Will Shortz and Robert Roberts volley at Westchester Table Tennis Center.
For many of us, a mention of Ping-Pong elicits flashbacks to lazy days spent over a basement or garage table trying to spike a serve against a younger sibling or desperately trying to return one from an older sibling. For me, it was in the basement of my grandparents’ Cape Cod house on rainy summer days when the ocean didn’t exactly invite a dip, and, I must say, I thought I was a pretty decent player. For most of us outside the Olympic set, however, table tennis, as the sport is generically known, doesn’t conjure up visions of intense competition or athletic prowess.
With these memories—and, let’s face it, pre-judgments—in mind, I set off to visit Westchester Table Tennis Center (175 Tompkins Ave, Pleasantville, 914-741-0738; westchestertabletennis.com), this time on a chilly winter night, to see if the notion I had about table tennis as a boredom-deterring leisure activity could be proven wrong.
It could, and was, almost immediately. While I’ve never considered table tennis intimidating before, arriving to see 20 to 30 men volleying fiercely, all deeply engrossed in their games, and all seemingly experts, was a bit daunting. The facility itself, a former warehouse open since 2011 and owned by New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, is managed by Barbados native and champion table-tennis player Robert Roberts and is about as far from a basement rec room as you can get. With 14,000 square feet of space and 19 tables available for play, Westchester Table Tennis Center is the largest center of its kind in the United States.
Despite its pedigree, getting the chance to play here is as simple as walking in. The club offers both yearly memberships ($350 for 12 months of unlimited play) and drop-in rates ($10 for the day). Kids’ and teens’ classes and leagues are also offered on certain weekdays and weekends.
Accessibility is one of the best things about the club, Shortz says; whether you’re a beginner or an expert, you can still find someone to match your ability, or hop in with someone of a higher caliber to hone your skills. Shortz himself is about as approachable as he is
smart (that’s weekend-New-York-Times-crossword-level smart), casually making his way among members, playing anyone who asks. The link between his career in crosswords and his passion for table tennis is not as convoluted as you might expect. “They’re both puzzles,” says Shortz, “and involve a lot of strategy.”
As it turns out, table tennis has a certain way of bringing people of all backgrounds together. According to Shortz, the club’s roughly 200 members represent 25 different countries. Member Akmal Makhmudov, a 38-year-old Hartsdale resident who originally hails from Uzbekistan, trained to play table tennis as a child. While it’s very popular elsewhere in the world, says Makhmudov, in the United States table tennis is often “considered to be just a funny game and not something serious.” His work for the United Nations means he travels frequently, but, when he’s at home, he visits the club two or three nights a week. “It’s a game I expect to play well into my retirement,” he says. “It’s a nice alternative to regular gym activities and it’s not expensive—all you need is a modest club membership and a racket, which varies in price from $3 to $500.”