The morning loomed cloudy and cold which might have darkened my mood if the day’s activity was scheduled outdoors.  Luckily, I was entered in a ping pong tournament (what serious players call “table tennis”) inside a local sporting goods store.  Though there were only ten participants, an impressive cross-section of the population was represented, from age ten to seventy, with players born in, or derived from Korea, China, Japan, Russia, Egypt and Nigeria.

Ping pong has been an interest of mine since childhood when my older brothers taught me the game in a densely-packed basement.  The limited space helped me develop a style steeped in spins and angles rather than power.  I spent more time working on my game during college and law school than on several academic subjects.  Fortunately, except for the recurring nightmare that I am playing a match when I realize that a final exam has taken place without me, passion for ping pong no longer adversely affects my life.

Most of my ping pong existence continues to take place in the basement of my home.  My son, Sam, can now beat me, but my subterranean record against non-family members is dominant.  It is a mixed blessing to have a talented child — a source of pride but, also, a source of defeats.  Since Sam was out of town on the day of this tournament, the chance to play for prize money without him was appealing.

Unfortunately, this being ping pong, the prizes were not provided by a corporate sponsor or a wealthy benefactor.  Each player put $20 into a pot with the winner slated to take $100 and the second, third and fourth place finishers receiving lesser amounts.  As they warmed up and stretched, I observed the competition:  there was Moustapha, a teenaged lefty; Scott, a forty-year-old dentist, who I learned was the defending champion; two retirees best described as old and older; a ten-year-old from China and his older brother; and, three middle-aged men who I learned work in various scientific labs at local universities.  The youngsters, in particular, were of concern.  It was clear their classic, smooth strokes were honed by professional instruction, not from merely avoiding the washer and dryer.

My first round match was against Jin, a post-doc at Duke, recently arrived from Seoul.  He said he hadn’t played competitively in twenty years, as subsequently verified by his shaky performance.   Next up was the older guy, a crafty player, but he, too, succumbed to my twists and turns.  The third round was against the older Chinese youngster, who turned out to be surprisingly weak.  After three comfortable victories, the dentist loomed.  Can I say that playing him was like having root canal?

Scott could spin and Scott could slam.  Scott could serve and Scott could trash-talk.  Who would have thought?  He looked like an ordinary, mild-mannered guy, but he hooted and hollered with each triumphant swing, and asked if I wanted to concede after warm-ups, before we played.  Somehow, his delivery of such lines with a smile was disarming.  It was apparent that it was “all in good fun.”  Yet, there can be a value in placing doubt in an opponent’s mind, especially in a sport that requires deft touch and fast decision-making.

I stayed close to Scott, and even won one game in the best-of-five match, but Scott’s victory was never in doubt.  He was simply better than I was in every aspect of the game, and I despaired of ever beating him.  On the strength of my 3-1 match record, however, I finished second in my flight and qualified for the semi-finals.  I expected that, if I could beat the first-place finisher from the other flight, I would lose honorably to Scott in the final.  It did not occur to me that someone else could beat him.

We played our semi-final matches on side-by-side tables, Scott against Moustapha, and me against the ten-year-old named Xiao.  How was it that a person barely taller than the table had finished in first place in the other flight?  Apparently, he earned his spot by surprising Moustapha in his first match, when Moustapha was over-confident, then clobbering three grown men with superior strokes.  I gazed at him with confidence – I can hit the corners well, and his reach is minimal – but, still, I was concerned.  Xiao was TEN, and losing to him would make quite a story (though I cannot promise I would write it).

As the match proceeded, I was increasingly impressed with the youngster.  Not only was he “cute” in his little red tee-shirt and glasses, but his strokes were pure.  His attitude was positive, even when the tide turned against him.  I realized Xiao was more mature than I when it came to adversity and I was ashamed of my comparative churlishness.  I decided to emulate him.  If I missed a shot, instead of grumbling and groaning or mumbling a barely contained profanity, as is my tendency, I tried to remain calm and to look forward to the next point.  Xiao was an inspiration.

Gradually, I confirmed that, despite his talent, Xiao was not able to reach short shots.  Also, he preferred to hit hard and straight.   Accordingly, I offered him diagonal spins and hit slower and slower.  I won three games in a row despite of a cohort of eight-year-old fans that gathered to watch and root loudly for “the little kid.”  I rationalized my victory as a learning experience for him and, for a while, I did not feel badly.  After all, he will have many decades of victories – he didn’t need one against me.  When the match ended, he graciously reached up to shake my hand and appeared to have accepted defeat with composure.  A few minutes later, when I saw him being consoled in his mother’s lap, I felt a pang of remorse, but turned my attention to the neighboring table.

Somehow, Moustapha was polishing off a victory against my nemesis, Scott.  I wish I had seen how he did it, but regardless, I was relieved.  Opportunity was knocking!  I was going to play another youngster, albeit a full-sized one, who hit hard and liked speed.  “No problem,” I told myself.  Having learned from playing Xiao, I suspected that Moustapha might not like maddeningly slow shots.  I am not afraid to admit that junk shots are a major part of my repertoire.  Add in a few head-fakes and mid-point hand-changes, both rarely seen in ping pong, and Moustapha was mine.

The match was not as easy as implied above, but I prevailed in five games.  I am delighted to report I have forfeited my amateur status. $100 will buy a lot of ping pong balls.  Thank you, Sam, for being away;  thank you, Moustapha, for beating Scott; and,  thank you, Xiao, for showing me how to behave.