gypsy road show soon developed into a prolonged caper with overtones of Terry and the Pirates. Getting about was no problem. In return for playing exhibitions at U.S. bases in the Near and Far East, Reisman and Cartland were given free air transportation on military flights. It was a heady whirl. They played a command performance for King Farouk of Egypt, gave lessons to President Magsaysay of the Philippines and, after lunching with Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, they flew off in the royal helicopter to tour the ruins of Angkor Wat.
And always, wherever they went, there were wealthy table tennis patrons eager to arrange money matches. One late-night session in the spring of 1954 found Reisman and Cartland playing in the ballroom of a mansion in French-occupied Hanoi while bombers roared overhead and mortars thumped in the distance. Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh the day after they left, but they managed to escape with their winnings and 200 bottles of Arp√®ge perfume.
Because their military flights were not subject to customs inspections, smuggling and trading on the black market came easily. Inevitably perhaps, Reisman succumbed to the offer of a Chinese profiteer to cash in on a golden opportunity. So there Reisman was, 135 pounds of seeming innocence, stepping off a plane at Hong Kong's Kai Tek Airport on an in-transit stop from Tokyo. And there, one hour and a quick spin on the Kowloon ferry later, he went, 156 pounds of foreign intrigue, reboarding the plane for Rangoon. He had picked up and was carrying, in a muslin vest tightly corseted to his body and covered by a latex bathing suit, three 24-karat gold bars.
Reisman made many such runs, each one earning him $1,000 and giving him a few heart-stopping moments. He hung up his muslin vest after 25 missions and, wearing two dozen Rolex watches under his bolero sleeves, returned to New York in 1957. But his plaint, "I'm better known in Singapore than I am here," was all too true. There simply wasn't much call for retired gold smugglers. "I was 27 and had never worked a day in my life," he says. "The question was what to do?"
In a reckless fling at respectability, Reisman took a job as a shoe clerk at B. Altman's department store but was fired after four weeks for failing to faithfully report at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m. Undaunted, he got married in 1958, bought the Riverside Table Tennis Club for $6,000 and two years later fathered a daughter.
By then virtually every tournament player was wielding a fancy sponge racket and had a whole new arsenal of spin shots that had totally revamped the game. As it has evolved, the "sandwich bat," layered with generous slices of foam and rubber, does indeed resemble a Dagwood concoction. By contrast, Reisman's Hock Special, covered only by a thin slice of pimpled rubber, looks like a bread-line handout.
Yet in the eyes of the maestro it is the "Stradivarius of bats," a five-ply master-work that is handmade by an Indiana artisan named Bernard Hock. Though at a distinct disadvantage, Reisman has steadfastly refused to switch to sponge because, he says, "I feel I'd be prostituting a talent that I devoted a lifetime to learning. The sponge offends my dignity."
Nonetheless, he did manage to get in one last defiant lick when he advanced to the finals of the 1960 U.S. championships and a confrontation with Bobby Gusikoff, the defending titleholder. Reisman says, "I knew I didn't have a chance against Bobby and his sponge, especially since I'd lost a money match to him the night before. So I picked up a sponge in self-defense and won the championship in three straight games without raising a bead of sweat. There was no sense of struggle, nothing. I tossed the sponge aside and haven't touched one since."
Nor will he, for with that grandiloquent gesture he set the stage for his ongoing role as the "last representative of the great classical age of table tennis." "To play with the hard rubber racket is to be in communion with the ball," says Reisman. "Unlike the sponge, it lets you experience each stroke, each vibration, until the tone and feel of the racket become part of your neurological system. And it makes such a lovely sound—plickety-plock, plickety-plock. In the old days you went looking for tournaments with your ears. All you had to do was stop for a moment and listen—plickety-plock, plickety-plock."
Fated to listen to the sound of silence, separated from his wife in 1964 and divorced four years later, Reisman has taken to running tournaments and giving exhibitions. He also does TV guest shots (on one show host Don Rickles wailed, "Look at that body! Would someone please go buy this guy a hot meal!"). And, of course, he keeps playing at his place, where, alas, he sometimes loses to the likes of Danny Seemiller, the reigning U.S. champion.
Throughout, he continues to rail against the state of table tennis. "What they call a technological advance is really a setback for the spectator," Reisman says. "In the pre-sponge era the ball crossed the net an average of 30 times on each point. The strategy, the entrapments, the players, could be understood and enjoyed by everyone. Today the ball rarely crosses the net more than four times. Points are scored with contorted strokes and imperceptible twists of the wrists that defy appreciation. Table tennis used to have an esthetic quality about it. Now everything is based on confusing your opponent. They've turned a sport into a game."
Reisman could be dismissed as a bitter man, save for the fact that he is not alone in his appraisal. Indeed, a case could be made that table tennis has been more radically changed by technology than any other sport. Changed for better or worse is at the very least debatable. What is not is the dramatic alteration of virtually every aspect of the sport, including the two-hour struggles that once were common in world-class play. In 1955, just three years after Satoh shuffled the world rankings almost overnight, Japan's Kideo Tanaka used the new sponge racket to win the world title in three straight games that lasted only 12 minutes.
The years since have seen all manner of variations on the sponge racket. Reisman's claim that the games being played with the new bats are bloodless was given some credence when, after a long absence from the tournament scene, he agreed to enter the 1972 nationals. Crowds gathered whenever he competed and, for one featured encounter, 10 players neglected to play, instead watching the old warrior fight his version of trench warfare. At the time, columnist Murray Kempton wrote, "To come upon Reisman is like finding some perfect specimen of a lost classic age, thin as a blade, the step a matador's, the stroke a kitten's."
More heartening for Reisman was his appearance this June at the U.S. Open in Hollywood where he was given top billing in a newly created event for hard rubber rackets. He was his old showboating self, tossing $100 bills under the table and shouting out, "$2,000 to $40 I can take this guy." Though he lost a five-game thriller to Ray Guillen, 21, in the semifinals, Reisman drew the largest galleries and upstaged the spongers at every turn. Afterward he was given a special award that cited his "legendary career" and lauded him as "one of the most electrifying of world-class players." Later he allowed, "If I practiced and didn't smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, I'd be a superman at this game."
Spurred by the tournament's success, other hard-rubber productions starring Reisman are in the offing. As for The Money Player, which has been sold to the movies, Reisman figures he will let some stand-in do his cocked-cap routines on the screen. "I think Bob DeNiro could do it right," he says.
Surveying the world from his basement recently, Reisman observed, "I haven't reached my potential yet. People keep saying, 'Reisman leads a gifted life. He gets all the girls, a book, a movie.' But it's true, I think. I mean, here I am at an age when most sports figures are forgotten, and my star's still rising. It's like my first rule of gambling. I only bet on a sure thing—myself."
The odds do seem tipped in his favor. Not too long ago Reisman saw some halfway decent office furniture being discarded on the street. As he stood there pondering whether he should call his friend Willis the Trucker to make a haul, a man walked up and asked him if he wanted to sell the furniture. Quick as a fast-hit slam, Reisman sold it to him for $100.
Final note to would-be challengers: don't bet against Reisman. But if you must, if your sporting blood is up, well, pack your TSP Black Ace or electrical conduit cover, whatever your preference, and take the subway to 96th and Broadway. Marty will be waiting for you. If you don't know where his place is, just stop and listen—plickety-plock-plick, plickety-plock-plick.