Guido's love for spinning a feather-weight ball takes him from his local Ping-Pong club, populated by idiosyncratic players with extraordinary stories to tell, to training drills with a world-class coach. This seemingly harmless game also leads him into sticky situations in the CIA headquarters and the ganglands of Washington, DC. Woven throughout his Ping-Pong epiphany are philosophical ruminations on Plato and Aristotle, metaphysicians and empiricists, Jung's dark shadow, Sun Tzu's war tactics, the I Ching, and much more.
As Guido's journey takes him from Big Sur to a nail-biting showdown in China against a string of elite players, he finds Ping-Pong can teach us a surprising amount about life.
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The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong
Table Tennis as a Journey of Self-Discovery
By Guido Mina di Sospiro
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2015 Guido Mina di Sospiro
All rights reserved.
True Beginnings, and Shock and Awe
My full-blown obsession with ping-pong began four years ago with the semi-epic road trip. Semi because my original idea was to drive during the summer from Washington, DC, to where we had moved, all the way to California and back, with two teenage sons in tow. But then my wife, Stenie, decided that we'd fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico, rent a car there, and drive all over the southwest, eventually into Southern California, and then north to San Francisco, where we'd drop off the car and fly back.
The boys, glued to their smartphones, texted with abandon or dozed through most of the natural wonders, only to wake up in Las Vegas and keep wide awake in LA and Santa Barbara and all the way north along the precipitous Pacific Coast Highway in anticipation of San Francisco.
In Big Sur we chanced upon the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which instantly rang a bell. I hadn't forgotten how much the writer had amused me with his "forbidden book" Tropic of Cancer, engaged me with The Colossus of Maroussi, and surprised me, later on, with certain passages in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. And here we were in Big Sur.
I should have been content with the awe-inspiring redwoods, the writer's memorabilia, and the welcoming and quirky people at the library. My wife was. But in the shade of the towering trees I could not miss a ping-pong table. "Yes," a young librarian told me when I asked her about it, "Henry Miller was a good player. Back in 1963, for example, when he met with Bob Dylan, well ... they didn't really hit it off."
"No. Henry found Dylan arrogant, and Dylan found Henry patronizing. But guess what? They did play ping-pong. Ping-pong has always attracted clever people, you know?"
I didn't, but it was flattering to the sport and nice to hear.
"For example," she continued, "when the composer Arnold Schoenberg moved from Austria to Hollywood to escape from the Nazis, he used to play ping-pong with his neighbor, George Gershwin. In fact, Schoenberg used to go around with a violin case, only in it was no violin but a ping-pong bat."
How about that, I thought. All this talk about ping-pong had definitively whetted my appetite. "Would it be possible to play a little?" I asked, pointing at the table in the distance.
"Sure. Here, take these bats, and here's the ball."
"Thank you," I said, looking at a more than ordinarily beaten-up ball and two vintage hardbats with their rubbers half peeled off.
"Excuse me," I said, "but these wouldn't by chance be the bats Henry Miller himself played with?"
"Oh no, they couldn't be that old."
They certainly looked it, but never mind. It seemed only natural that I should challenge Pietro, our then eighteen-year-old son. He accepted the challenge with a smirk on his face. We'll see about that in a minute, I thought.
As we reached the table, I took a better look at the hardbats. A hardbat is a racket that uses short outward pimples ("pips") with no sponge between the rubber and the wood of the blade. As it belongs to a much earlier era in the history of the sport, I had never played with it. Didn't somebody say, "Never play unless you have your own racket?" Maybe, but why so much caution? I would beat Pietro easily and teach him a lesson, too.
The match began and quickly went downhill for me. I was trying my spinny serves, but to no avail. My backspinned chops, too, seemed to have no effect on his returns. My top-spins had nothing on them. He, on the other hand, didn't bother with any fancy movement but simply hammered the poor ball whenever he could. He easily won the first game.
As for the second game, he was leading by a wide margin despite all my efforts when with one of his smashes he cracked the ball. I took the hint. Instead of asking the librarian for another one, I just returned the bats.
"Why didn't you ask her for another ball? I'd play on," Pietro said.
"Nah, that's enough."
"Fine by me, but this means you withdrew from the match, so I've won."
"Yes, yes, you've won."
Indeed, he and the redwoods had had the last laugh: he had beaten me, and he had taught me a lesson. With his no-nonsense, flat ping-pong, he had easily done away with all my attempts at spin. The orange ball had kept dodging me, as if Henry Miller himself had been throwing the oranges of Hieronymus Bosch — the visionary and wild Early Netherlandish painter — at me, but only rarely close enough for my decrepit bat to make contact. But Pietro's bat was just as decrepit; I had no excuse.
Shamed in defeat, I didn't contemplate hara-kiri, but I did wonder how on earth I could have lost. It seemed inconceivable given my experience, but he'd beaten me soundly. Whatever — it was time to drive on, and I left it at that, or so I thought.
A month later I had a routine checkup at the doctor's, and the diagnosis was high blood pressure. Not uncommon in men of my age, but still something that needed my attention. Physical exercise was prescribed. Physical exercise? I'd never liked it in the least, but I did like walking.
"Walking is fine," said the doctor. "Make it a couple of miles a day if you can, and walk briskly."
Walking on a treadmill was the most efficient and precise way to follow up on the doctor's recommendation, but, as it turned out, it was also dehumanizing. The more miles I walked without arriving anywhere, the more I felt like a mule pulling a grindstone around endlessly. Still, I needed to exercise. What to do?
Apart from skiing, the only sport I had enjoyed in my youth was ping-pong. They are at the opposite ends of the scale: the former being one of the most expensive sports and the latter, one of the cheapest. Skiing is seasonal and can hardly be practiced every day, even when in season. Ping-pong is much more manageable. It can be played all year round, and I still hadn't really metabolized the beating my son had given me in California. But I'd learned that buying a table and setting it up at home wouldn't work. No, I needed a place in which people were eager to play. My son Nico suggested I consult the popular oracle — Google — for the nearest ping-pong place. I did and was given the address of a community center nearby. I asked Nico to accompany me. There we went — and stepped into a circus.
The characters clustered around three tables: half a dozen Chinese men in their late twenties, thirties, and forties, all with a very strong accent. A taciturn — or mute? — Iranian in his sixties, thickset and perfectly bald, with a racket that harked back to the 1940s, much like the ones at Henry Miller's place (that is, one side of it did, as I eventually discovered; the other side was something entirely different, but at the time I couldn't know that). A Russian jock, dressed in vest and shorts like a teenager but with a thick crown of grey hair. A few Americans, with two college students among them, one beset by physical tics. And to top it all, a Cuban in his late seventies, thin as a rake, who played as if glued to the table to obtain maximum result from minimum effort. Later, I was to learn that he is a man of letters; the treasurer of the North American Academy of the Spanish Language; a corresponding member of the Royal Spanish Academy; a member of the Academy of the History of Cuba; and a grandson of the poetess Emilia Bernal Agüero, the grand dame of Cuban literature. Back then, bony, angular, and sinister looking, he reminded me of a character I had met in my childhood in the Italian comic book Zagor — Hellingen, the quintessence of all mad scientists, with the same domed, bald head, shock of white hair, and fierce gaze.
One of the Chinese players, a pudgy little man who couldn't stop talking as we waited for the room to clear from a yoga class, played with the typical Chinese penhold (with the racket held as a pen) and used only one face of his racket. When the Chinese played among themselves, they spoke in Mandarin, shouted, and jumped around like uproarious crickets on speed. While the thought of a cricket on speed is disconcerting enough in itself, the things they did with the ball belonged, in my view, more to the realm of magic. When I played them, I couldn't "read" their strokes because I'd never played with penholders. I could more or less read the strokes of a shake-hand-grip opponent, which means that I (hope to) know in advance what kind of spin he gives to the ball so as to know how to counter it. But the thing about these Chinese players is that they were no jocks at all; they reminded me more of comic acrobats. They laughed, shouted, leaped about, and played some mean ping-pong.
And what about the mute Iranian? He chiefly played defensively. Was he the designated victim of the hyperactive Chinese funambulists? On the contrary; for reasons that I couldn't then understand, he held his own and they could not beat him.
When it came to playing with the Cuban — Emilio — he made writhing faces of excruciating pain as if every time he served he were unleashing the wrath of God. The facial expressions alone were enough to make me wonder if I shouldn't run for my life. But then he forced me to scamper from one side of the table to the other like car wipers in a rainstorm and inevitably lose the point. There I stood, beaten by a man pushing eighty. ...
Moreover, I'd gone there wearing a pair of slacks and a shirt, thinking that at most I'd roll up my sleeves but doubting that I'd need to. I did have my seldom-used racket with me, and with it my spins would be deadly; so, no need to run around, I'd presumed. In fact, I was soon bathed in sweat, slipping in moccasins, and cursing my hubris.
Never had I imagined that ping-pong could be whatever it was that was being practiced in that room. I was both shocked and awed by what I was experiencing.
"What do we have here?" I asked the equally nonplussed Nico when the allotted two hours were over. "A physics-defying discipline that requires feline reflexes played divinely by Chinese jesters with a hold so unnatural that their arms and wrists ache with their every shot!" My loss to Pietro paled in comparison to the beatings I'd taken that day. And to think that I'd arrived assuming that I wouldn't sweat a drop and would beat anybody easily — poor deluded fool that I was. Those men hadn't just beaten me, they'd trampled all over me as if I weren't on the other side of the table.
Above all, the amount of spin these players placed on the ball was shocking. Never had I experienced anything like it. When I played with them, the ball bounced off the table and off my racket — if I managed to reach it — in the most incredible ways. I spent more time collecting balls off the floor than playing. Extreme spin didn't only alter the trajectory and the bounce, it also increased the speed. And the speed they produced was another shock.
This was not the ping-pong I knew. Better yet: I obviously did not know the game. For years I'd only skimmed the surface, while these punishment inflictors had taken the plunge. The questions arose of their own accord: What is "table tennis," as it's officially called? What is the true nature and essence of the game?CHAPTER 2
The Sandwich Revolution
After that demolition party, research was in order, and, burning with curiosity, I delved straight in.
Table tennis began as a diversion for the upper class in Victorian England to mimic lawn tennis. Some say that, at first, players used books as rackets; others, cigar-box lids with balls made of cork or solid rubber. Later, the rackets became drum battledores. Due to the lack of control, table tennis — or whiff-whaff, ping-pong — at this stage was hardly a sport. However, 1900 was a seminal year, as the hollow celluloid ball was introduced. Hardbats became the typical racket — the same bats used by Miller, Schoenberg, and Gershwin, among millions of others — and the game remained virtually unaltered for over half a century, dominated by European and American players. Then, at the 1952 World Championships in Bombay, Asia entered the scene. After training behind closed doors, Japan's least talented player on the team, bespectacled and unassuming Hiroji Satoh, unveiled his secret weapon: the sponge racket — a wooden blade covered on both sides in thick foam. It was formidable.
First of all, it made no sound when it hit the ball, which in itself was very disorienting. There was "ping" on one side of the table, but no "pong" on the other. But most of all, it produced unprecedented amounts of spin and speed: the ball would sink into the foam and be catapulted back. No conventional hardbat player could cope, and Hiroji Satoh won the World Championship.
What radically changed the sport for good, ushering in a long period of dominance by Asian players, occurred in 1954, in London, with Ichiro Ogimura's triumph as he won both the men's singles and team titles at the World Championship. It was the first of five straight championships he won in the men's team competition. During his career, Ogimura captured twelve world titles in singles, mixed doubles, and team competitions. All Japanese team members by then were playing with foam-covered rackets, the same sponge racket that had been pioneered by Satoh. Until the early 1950s, the game had consisted of low parables with the ball just clearing the net and landing on the deep end of the table. Speed and placement were of the essence. The topspin movement was already utilized, but mainly to make the stroke more precise and consistent. The new racket revolutionized all this. Topspin would no longer be a stroke stabilizer, so to speak. It instantly became the chief ingredient of the offensive game.
It took twenty years for tennis to copy this stroke. The Swede Björn Borg was the first player who adopted topspin consistently with both forehand and backhand. And here's a great paradox, and of a historical nature to boot: a game born to mimic lawn tennis had suddenly revolutionized its nature and, in fact, become its inspiration. It was tennis, now, that was mimicking table tennis, but the result wasn't nearly as spectacular. The table-tennis topspin is a far more devastating stroke than its tennis counterpart. The ball is much smaller and lighter, so a much higher number of rotations can be impressed on it with a well-executed spin — of any sort, not just topspin.
In 1977 the double-strung tennis racket was introduced, the so-called spaghetti racket. It was of normal size but double strung with ten main strings and five cross strings. It could place 30 to 60 percent more spin on the ball, and the spin was also unpredictable. As a table-tennis player, this was music to my ears, but the United States Tennis Association argued that the racket would change the basic nature of the game — and banned it.
Tennis remains a sport that favors the player's physical stature and power. It missed its chance to evolve and become a more sophisticated game, unlike table tennis.
Indeed, table tennis had changed forever. The two S's, Spin and Speed, had taken over. Gone was the Euclidean age of the hardbat with predictable trajectories and bounces — both on the table and off the racket — and never-ending rallies. Table tennis had become at once cerebral and snappy, something like a four-dimensional puzzle that one has to solve with no time to think about it.
The marriage between speed and spin was nothing short of alchemical. This may sound vague, but laboratories in Japan and China have been studying spin for the last few decades. In particular, they've been concentrating on the relative law of spin and speed.
A spinning ball in motion has a circumferential speed as well as a linear speed of the motion of its center. These two speeds add up, and the ball may show the characteristics of either speed, if it plays a leading role. When circumferential speed is higher than that of the ball center, the trajectory is governed mainly by spin. When it is lower, it is speed that provides the main influence. And when the two speeds are approximately equal, the trajectory is influenced by both factors. That is the alchemical marriage of spin and speed, resulting in a ball that, as it accelerates on impact, may "kick" up or "dip" down, sometimes skipping to the side, too, if sidespin has been added to the stroke.
Both Japan and China are conducting theoretical research on spin that proceeds in conjunction with advances in science and technology. Equal attention is being paid to applied research, while quantitative research based on experimentation is being emphasized, too. Lastly, thorough investigations are being carried out with the aid of fluid mechanics, advanced mathematics, human biomechanics, artificial intelligence, and material science. Not bad for a game that started as an after-dinner pastime played with books or cigar-box lids as rackets and with balls made out of cork!
Excerpted from The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong by Guido Mina di Sospiro. Copyright © 2015 Guido Mina di Sospiro. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. True Beginnings, and Shock and Awe,
2. The Sandwich Revolution,
3. Initiation, War Tactics, and Chinese Hurricanes,
4. The Humbleness of Giants and the Lingua Franca of Table Tennis,
5. Lost in Translation, and Prophecies,
6. Finding Your Way: The Importance of the Teacher,
7. Who Wins the Race: The Thoroughbred or the Mule?,
8. Intermezzo Giocoso: Oddballs and That Female Touch,
9. Two Breeds of Players and Men: Metaphysicians and Empiricists,
10. The Dark Side: The Secret Workings of One's Shadow,
11. A Higher Initiation and the Theory of Chaos,
12. Homo Ludens,
13. Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,
14. Can the Stars Be Outwitted?,