Q&A With Will Shortz: The Puzzle-Master on the Poetry of Ping-Pong
New York Times Crossword Editor Will Shortz and his friend and colleague Robert Roberts have been playing table tennis for years. They’re founded a table tennis club in the country in Westchester County. Video by Dewi Cooke and Chitrangada Choudhury.
Q: So obviously you’re a crosswords guy. Do Ping-Pong and crosswords have anything in common? Any skills overlap?
A: I get asked that all the time. There are a couple of things…I play table tennis for the same reason most people solve crosswords, and that is, in each activity, you get completely focused on this activity. You block out the rest of the world. And when you’re done, you feel relaxed and refreshed and ready to go back to everything else you do in your life. If you have a regular job, then you do crosswords for a break. Since crosswords and puzzles are my job, I do table tennis for a break. But even besides that, table tennis is a thinking persons’ game, so I think it ties in naturally with crosswords. And I hear from a lot of puzzledoers that they enjoy Ping-Pong.
Q: Maybe they’re just saying that because they’re talking to you!
A: No no, they’re not just saying it. They actually play it!
Q: So, the Westchester Table Tennis Center: money-maker or money pit?
A: I’ll let you know in a year or two, but right now it’s a money pit. But I’m hoping it will at least break even.
We opened in May and then we had our official grand opening in July. We’re already one of the largest table tennis clubs in the country. We have 185 members so far and about 40 to 50 players coming in a day. A player from Korea who’s a champion there walked in, looked around and said, “this is heaven.” We’ve got over 13,000-square-feet, 18 tables and high ceilings, which most clubs don’t have.
Q: You’ve said that your record for days playing in a row was 70. Does that still hold?
A: Yes, 70, that’s still good. It’s going to take a while to break that. I was on track to break it but I was sick for a few days and I broke my string of several weeks.
Q: So, how and when did your love affair with Ping-Pong start?
A: My family had a Ping-Pong table in its recreation room when I was growing up in Indiana. So I’ve always loved the game. I played as a kid, won a number of trophies in junior high and high school.
Q: How would you rate your game on a scale of 1 to 10?
A: If you compared me to someone off the street, I’m a 10! But there are just under 10,000 members of the USA Table Tennis Organization and I’m, I think, in the bottom of the top half. So, somewhere in the 4000th to 5000th place. Among members of our new Westchester club, I’m one of the top players.
Q: Is there any fun lingo associated with Ping-Pong? Any good words?
A: Oh yeah, there’s lots of them. Our club has some unique lingo. We had a member who would blow his serves a lot — and there’s no excuse for blowing your serve. It’s not that hard to serve the ball on the table. But he would hit the ball off or in the net and his name is Fred Gordon. So we named that a “Gordon” because he did it so much. Then when he did it twice in a row that became a “Double Gordon.”
Q: Poor Fred Gordon!
A: Yeah on the one hand, poor Fred, but on the other, he’s sort of proud to have bequeathed us the lingo. His name is immortalized.
Q: Do you sneak Ping-Pong related crosswords into the puzzle?
A: Almost never. I feel it would be self-indulgent for me to put in references to table tennis. It’s happened occasionally, but I don’t think any more often than in anybody else’s puzzles.
Q: If you had to choose between the two, crosswords or Ping-Pong?
A: Oh, crosswords have to take precedence over Ping-Pong. First of all, I’m better at crosswords than I am at Ping-Pong. And, second, puzzles are my living!
Ed. Note: The terms Ping-Pong and table tennis are used interchangeably; the former was trademarked by Parker Brothers.
MetroFocus Senior Online Editor Heather Grossmann conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.