So what is it about this crazy little game called ping pong?
Once relegated to the basement rec room and only to be played back in the Dark Ages when you were a teenager, the game was something most of us did before we got our driver’s licenses and before Facebook. Yet somehow, ping pong is in the midst of a dramatic comeback among both a new generation of teenagers as well as those of us who fondly recall the spins and slams of our youth.
True, the game has always enjoyed international cache. President Nixon used it as a way to open up diplomacy between China and the US. Forrest Gump used it as a way to win an Oscar for Tom Hanks. And today’s generation of young adults, incorporating it into something called Beer Pong, have used it as a way to get loaded at frat parties.
It’s even become the rage at hot media startup companies whose corporate offices are now designed with tables to let hard-charging young techies from all over the world to blow off steam between work sessions. Even in Providence, though on a more modest scale, the game continues to prosper. At The Salon, one of downtown’s hot spots, ping pong has replaced pool as the local game of choice. But among the most zealous of the local practitioners is a group that meets at the East Side/Mt. Hope YMCA on Hope Street at 6:30am four mornings a week to pay homage to that little white ball. But let’s start at the beginning.
It all started a couple of years ago, I am told, when two YMCA members – Peter Thornton and Allan Bernstein – discovered a broken ping pong table in a storage area. They decided to resurrect the table and brush up on their skills. It was fun. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and the group immediately grew to include five or six players. A second table was secured and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, in addition to those 16 regulars, others drop in from time to time – everyone is welcome. There are now four tables, ensuring more actual playing time. No one wants to sit around and watch for too long, although, from my observations, sitting around and watching is also essential for honing another vitally important skill – the ability to deliver good-natured, back and forth repartee that is as quick and sharp as the games at hand. This razzing begins as soon as the second person shows up on any given day. Periodically, the usual informal format of the ping pong hour (games played based on the order of arrival, with no records kept) gives way to an official, double-elimination, two-day, bracketed, weekend tournament. Still, it is all done in a spirit of fun.
So, what kind of person is drawn to ping pong these days? All kinds, it turns out. “It is an eclectic group,” says Thornton. “It’s one that would never be put together otherwise.”
The youngest player – and reigning tournament champion – is 13-year-old Will Dickson, a grade seven student at Moses Brown. Dickson is given a lot of respect for his skills, but also for his willingness to hang out with this older crowd. I’ve seen Bernstein in the lobby of the Y, on occasion, talking serve strategy with young Dickson. “The kid has the energy,” Bernstein says. The oldest player, John Silva, is 71. He was the tournament’s runner-up. “Will won the tournament,” says Thornton. “But it was close. John is good.” There is some satisfaction, it seems, in the fact that the oldest player was able to hold his own against the youngster, giving him a scare, even.
Micela Leis, a second grade teacher at Moses Brown and one of two women who play regularly, is new to the game. You can tell by her paddle – it belongs to the Y. Most of the players