MV Table Tennis Club brings the game out of the basement

Former MIT high jumper and computer systems specialist Albert Lau plays table tennis regularly with the MV Table Tennis Club. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Every week, year round on Martha’s Vineyard, a group of serious table tennis players face off across tournament quality tables. It is a far cry from the game sometimes played in cramped basements with low ceilings where there are do-overs when the ball hits the overhead lights and players bounce off the walls when going for wide shots.

“Our tables are high-quality tables that cost $2,000,” Martha’s Vineyard Table Tennis Club (MVTTC) president Bob O’Rourke of Edgartown said.

The club, which counts 73 dues-paying members, plays in the West Tisbury School gym Tuesday and Thursday nights when school is in session and year-round at the YMCA on Saturday and Sunday from 3 until 6 pm. They expect to add an additional slot on Wednesdays.

Last year, the club became one of only nine Massachusetts clubs registered with the national table tennis governing body, USA Table Tennis (USATT).

“Most of our players take the game pretty seriously,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “It is an active sport, a great workout.” He sweats early and often and says he loses several pounds whenever he plays.

New members are welcome. Playing equipment is provided and instruction is available both from other players and a professional coach, Mozart Francois, coach and director of the Waltham Table Tennis Club, who comes to the Island once a month to provide lessons for a fee.

Mr. O’Rourke said he likes that a new player can start out playing with very little cost. A paddle is all you need he said. Paddles, called blades without the covering, called the rubber, run from $20 to $350. Rubbers run from $20 to over $50 per paddle. The less expensive paddles come with their own rubber.

“We welcome anyone with an interest in table tennis, including beginners,” he said. Age and sex are not factors. The club includes players from 12 years old to 82, who play at a wide range of levels. Two of their six tables can accommodate wheelchair-bound players, although no one has utilized that feature yet.

There are about 25 regular players in the Vineyard club and a group of eight very serious players who play in off-Island tournaments. Mr. O’Rourke said that playing different players in tournaments off-Island and the camaraderie of his teammates on the road are particularly enjoyable for him.

The highest-rated tournament players on the club team are Alina Wen, Juri Luncar, and Rod Backus. The team travels throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire and also plays tournaments at MIT and Harvard.

Tournament players are given skill level designation rankings, much like tennis players, based on how well they do against other ranked players ranging from beginners at 0 to 3,000 for the top pros. Mr. O’Rourke said that his group of tournament players averages around 1,000.

Club member Alina Wen of Edgartown could barely hit the ball when she started playing a few years ago. Now she is the highest ranked player on the team at around 1,450, he said.

The ranking system, which does not discriminate by age or sex, sometimes results in interesting matchups. “A 70-year-old player might have a match with a six- or seven-year-old player and get beat pretty soundly,” Mr. ‘Rourke said

A stickler for the finer points of the game, Mr. O’Rourke said a form of table tennis originated in England in the 1880s. The Parker Brothers Company took the concept and patented a game called Pong-Pong. “The accepted name world-wide today is table tennis, but most Americans are stuck on ping pong,” he said. “We have to correct people all the time.”

The MVTTC boasts members from China, South Africa, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Croatia. All Island towns are represented, according to Mr. O’Rourke. Members represent a range of professional specialties, both active and retired, including a rabbi, a dentist, a neurologist, a dog trainer, a potter, a computer systems specialist, a personal trainer, a calligrapher, landscaper, a commercial painter, and a junior high school student.

Mr. O’Rourke was a business writer working in Chicago and Washington, D.C., before he retired ten years ago. He is 76 and lives on Chappaquiddick. He is not the club’s oldest member. That distinction is held by 82-year-old Sam Feldman of Chilmark. Mr. O’Rourke has been playing for about ten years. He played with a club in Washington, D.C., prior to moving to the Island and said that he has been playing more seriously since moving here.

Chilmark Pottery owner Geoffrey Boor of West Tisbury, who has been playing with the group for over 12 years, started when the club used to meet in Aquinnah. He said it is an interesting group of people who play. When he plays, about half his time is spent warming up and working on technique and the other half is spent playing games.

He compares the game to yoga. “Playing well requires an attitude, posture, and positioning,” he said. “Attention is in the moment. How different is that from yoga?”

Mr. Boor said tha to play well, feet cannot be in the wrong position. “Table tennis is ultimately about transcendence,” he added.

Club membership is $50 annually, $25 for high school students. There is no fee for elementary school students. There is a $2 charge for walk-on non-members.

For more information, call 508-627-7902, or 508-696-6303.