Marty Reisman said that, for him, playing table tennis was like going out on a robbery. The bat was his gun and before you knew it he’d be off with the cash. “I took on people in the gladiatorial spirit,” he told The New York Times in 2012, aged 82. “Never backed down from a bet.”
A born hustler, Reisman grew up in the New York slums, supporting himself from the age of 14. He always had the upper hand, on and off the table. His patter was powerful, his threads as sharp as his game. Both reflected his modus operandi: he always presented the ultimate version of himself, never displaying weakness (unless that’s what he wanted you to think, before decimating you across the net).
People flocked to him whenever he left his apartment, both those in the know and in awe of his skills, and the blissfully unaware who just wanted a piece of his action. He had everyone in the palm of his hand, whether they wanted to be there or not.
Reisman never stopped hustling, and never stopped playing. He was holder of 23 national and international table tennis titles, including the 1949 English Open and the 1958 and 1960 US Men’s Singles. In 1997, at the age of 67, he won the US National Hardbat Championship. But his story is about so much more than titles and trophies.
“It’s not just that Marty has a legendary forehand or the greatest drop shot ever seen on the face of the earth,” wrote Harold Evans, former Editor of The Sunday Times and Reisman groupie, in 2005. “He has all these things, but he’s also a master raconteur and rhetorician. His wit is as delicious as his drop shot.”
Here, then, was a poster boy and a superstar of the game. Reisman saw table tennis as a sport for the people. As founder and president of Table Tennis Nation, which encourages communal aspects of ping-pong both on and offline, he democratised the game and gave it currency.
From pop-up tables in city squares to Boris Johnson waffling about wiff-waff, table tennis has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, with a new breed of trendy, stylish venues exemplified by Spin New York, co-owned by Susan Sarandon and featuring a private lounge named Marty’s, in honour of Reisman. He was, after all, the man responsible for the sport’s renaissance.
Reisman himself was always learning, always analysing, always refining. He ignored old age, scoffed at the concept of death and prized immortality above all else. “I have no plans to retire,” he said in 2012. “They’ll have to carry me off the table.”
Director Leo Leigh had met him a couple of years earlier, having been told about “this amazing ping-pong hustler, a real New York character with a thousand stories”. As Leigh recalls: “We called him that night and he said, ‘Well, what are you doing now? Meet me at this address.’ Even that had a hustler vibe to it. So we went.”
Over the next three years, Leigh visited Reisman often, listening to those thousand stories but going far beyond them, too. He wanted to get to the man behind the myth. The resulting film, Fact or Fiction: The Life and Times of a Ping-Pong Hustler, is an intimate, affectionate, eccentric portrait of the game’s greatest showman.
Reisman was born in New York’s Lower East Side in 1930, and the myth-building began soon afterwards. He discovered table tennis at hospital, he maintained, after having a nervous breakdown at the age of nine. Panicking that he might die, he had screamed aloud during a school assembly, and was sent to Bellevue, a psychiatric institution, where he picked up a bat for the first time.
Another story involved him being introduced to the game aged 12 at a local settlement house. According to the tale, he saw his brother playing in the gym, had a go himself, and never looked back (“I hit the ball a couple of times and I knew that this was it”).
At 14, following his parents’ divorce, Marty moved out of his mother’s home to live with his cab-driving father at the Broadway Central Hotel. Reisman Sr was a compulsive gambler who once owned a fleet of 17 cabs, losing many of them in poker games. His son followed in his footsteps, table-tennis hustling from the off.
Bored of the level of competition he found in parks and basements, he discovered a home from home at Lawrence’s Broadway Table Tennis Club, a former speakeasy run by Irish American gangster “Legs” Diamond. There, he said, paedophiles would take boys home if they lost, and bullet holes from the venue’s glory days peppered the walls. It was there that Reisman would build his reputation, winning cash from far more experienced older players.
Aged 18, he got himself to the 1948 World Championships staged at Wembley Arena (then the Empire Pool), where a crowd of 10,000 saw him put Austrian/British player Richard Bergmann through his paces. Reisman lost, but won over the audience. “His forehand drive was the most explosive shot in the game,” reported Sports Illustrated, “and during the 1948 Worlds the crack of his bat echoed all over the hall.” The media christened his 115mph forehand smash the “Atomic Blast”.
Reisman was at once introduced to the world as a maverick. The following year, he won the British Open, but unimpressed by the accommodation they’d been squeezed into, he and his teammates charged luxury hotel rooms to the United States Table Tennis Association, which subsequently fined and suspended him.
Reisman and his teammate Doug Cartland responded by going on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters for three years, wowing stadium crowds with dog-and-pony shows, playing with five balls at once, as well as playing Mary Had a Little Lamb with frying pans for paddles. (Later Reisman tricks included using a Coke bottle as a bat, and standing a cigarette on end at one side of the table, and breaking it in two with a ball served from the other.)
In 1952, he was to play a match that would signify both his downfall and regeneration. Author and journalist Howard Jacobson, another Reisman super fan, notes in Leigh’s film that every hero needs something bad to happen to him, and 1952 made Reisman. In Bombay, pitted against Japan’s Hiroji Satoh in the World Championships, he found himself playing against an opponent wielding a silent sponge bat, which allowed Satoh to impart enormous levels of spin. Accustomed to both the sound and feel of the classic hardbat, Reisman lost the match.
The sponge bat, he later said, was “a diabolical contrivance... true evil in its worst form”. From then on, he announced table tennis had lost its spirit. It just wasn’t ping-pong without a hardbat, he argued, and the hardbat was what he would continue to use, forging new trails, pioneering his own movement.
In 1958, he bought the Riverside Table Tennis Club for $6,000, renaming it Reisman’s. Here, on the intersection of Broadway and West 96th Street, he became king, hosting legendary all-nighters in this gloriously smoky underground nirvana. Open sundown to sunrise, the club was a world unto itself, the epicentre of a subculture at its peak.
As Sports Illustrated wrote: “Housewives traded backhands with UN 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.” Dustin Hoffman, Bobby Fischer, Walter Matthau and Kurt Vonnegut Jr were among those who dropped by, to catch a glimpse of Reisman who would appear from the shadows, dressed to kill and ready to obliterate all comers for cash.
Reisman’s is where its owner became bigger than the game he championed — and larger than life. “Everyone thinks they’re immortal,” he says in Leigh’s film. “You can beat the rap. I got my whole future to think about, why should I think about death? That’s in direct conflict with my future, which is about to blossom.”
By this point, he was past 80, but age meant nothing to him. He was still evolving his skills, still on the hustle, still hitting on girls. He had gained and lost fortunes but, wearing the tailor-made suits he’d bought on Savile Row when he still had mountains of cash, he still managed to project wealth and health, even though he was ill.
“He was good at constantly putting on a face,” says Leigh, who grew close to him over the years. “I admire him for that.”
Leigh recalls that often he’d arrange to meet Reisman, and would still be waiting in the lobby of his apartment an hour later. After finally appearing, he’d sometimes say he had to go back upstairs for something, and would be another 45 minutes. What was he doing up there?
“He was rewriting his book,” says Leigh. Reisman’s autobiography, The Money Player: The Confessions of America’s Greatest Table Tennis Champion And Hustler (1972) had been ghost-written, and over the years he rewrote it constantly, improving on it, updating it, forever perpetuating the myth and mocking reality.
When we first encounter Reisman in the film he is walking with the aid of a cain. Playing on the image we might expect of an 80-year-old, he hobbles around for a few seconds before discarding it. “He didn’t need that cane,” laughs Leigh. “He got it out of nowhere and just decided to do this performance for camera.”
Even back in 1999, in a Table Tennis News profile on Reisman, Howard Jacobson recalled a conversation with Jackie Mason, who had commented on how terrific it was that Reisman was still going. “I think it’s more than terrific,” replied Jacobson. “I think it’s remarkable. Most people his age can’t even walk straight, and he’s doing somersaults round a table.”
Reisman just never stopped. “He is the fatal Odysseus you have to follow beyond the sunset,” wrote Jacobson. “Succeed or fail, just one more voyage.”
So did Marty Reisman Jr view fame as a way of achieving immortality? “Absolutely,” replies Leigh. “Perhaps it was a subconscious thing but I think that rewriting his book, wanting to be photographed, talking about his career and legacy… The room they put together for him in [Susan Sarandon’s club] Spin — that was so important to him because he knew that when he died it would still be there.
Everything for him was about securing the fact that things would carry on after he passed away. And although he was an amazing table tennis player, for me the things that are interesting about him aren’t about that.” He died in December 2012, aged 82.
Today, in Spin, you’ll find various godlike images of Reisman greeting new generations of players, including a huge portrait of him in leopard-print trousers. When Leigh would go to Spin with Reisman, he says, everybody would want a photo with him: “He just had this charisma.”
Hollywood wanted him, too. In the 1970s, Reisman’s book was optioned for a feature film. “I think Bob De Niro could do it right,” he told Sports Illustrated at the time. A film was never made, although with Reisman’s reputation still on the rise, it seems increasingly likely that one could yet get the go ahead. Leigh suggests Adrien Brody as Reisman, which seems about right.
Not that Marty Reisman ever needed any external help to create his own legend. He worked on that himself at every available opportunity. In 1977, one reader, having often frequented Lawrence’s Broadway Table Tennis Club in the 1940s, wrote to Sports Illustrated to correct something in their previous issue’s profile.
“My recollection is that the bullet holes were behind table No. 7, not No. 5,” he wrote. The editor reached out to Reisman for clarification. “To my friend and ever-gracious victim John Read,” wrote Reisman. “I can only humbly suggest that the pockmarks in the wall behind table No. 7 were not made by bullets, but by my forehand blasts.”
Fact or Fiction: The Life and Times Of A Ping-Pong Hustler is out now to rent or buy as a digital and VOD release. Details at factorfiction-movie.com
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