By John Horchner
Ping-Pong started as a winter sport when lawn tennis players in England were looking to bring their game indoors in the 1880s.
The name “ping-pong” was in wide use among other names as the game grew in popularity. But “Ping-Pong” was trademarked by British manufacturer J. Jaques & Son Ltd in 1901. Rights to the name were sold to Parker Brothers for use in the United States and strictly enforced in the 1920s. Everyone else had to use the more generic term “table tennis,’’ which sounds more serious. Still, I always like to use Ping-Pong.
I remember in the winter of fifth grade, I played so much “pong,” as we called it, that I got so I never lost a game.
Ping-Pong rivals would line up in the basement of my friend Mark’s house. I’d hold my paddle back with my right hand and wrap my fingers tightly around the ball with my left before rocking forward to deliver my famous circle spin serve that was nearly impossible to return.
If the ball happened to make it back over the net, it was usually a blooper that could be met with a slam or otherwise, a cross table spin.
As one opponent after the next lined up, an oft repeated phrase I’d use was, “I never lost a game of Ping-Pong.”
To keep the games competitive, I would employ a variety of styles: short and long shots, a match with spins, play the net or use my left hand as well as Chinese “Penhold style.”
Mark’s house was attractive because it was at the bottom of the everyone’s sledding hill. Two beagles would look up from the couch as kids crossed the orange shag carpet to where the Ping-Pong table was in the basement. Sometimes, Mark would serve snacks from the kitchen.
But the clincher was his mother worked most days and his father was rarely seen since the divorce. So, the house was usually empty. It was thought to be a good idea to fill the house with kids so he and his 15-year-old older brother, Tom, would not be alone.
In short order, word of the phrase I used in the basement against my opponents drifted upstairs to Tom’s room where the 15-year-olds would hang out. Before long, they’d be downstairs in the basement waiting for a match. None of them could beat me, which gave me intense pleasure.
That was short lived as matches began to deteriorate from the game itself into bullying festivals. To describe the tactics that the bullies used against me and occasionally Mark who would come to my defense, is not suitable for a family publication.
But they also complained about my serving style. My offers to play left-handed—intended to placate the bullies—only enraged them further.
Still, I would not back down.
“Never lost a game of Ping-Pong,” I would repeat.
One time, Mark decided that we had taken enough from these bullies. He took one of his mom’s big-headed golf clubs from the bag in the corner and began swinging it so wildly that a group of these bullies ran out of the house as he chased them up the sledding hill.
Recently, I recommended that my son, who is now a fifth grader, find a less dangerous game. Still, he’s persisted and plays often.
It took another Minnesotan to point out to him recently that the serve he learned from me is in fact illegal. Grasping the ball tightly with one’s fist before serving was universally banned in 1937.
I checked on this and sure enough, they’re right. According to the official rules of table tennis, “The ball must rest on an open hand palm. Then it must be tossed up at least 6 inches.”
I’ve always used a closed fist on the serve, essentially hiding the ball. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, before the open palm rule took hold, the game “. . . especially in the United States, reached a stage where (you) could produce untakable services and the game became farcical.”
As I sit and attempt to unravel these experiences of more than 50 years ago, I must admit that the bullies had a point.
Or did they, really, have a point about my unusual serving?
What are the core issues at play here? And first and foremost, what is the most important rule of this or any game? And how should we conduct ourselves when playing Ping-Pong today?
Dear reader, I leave you to ponder those questions and come to your own conclusions.
John Horchner is a writing and publishing professional who lives in St. Anthony Park.