Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

November 28, 2010

Ping Pong Power

Author and former player Roger Bennett pens a paean to pong.

Justin Adler

When it comes to his beloved ping pong, Roger Bennett doesn't practice what he preaches. In Bennett's book Everything You Know Is Pong: How Mighty Table Tennis Shapes Our World, he covers every imaginable element of table tennis, from the game's history to its role in geopolitics and the suburbanization of America. The book even includes a chapter of scientific evidence making the case that ping pong counters the effects of brain aging and lengthens its players' lifespans.

Roger Bennett (left) with co-author Eli Horowitz
"I realized that everyone I loved in life and admired is handy with a ping-pong paddle."—Roger Bennett

Roger Bennett (left) with co-author Eli Horowitz

"I think the world is a better place when people play ping pong—it brings so much happiness to so many people," Bennett tells Gelf.

But buried in Bennett's acknowledgements on page 251 he reveals that he no longer partakes in this world-bettering activity: He hasn't played his beloved game in the past 29 years. "When I was 11, I got to the finals of a big-city championship and played against a guy I knew I could beat," Bennett recalls. "I choked, and with family, friends, and everybody there. It was devastating." Bennett followed his loss with a tirade of McEnroe-esque antics and refused to shake his opponent's hand.
Although the game brought out Bennett's aggressive side, he loves it and obsessively collects all things ping pong, constantly adding to what he describes as his "Smithsonian-size collection."

"I feel like I went to rehab," Bennett says of the book-writing process, which has brought him to tournaments full of ping pong's celebrity elite and to table-tennis centers around the globe. "It's like being an alcoholic and going back to the bar, but so far I have resisted temptation."

Bennett, who co-wrote the book with Eli Horowitz, says while researching the book, he was most surprised to learn how China came to become a ping-pong superpower. "Nobody cared about ping pong in China until the 1950s, when Chairman Mao began plucking kids out of kindergarten and placing them into ping-pong academies," Bennett says. "Before that, a Chinese ambassador actually denounced the game after a visit to the USA."

The book features tales from ping-pong fans Nick Hornby, Will Shortz, and Davy Rothbart, among others. It also contains a plethora of ping-pong imagery ranging from cigarette ads to a shirtless Fidel Castro wielding a paddle to ping pong porn.

Pong's promotional tour began with a launch party at Lincoln Center, where 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander defeated New York Times puzzle master Will Shortz in a championship that Bennett says looked like scenes from The Matrix. "The more I get deep into this, the more I realized that everyone I loved in life and admired is handy with a ping-pong paddle," Bennett says.

Even though ping pong brings out his aggressive side, the Liverpool-born Bennett uses the sport as a release from the intensity of his first love of soccer. He also enjoys the game's connection with his fascination in post-war America. "Ping pong takes so many people back to such a happy place and time," Bennett says. "If the book does anything, I hope it brings a re-appreciation to the game and brings joy to a lot of people."

Roger Bennett's Vital Stats

Whom do you agree with more, Will Leitch or Buzz Bissinger?

Even @Buzzbissinger agrees with Leitch now, doesn't he?

Are the following sports: gymnastics, golf, archery, bowling, cheerleading, weightlifting?
I play shuffleboard competitively. Who am I to judge?

Favorite teams growing up, and favorites now:
Everton Football Club, Chicago Bears. Augmented by the Mets since I have lived in the States. You can add teams but you can change them as easily as you can switch fingerprints.

What's your dream sportswriting job?
To cover the US men's national team coached by Thierry Henry as they prepare for the 2022 World Cup final against favorites Egypt to be held at the New Meadowlands.

Where will the best sportswriting be published in 10 years?
@Buzzbissinger

What's the best sports venue to visit?
Goodison Park, Everton's home ground for the Derby clash against Liverpool. The stakes are so high and the ground is rollicking.

Who's your favorite mainstream sportswriter? Least favorite? Why?
I admire David Conn at the Guardian, who tenaciously covers the financial aspects of sport. To be a modern soccer fan you need a good pair of lungs, the ability to down 16 pints before the game, and an MBA.

Put the following sportswriters in order from your most to least favorite: Bill Simmons, Mitch Albom, Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons, Deadspin's A.J. Daulerio, Rick Reilly.
I'd rather watch Sophie's Choice.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.







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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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