Review of The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong
The Metaphysics of Ping-Pong (2015, 226 pages, by Guido Mina di Sospiro, subititled "Table Tennis as a Journey of Self-Discovery") is a fascinating story of one man's introduction and and often chaotic journey into the world of table tennis. Though I don't believe I've ever met him, much of his table tennis journey took place in neighboring Virginia and in some Maryland clubs, along with various other places around the U.S. and the world, including Italy, China, Mexico, New York City, California, and on cruise ships.
The novel has lots of cultural, philosophical, and historical asides, with various ruminations about this man's journey into the sport of table tennis, with lots of interesting characters. His introduction to the sport included facing a player using the "mythical" Sriver inverted rubber, under the Draconian "winner stays" rules. And from there we are off to meet the various characters in this world of table tennis.
We meet Joe (the short, muscular lawyer guy with one eye who wears goggles to protect the other, who'd gone to Sweden to "check out the table tennis scene"); Alex (the passionate, sweating, cursing Russian with a lightning loop and a boxing background and two years as a "slave" in Siberia); Gilbert (the Filipino player with a limp and two physically demanding jobs); Hien (the Vietnamese who spent eight years as a prisoner of war undergoing torture); the Afghan refugee who had never seen a water fountain with potable water before; Harbin (and his theory of luck – and was a Chinese city named after him?); the ubiquitous coach Jaime, who trained the author on and off; the CIA guard who scornfully says, "Ping-pong tires you out?"; and many, many more of the huge number of characters that make up the table tennis world. The players were "from all over the world – some of them refugees, others eccentrics, rarely jocks – all with interesting stories to tell." (Page 48.) Along the way you'll learn about his having a machine gun pressed against his temple and having to eat his tie.
On page 23 he quotes Larry Hodges (disclaimer: that's me!), where he writers, "Larry Hodges, one of the leading experts on table tennis, explains it [the Magnus effect] in the following layman's terms:" (What follows is a long quote that you'll have to buy the book to find - it's from page 51 of my Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers book, near the end of the chapter "All About Spin.")
As he faced numerous losses in various table tennis settings, he bravely continued to play. He wrote of how the Chinese players "by resorting to unimaginable amounts of spin on their every ball, had given me a reality check." (Page 24.) Of one such loss to a Chinese player he wrote, "Humbling though this was, it didn't make me give up. I'm happy it didn't, because I was about to embark on a strange and, in many ways, awe-inspiring adventure. And should you happen to try this, too, I hope you won't give up, either, because the adventure is worth every minute of your time and every drop of sweat." (Page 24.)
But he learned. "I finally began to make some sense out of the myriad shots that the Chinese and everyone else threw at me. I memorized the motions they made, with the hand and the elbow, without realizing yet that I should have been watching for the movement of the whole body – as they hit the ball – and especially how the ball bounced on the table. Things began to fall into place, and I had my first few wins." (Page 39.)
He also began to realize that he was "complicating my learning process by equipping myself with rubbers – and blades – beyond my level. To add to the confusion, I kept changing combinations, peeling rubbers from one blade and gluing them onto another." (Page 62.) A budding EJ - Equipment junkie! He learns that "A top player knows before hitting the ball that, thanks to his correct position, movement, dose of power, and precision of aim, the ball will land on the opponent's side of the table exactly where and how he wants it to land." (Pages 81-82.) But he continues to make slow progress – and quotes Plato: "Never discourage anyone . . . who continually makes progress, no matter how slow." (Page 61.)
We learn of the "Kokutaku Blütenkirsche 868 Tokyo Super Tacky Japanese Style" rubber. ("Beware, on my backhand I've got a . . . Kokutaku Blütenkirsche! You've been warned." (Blütenkirsche, we learn, means "flowering cherry tree," and refers to the common Japanese flowering cherry.) (Pages 62-63.)
In the never-ending arguments between those who wish the sport had stayed in its classic stage (hardbat and less spin & speed), he takes a decidedly pro-sponge stance, favoring the modern game. He talks about how modern table tennis is "strikingly non-Euclidean," that "Euclidean geometry is the geometry of plain surfaces and three-dimensional space, but non-Euclidean geometry is the geometry of curved surfaces, hence it is indeed and appropriate term for this kind of ping-pong." (Page 5.) While we might bicker with the specifics of these definitions, most of us get the gist of what he is saying. Later he compares table tennis to tennis, which banned spaghetti string rackets, which is tennis's equivalent to table tennis's sponge. "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." He then says, "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." (Page 19.)
There's a whole chapter on "Two Breeds of Players and Men: Metaphysicians and Empiricists." (Page 107.) The definitions are subtle, but he writes, "Metaphysicians strive to master the art of spinning, which propels them, willy-nilly, into the realm of four-dimensional and non-Euclidean geometry. They strive to find the secret at the core of the game, one demanding a holistic approach that starts with agile footwork and ends with a snappy twist of one's wrist; they strive to learn and apply the variations of the loop; they strive to bend the laws of physics, in a sense, by being able to give the ball, through the Magnus effect, the exact arc that will make it touch the deep end of the table rather than go long. In short, metaphysicians take life head on and yearn to get as close as possible to true form." (Page 111.)
Empiricists, on the other hand, "take the easy path and don't strive at all. In their empirical experience, they've realized that spin remains a mystery to them and that striving takes them nowhere; it's unnecessary strife. Plato might remark that they're content to be in the cave. Why climb mountains when one can score points by taking the road downhill?" (Page 113.)
Guido also has some choice words for long pips and antispin: "Long-pips players go hand in hand with anti-spin players, that other branch of cave dwellers who rob the game of its chief mystery by using 'dead' rubbers that don't produce spin and that also neutralize all incoming spin. Horrors!" He wrote that these surfaces put on the hold "the development of the new era of TT ushered in by the sandwich revolution. But when one can fly, why slither?" He follows this with a discourse on such cave dwellers, including basement players who have never experienced the spins of modern table tennis. (Page 115.) He's likely to get some choice words from the non-inverted world for these comments – but perhaps they should read the entire chapter (and book) for context, since he's writing from what he considers a highly modernistic point of view, where inverted speed and spin are king.
He asks one player, Ted, why he uses a hardbat. The answer is, "I started playing with my father, in the basement. Back then, there were no sandwich rackets, so I still play with a hardbat." Guido's response: "By the same token, you watch black-and-white television and own no computer or cell phone, right?" (Page 118.)
Later he talks about "parasitic table tennis," players who "cling indefinitely to their 'shortcuts,' which will grant them many wins, to be sure, but past a certain ranking, no more." (Page 169.) This, of course, is many a coach's bane.
He describes his first tournament as "chaotic," and we learn how it is a complex system – and the ensuing discussion involves chaos theory and quantum mechanics. (Pages 153-158.)
There's a chapter on his "Pilgrimage to the Holy Land" – China, with lots of detail about what really is the holy land of table tennis. While there he compares table tennis to calligraphy – wonder if he knows that internationally famous calligrapher Julian Waters is a regular player nearby in Maryland? He quotes a calligraphy teacher in China, "Competency in a particular style requires many years of practice. Correct strokes, stroke order, character structure, balance, rhythm are essential in calligraphy." Guido writes, "I did a double take; the same words could have been said about table tennis." (Page 182.) Then he writes, "Chinese professional calligraphers will cultivate their every stroke of the brush; professional table-tennis players, their every stroke of the racket. But advanced table-tennis players do not just hit the ball – they brush it. For every brushstroke in calligraphy there is a brushed stroke in table tennis. It's no wonder, then, that so much of the best table tennis in the world is to be found in East Asian countries, in all of which calligraphy is revered as the purest of arts." (Page 184.)
He quotes numerous philosophers, writers, scientists, and others, including (in the order they are referred to): Rupert Sheldrake, Henry Miller, Mircea Eliade, Erasmus, Sun Tzu ("The Art of War"), Carl von Clausewitz ("On War"), Cumean Sibyl (Greek priestess presiding over the Apollonian Oracle), Plato, Teri Garr (lab assistant in the film "Young Frankenstein"), Nizami Ganjavi, Idries Shah, Aldous Huxley, Dino Buzzati, Aristotle, John Locke, Bertrand Russell, Benvenuto Cellini, Aldous Huxley, Ben Jonson ("The Alchemist"), Carl Jung, Epictetus, Chuang Tzu, Johan Huizinga ("Homo Ludens"); French poet and philosopher Paul Valery, Jack London, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lao Tzu ("Tao Te Ching"), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Shams Tabrizi, St. John of the Cross, and Lin Tutang. It refers to numerous books, from the book ancient Chinese book "I Ching" ("Book of Changes") to The Adventures of Pinocchio. Numerous philosophical systems are referred to, such as Taoism, Zen, Sufism, Feng Shui, and Yin and Yang.
And yet, with all the philosophical meanderings, it's basically a book about the fascinating experiences of this player's introduction and experiences as he delves into this Olympic sport. I highly recommend it – it's a unique story that any of us in this rather eccentric sport can relate to.
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