Blogs

Larry Hodges' daily blog will go up Mon-Fri by noon USA Eastern time (usually by 10 AM, more like noon on Mondays when he does a Tip of the Week and has three days to cover). Larry is a member of the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame, a USATT Certified National Coach, a professional coach at the Maryland Table Tennis Center (USA), and author of eight books and over 1500 articles on table tennis. Here is his bio

Make sure to order your copy of Larry's best-selling book, Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers!
21 chapters, 240 pages, 102,000 words. Finally, a tactics book on this most tactical of sports!!!
Also out - Table Tennis Tips and More Table Tennis Tips, which cover, in logical progression, his Tips of the Week from 2011-2013 and 2014-2016, with 150 Tips in each! Or, for a combination of Tales of our sport and Technique articles, try Table Tennis Tales & Techniques
If you are in the mood for inspirational fiction, The Spirit of Pong is also out - a fantasy story about an American who goes to China to learn the secrets of table tennis, trains with the spirits of past champions, and faces betrayal and great peril as he battles for glory but faces utter defeat. Read the First Two Chapters for free!

April 27, 2011

Crystal Wang: 2031 at age 9!

Recently Lily Zhang became the youngest player to break 2500 at 14 years 9 months. Now I think another record has been broken. Crystal Wang (from Maryland Table Tennis Center), recently achieved a rating of 2031 at age 9 years 1 month. While a few players have broken 2000 at age 10, and possibly even age 9, I don't think any have done so this young.

She could have been rated even higher. In her last three tournaments, she's gone five games with players rated 2329 (up 2-1!), 2260 (up 2-1!), 2210, and 2176 (up 2-0!), and gotten games off players rated 2361, 2280, 2266, 2260, 2176, 2148, and a 2105 player twice. Her best win was a 2144 player in her last tournament. (Hopefully she won't get infatuated by ratings - but we can!)

She started in the summer of 2008. Her first rating was 602 in Sept. 2008. She didn't break 1000 until November 2009. Exactly one year ago, she was rated 1013, and that was her highest rating. Starting in May, 2010, she's been shooting up. At the Nationals in December, Crystal was 8 and rated "only" 1839.

Coached by Jack Huang, she plays a pretty orthodox shakehands inverted game, looping backspin from both wings, and then mostly hitting. She has surprising power - if you think you can beat her blocking or even lobbing, good luck! (I play her regularly at MDTTC.)

Seven minutes of the Best Points Ever?

Here's a compilation of some of the best points ever.

Touring San Francisco with ping-pong balls

Yes, you can tour a toothpick San Francisco with ping-pong balls! It's about four minutes long.

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April 26, 2011

National Larry's Not Doing Anything Day

After coaching nearly all day (and often night) for ten days in a row (Spring Break Camp, ITTF Seminar, private coaching), I'm declaring today "National Larry's Not Doing Anything Day." I'm spending the day in bed reading. It's a national holiday so schools will be closed, the government will shut down, no postal service, and fire and police departments are all closed - so don't let your house burn down or get robbed today. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Multiball Training

During the recent ITTF seminar I was thinking about the lack of multiball training in the U.S. In China, players often take turns feeding multiball to each other. In junior programs, the kids all learn to do this, and every Chinese player feeds multiball like a pro, as do most Europeans. In the ITTF seminar, where we had numerous top coaches, few were proficient at this. It doesn't take long to learn, and it's valuable practice. What's faster, learning to loop against backspin one loop per rally, or someone feeding backspin after backspin to varying parts of the table as you loop them all? Multiball allows you to practice just about any combination of shots rapid fire, so you get far more shot practice per minute than with straight drills. (You should do both, of course.) So why not get a box of balls, and next time you practice take turns with your partner feeding multiball? Maybe start the first session taking turns practicing.

Multiball allows you pinpoint specific problems and work on them with maximum repetition in a given time period. In China, multiball makes up about 1/3 of their training.

Basic multiball technique: Put the box of balls by the net, and pick each ball up and toss it backwards, let it bounce on the table, and stroke the ball at your partner just like any other ball. You'll find feeding basic topspin balls easy, while it takes a little more practice feeding backspin.

Here's a seven-video series by Coach Brian Pace that demonstrates and explains multiball training. Not only will you see excellent multiball training, but you'll see lots of high-level technique. Just watching Brian loop should improve your game 100 rating points!

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April 25, 2011

ITTF Seminar

Yesterday we finished the four-day ITTF Level 1 Coaching Seminar (April 16-17, 23-24). I want to thank the 14 coaches who participated: Carmencita "Camy" Alexandrescu (NV), Benjamin D. Arnold (PA), Changping Duan (MD), Jeff Fuchs (PA), John Hsu (MD), Charlene Liu (MD), Juan Ly (FL), Vahid Mosafari (MD), Dan Notestein (VA), John Olsen (VA), Jef Savage (PA), Jeff Smart (MD), David Varkey (PA), and Shaobo "Bob" Zhu (PA). All passed, and pending their completion of 30 hours of coaching (including 5 hours of "supervised" coaching with an ITTF certified or other high-level coach), will become ITTF certified coaches. As I told them, they will be ITTF coaches, and Cheng Yinghua, Stellan Bengtsson, and Dan Seemiller are not!!! :)

Article and photos should be out in a few days.

We covered a lot of material in the 24 hours of the course. I spent a lot of time mimicking bad technique as the coaches figured out what was wrong. Sometimes I felt like I was lecturing too much; other times the coaches joined in and we had great back-and-forth discussions of technique, tactics, and other table tennis topics. In addition, all 14 coaches gave a 5-10 minute coaching presentation on a randomly-assigned technique. Each presentation was followed by a discussion and analysis, both on the substance and the presentation itself. Here's a rough listing of items covered:

  • ITTF and USATT certification process
  • ITTF coaching program
  • Coaching responsibilities and ethics
  • Generic coaching principles
  • Coaching beginners
  • Coaching in schools
  • Skills circuits
  • Warmup
  • Multiball
  • Grip
  • Ready position
  • Stroking techniques (forehand and backhand drives, looping, blocking, pushing, flipping, lobbing & fishing, smashing lobs, and chopping)
  • Footwork
  • Beginning and advanced serves
  • Receive
  • Training programs
  • Physical training
  • Nutrition
  • Sports science
  • Sports psychology
  • Running junior programs
  • Equipment (especially different rubber surfaces)
  • Tactics against different surfaces, grips, and playing styles
  • Doubles tactics
  • Umpiring and rules
  • Running tournaments

There will likely be a ITTF Level 2 Coaching Seminar in the U.S. sometime next year. Now that something like half of the ITTF coaches in the U.S. will be from the Maryland region, we're going to lobby for it to be held here!

And congrats to Seminar Doubles Champions Jeff Smart & John Olsen and Runner-ups Bob Zhu & Juan Ly!

Freestyle table tennis

Here's a minute and a half of music and freestyle table tennis on tables, cars, and whatever else was handy for Adam Bobrow and friends.

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April 22, 2011

How to practice the loop against backspin

Unless you have a chopper or a coach feeding multiball handy, it's not easy getting practice looping against backspin. You could use a robot, but then you aren't reading the spin off a paddle. You could just do it in games or drills, but then you only get one loop, and then the rally is into topspin.

A good way to practice looping against backspin over and over is to do the loop-chop drill. It's simple: You serve backspin; your partner pushes it back; you loop (forehand or backhand); your partner blocks (not too hard); you chop it back; your partner pushes it back; and you loop, and the cycle repeats. It's best to do it all crosscourt or all down-the line. I demonstrated this drill this morning at our Spring Break Camp (using the backhand loop and backhand chop), and several were trying it out later.

USATT Coaching, Club, and Editorial Committees

It's official! I've been on the USATT Editorial Board for a while; now I'm back on the USATT Coaching and Club Committees. I actually chaired both back in the 1990s. Coaching Chair Richard McAfee and Club Chair Attila Malek recently asked me if I'd joined their committees, and it's been approved by the USATT Board. I'm now listed on these committees in the USATT Committee listing.

On the coaching committee, I'd like to see more recruiting and training of full-time coaches and coaches who want to set up and run junior programs. On the club committee, I'd like to see more coaches and leagues. This is a very short version of what I'd like to see. My focus will be on increasing USATT junior and adult membership through these programs. However, since I'm not chairing either committee, I'm going to first work with the actual chairs and see what direction they want the committees to move in.

Story on Howard Jacobson, author of The Mighty Walzer

The Washington Post ran an article yesterday on Howard Jacobson, the Man Booker Prize winner and table tennis player who wrote the 1999 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age table tennis novel "The Mighty Walzer."

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April 21, 2011

Why forehands are better than backhands

A nine-year-old student of mine named Sam said one of the funniest - and most profound? - things I've heard in a while. He's only had a few lessons, and is just starting to really hit forehands. But he has trouble with the backhand. After hitting forehands, I said let's do backhands, and he looked a bit glum. I asked why. He said, "Forehands are like an adventure. Backhands are like I'm at home watching TV."

Receive practice

I was watching one of our top cadet players practice with one of our top coaches. Near the end of the session the coach began giving his best serves, challenging the cadet to return them effectively, with the coach looking to follow up each serve with an attack. The coach mostly dominated for the simple fact that the cadet rarely got to face such serves and follow-ups. I went out on the court and suggested they do this from now on for at least half their sessions, and the coach agreed. This cadet is going to be very good! Serve & receive are the most under-practiced aspects of the game.

Robots catching and juggling ping-pong balls

As the headline said, here are robots catching and juggling ping-pong balls.

Tip of the Week problem

You may have noticed that there was no Tip of the Week on Monday, that the last two Tips of the Week (April 4 & 11) have disappeared, and that the March 28 Tip appears twice. Yes, I'm having a software problem. I have someone working on it.

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April 20, 2011

Counterlooping

This afternoon during our Spring Break Camp here at MDTTC, I spent some time counterlooping with Nathan Hsu, one of our top cadet players. (Age 14, rated 2239.) During the ITTF Coaching seminar I taught this past weekend I talked about counterlooping, and yesterday I wrote about how my counterlooping had improved as a result. But at age 51, I'm still much slower and stiffer than I used to be, and I was a bit reticent about wasting Nathan's time counterlooping, since it's a strength of his, and I wasn't sure if I could keep up. Lo and behold, I was able to stay with him - barely! But I also realized everything had to be just right for me to do so. As we started, I had to really focus on my hand and racket position, start my stroke earlier than I normally would, take a slightly longer swing than normal, and take the ball at just the right spot (just after top of bounce so the ball couldn't jump away from me). Once the counterloops starting hitting, I basically blanked my mind out and just let the shots happen. Mentally, I was just an observer. When I tried to intervene and get involved, I'd miss; when I sat back and mentally ate popcorn and just watched, I counterlooped better than I had in years. Afterwards, Nathan commented he'd never seen me counterloop with so much power. (Okay, Mr. Lupulesku, I'm ready for you now!)

Jungle Pong and Gnip-Gnop

Yesterday I wrote about some games we do in our training camps. During break, about 15 of the kids were playing "Jungle Pong." Basically the rules are you have to let the ball come off the table, and make your return after the ball has hit the floor. You can hit the ball to either side of the table - so the opponent has to be ready to change sides quickly. Since the ball has to bounce off the table and hit the floor, players have time to run it down. It's a rather strange game, but a lot of fun.

Another game they are playing is Gnip-Gnop, which I taught them a while back. The rules are simple: instead of hitting the ball directly over the net, you hit it onto your side of the table so that it then bounces over the net. I've been playing this game for 35 years. Perhaps it's time for a Gnip Gnop Training Camp?

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April 19, 2011

Knocking off cups and other table tennis games

We're about to start day two of our five-day Spring Break Camp at the Maryland Table Tennis Center. Guess what's one of the most popular games at our training camps? Knocking off cups. We do this with the younger kids near the end of a session. I put ten plastic cups on the table like bowling pins. I feed ten balls to each kid (multi-ball style), and see how many they can knock off. Then we get creative with the placement of the cups. An alternate version is the kids line up and each gets two shots and then rotate, and we see how long it takes for them, as a team, to knock off all the cups. We also do this with my bottled drink - whenever someone hits the bottle, I have to take a sip. (I do my best to convince them it's squeezed worm juice.)

We also play Brazilian Teams. We put them into teams of 3-5. One player from each team goes to the table and plays a point. The winner stays, while the loser goes to the end of the line for his team, and the next player goes to the table. The new player always serves. Games are usually to 41. If there are players who are much stronger than the others, we handicap them, usually by requiring them to end the point with one shot when serving (serve and end the point), and two shots when the other player is serving (receive and end the point). If a player is a complete beginner and can't really compete, we handicap it by letting them score if they can make two or three consecutive shots (so opponent has to end the ball quickly).

At the end of many sessions we play 11-point games, where the winner moves up a table, the loser moves down, with the goal to reach the first table. We do this with both singles and doubles.

Xu Xin's footwork

Now here's some fast footwork and looping! That's China's Xu Xin, world #6.

At the movies (non-table tennis)

I've seen most of the major movies recently. Last night, while in line to see the movie Hanna, the man and woman in front of me went to the single ticket woman and spent roughly forever asking her about every movie playing. This went on so long I was about to complain, and even the ticket woman glanced at me and shrugged her shoulders. Finally the two got their tickets and I got mine. Then I found myself behind them in line for refreshments - and they grilled the person there on just about every item sold! They finally bought drinks and popcorn. Then, after paying for it, they asked more questions about candy, and decided to buy some. After paying for that, the man decided he wanted another type as well, and so bought that. I missed half the previews because of these two.

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April 18, 2011

ITTF Coaching Seminar - Part 1

This weekend was the first half of the ITTF Coaching Seminar I'm running at Maryland Table Tennis Center, Sat & Sun from 9-4. (Part 2 is next weekend, same times.) It's been great fun so far - easier, in fact, than a regular table tennis camp where I would spend half my time feeding multiball. Here all I had to do was spend half the time talking, and the other half walking around and coaching the coaches in the current activity. When you've spent 35 years playing a sport, have coached it for 30 years, and have run 120+ five-day training camps and countless other group and private sessions, it's not hard to know what to say - the hard part is deciding what not to say.

I've learned a lot as well just from thinking about and preparing for the seminar. In practice matches tonight afterwards, I remembered my lecture on counterlooping with sidespin by hooking the ball rather than taking on the incoming topspin directly - and realized I'd been doing that too often. Bingo, my counterloop came alive when needed. Even my forehand flip has gotten better just from thinking about and demonstrating it. I've also learned some interesting stuff from comments from the coaches, a very insightful group.

The funnest part is imitating common mistakes and challenging the coaches to figure out the problem. Pretty much all of them can see the "obvious" problem, but usually that's a symptom of the problem, not the root cause. The challenge is to figure out what is actually causing the problem, which often is something seemingly unrelated, such as the foot positioning or grip. (These latter two are often the root cause of most technique problems.) Also key is not to just memorize how to fix every problem, but to get in the habit of analyzing a technique problem and figuring out what is going wrong.

So far the voice has fluctuated, but by virtue of continuously drinking water, it hasn't gone out. (I think there was a pool on what time I'd lose my voice.) Someone explained that I put a lot of strain on my throat because I don't use my diaphragm when I talk, or something like that. But as a coach, I have a loud projecting voice, and that's all a coach really needs, right?

There are 14 in the camp: Carmencita "Camy" Alexandrescu (NV), Benjamin D. Arnold (PA), Changping Duan (MD), Jeff Fuchs (PA), John Hsu (MD), Charlene Liu (MD), Juan Ly (FL), Vahid Mosafari (MD), Dan Notestein (VA), John Olsen (VA), Jef Savage (PA), Jeff Smart (MD), David Varkey (PA), and Shaobo "Bob" Zhu (PA). Besides the 24 hours in the seminar, all 14 will be doing presentations on various techniques to show their coaching skills. Assuming they pass, they will then be one step away from becoming certified as ITTF coaches. Each then has to do 30 hours of coaching, including five "supervised" hours with an ITTF or other high-level coach. Nine of them are getting the five hours at our Spring Break Camp, which is today through Friday.

We are lucky to have John Hsu (2109, but recently over 2200) and Vahid Mosafari (2280), both with very nice strokes. I've used them numerous times in demos. (And for penhold technique, there's Changping Duan, rated 2178.) There's a wide mix in the group, with several others also having very nice technique. Of course, as coaches, the most important thing is coaching ability - but one part of coaching is the ability to demonstrate proper technique. (You don't have to be able to do it in a match situation, of course.)

Some may recognize Jeff Smart as the USATT (actually USTTA back then) Coaching Chair from the 1970s - he may be 57, but he moves and strokes like a 20-year-old, and is still about 2000 level. Camy, who is certified as a coach in Romania, flew in from Las Vegas for the camp and so wins the "longest travel distance" award, though Juan Ly of Florida is close. Interesting tidbit I learned - Charlene Liu, the U.S. Over 50 Women's Champion, was also the first woman taught how to loop in China. Special thanks to Jef Savage, who will be writing an article on the seminar, and who lent us his projector, screen, and whiteboard for the seminar, and runs the projector as well. Thanks also to Bob Zhu, who is taking numerous pictures.

Spending 9-4 coaching two days in a row may seem like a lot, but the other three full-time coaches at MDTTC - Cheng Yinghua, Jack Huang, and Jeffrey Zeng Xu - do this day after Day after DAY!!! They put in 50+ coaching hours week after week; I can only do about half that per week before I start to fall apart physically, not to mention the mental strain.

And now that the first half of the ITTF Seminar is done, we go directly to the Spring Break Camp all day for the next five days, where I will alternate between short lectures and lots and lots of multiball.

Multiball with two players

I thought this was a nice example of creative multiball with two players.

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April 15, 2011

Preparations for ITTF Coaching Seminar

I've been run ragged this past week preparing for the ITTF Coaching Seminar I'm running the next two weekends. I won't bore you with the details.

As I'm going over the various techniques we'll be going over its bringing back memories of all sorts of coaching examples I've experienced over the past 35 years. I was thinking of creating a list of them to use in the seminar, but decided it's not necessary; they will pop into my head as we get to each item. For example, I know that when we talk about a coach analyzing a player's needs or the forehand follow-through, I'll remember the 5'2" coach trying to get a 6'10" player to follow through with a "salute" stroke, with the racket going to the forehead. It was both hilarious and sad. (I later worked with the 6'10" player, where I "allowed" him to have a more normal follow through to his chest, and in about a year he went from 1300 to 1800.) I know that when we go over common problems for any technique, dozens of examples will pop jump into my memory banks. I probably ruined my own technique for the next ten years by "practicing" some of these bad habits so I can challenge the coaches to figure out what the problem is. (Hint - many will see and try to fix the symptoms of the problem rather than the root cause of the problem.)

Twas the Night Before the Table Tennis Coaching Seminar

'Twas the night before the seminar, and all through the center,
Not a coach was yet stirring, but soon they would enter,
The tables were lined up on the courts with great care,
In hopes that great coaching would soon take place there.

The coaches were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of forehands danced in their heads,
And my racket in its racket case, and I in my playing shoes,
Had just settled down for a pre-seminar snooze,

When out on the playing courts there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the sidelines to see what was the matter,
Away to court one I moved with great footwork,
And saw that something by the table did lurk,

The lights over the tables, all lined up in rows,
Shown over the creature, who stood in a pose,
And what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But the Table Tennis World Champion, holding a beer,

With a paddle in hand, so lively and quick,
I knew in an instant why his serves were so slick,
He was practicing forehands with technique so sweet,
And his footwork was fluid and amazingly fleet.

He cried, "Now Forehand! Now Backhand! Now Serve and Receive!
On, Looping! On Smashing! With good tactics, we'll achieve!
To the final we'll go, we'll loop every ball,
Now loop away! Loop away! Loop away all!"

He tossed off his beer, and served very short,
He watched the return and gave a great snort,
As he looped a clean winner with incredible might,
He cried, "Practice hard and always give a good fight!"

Then with the speed of a high-level pro,
He was out through the door, with me in the know,
That I'd witnessed such brilliance that few could approach,
And yet it was something we must all learn to coach.

Top Ten Ways to Be a Table Tennis Champion, or At Least Look Like One
(Because I promised last week to create a Top Ten List each Friday.)

  1. Play like a champion. But that can take 10,000 hours of practice, so this method is frowned upon by experts from the N Double-L CP (National Look Like a Champion People).
  2. Wear flashy brand name table tennis outfits, and never, Ever, EVER let anyone see you actually play. Just walk around a lot with a slight strut, with a brand name playing bag over your shoulder.
  3. Bear with me on the following - it'll make sense! Buy a mop made in China. Mop about an inch. Hop about manically. Stand on a chimpanzee. Stand on a potato chip. Listen to the chip moan. Greet someone and tell them there's no table tennis camp today. Put a cap on some guy. Chop the guy in half. Throw out any pictures you have of pork. Now why would you do all these things? Because the following are all anagrams of Champion: China Mop, Mop A Inch, Manic Hop, On A Chimp, Am On Chip, Chip Moan, Hi No Camp, Cap On Him, I Chop Man, and No Ham Pic.
  4. Hollywood makeup experts can make you look like Jan-Ove Waldner for only a few tens of thousands of dollars.
  5. Hollywood special effects people can make you look like a champion for only a few tens of millions of dollars.
  6. Invent a new type of table tennis, like, say, clipboard table tennis, and practice for years before introducing it to anyone else.
  7. Choose your parents wisely so that you inherit that highly-sought table tennis champion gene.
  8. There's something like 10,000 equipment surfaces, costing an average of $50 each. With 9,999 of them, you'll play like a chump. So try them all out until you find the one that magically transforms you into the champion that you know you are. 10,000 racket surfaces: $500,000. Championship table tennis player: priceless.
  9. Cheat.
  10. Hire an audience to cheer your every move. (Hey, this actually happened! A rich player once paid the way of about 30 members from his club to a 4-star tournament on the condition that they watch and cheer all his matches.)

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April 14, 2011

What are your goals?

Some people want to be champions, whether it be basement, school, club, state, country, or world champion. Others want to be the best they can be. Others have a specific level in mind, such as a certain rating. Others want to play the sport properly. Others just want to play for fun. How about you? It's hard to reach a goal without having a goal.

I've had numerous goals. Early on it was to reach a 1500 rating, later 1800, 2000, then 2100, then 2200, etc. I wanted to be the best at my club - took about three years to do that. I wanted to be the best in my state, and I eventually was state champion (at different times) in three states. I wanted to be national champion, and though I didn't do it in Men's Singles with sponge, I was National Collegiate Doubles and Team Champion, and U.S. National and U.S. Open Hardbat Champion! (Also 4-time Over 40 Hardbat and 10-time Hardbat Doubles Champion.)

As the years went by, just playing the sport properly became more of a goal. Early on my best shot was my forehand smash, but I wanted to be a looper with a big forehand loop, like most of the best players in the world, so I learned to be a looper. Even now I'm working on my backhand loop because of the increased importance of the backhand loop in the modern game. (Not to mention the difficulties in covering most of the table with the forehand at age 51.)

But at this point, as a player, guess what's most important? It's a tie between having fun, and just playing well. And there's a rather strong correlation between the two.

Sidney Harman - ping-pong whiz?

On CNN they announced the death of Sidney Harman, "an American businessman active in education, government, industry, and publishing" [from Wikipedia]. What caught my ears was when they finished a sentence by saying he was "a whiz at ping-pong." Anyone know anything about that? I Googled his name and ping-pong, but didn't find anything.

More on table tennis and the brain

Yes, us table tennis players must be pretty smart and coordinated, according to this article. Former football star Terry Bradshaw plays ping-pong to improve his hand/eye coordination, saying, "Well, fans, I’m going out and buying a ping pong table. The doctors say that will help improve my hand/eye coordination." Heck, we can even play ping-pong on a piano!

Humorous (and insulting?) Asian Table Tennis Tutorial

Part 1 (5:50)
Part 2
(5:59)

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