USA Table Tennis
Before Cornelius “Neil” Smyth became Vice President and Treasurer of Caesars Palace and so was in a position to make his Hall of Fame contribution to the Sport he loved, he’d had a varied and accomplished background outside of Table Tennis. From Eugene Wilson’s “Senior of the Month” interview with Neil (Topics, Jan., 1980), we learn the following details.
After attending Yale and then graduating in 1946 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance, Smyth, commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve, was appointed Assistant Naval Attache in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, where, the more diplomatically valuable for speaking Arabic, he received a Letter of Commendation for his performance of duty there. Later, he would be the Spanish-speaking Commanding Officer, Naval Intelligence Division, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
On leaving the military in 1954, Neil became an internal auditor for Pan Am, then in 1959 returned to Puerto Rico where, for 11 years, he was Chief Accountant, then Corporate Controller, for the San Juan International Hotel. In 1970, he joined Caesars Palace as Controller and so brought his wife Jeanne and their six children to Las Vegas. By 1980 he’d become Caesars’ Senior Vice President—Operations. Wilson notes Smyth’s successes:
“Neil has been a pioneer in the adaptation of the latest accounting machines and computers for use in hotels and casinos. He has written numerous articles relative to the accounting side of the hospitality industry, and is a frequent lecturer on hotel and casino topics. He has held all the elective offices from Secretary to Chairman of the Board of the International Association of Hospitality Accountants. He recently co-authored the Seventh Revised edition of the Uniform System of Accounts for Hotels and serves on the Financial Management Committee of the American Hotel and Motel Association.
Smyth had a sports background—had been active at some time or other not only in table tennis but in football, soccer, tennis, and body surfing—before he came to Caesars. But it was here, with some prodding from Bill Hodge, an experienced circuit player and former President of the Columbus, Ohio TT Club, who’d moved to Vegas, that Neil’s interest in table tennis became a passion.
In Dec., 1973, Caesars put on a pilot event, an exhibition, at their Circus Maximus main showroom that featured Joong Gil Park, the Korean-trained #3-rated player in the U.S.; John Tannehill, the #6-rated player who’d been a member of the U.S. “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” Team to China; Howie Grossman, formerly a top Canadian player; Heather Angelinetta, the British-born, future Capt. of the U.S. Women’s Team to the World Championships; and Hodge, President of the local Las Vegas Club, for which Smyth was the Secretary. Dick Evans, eventually a USATT Hall of Famer, was the presiding Umpire. The matches were well received by the public who also enjoyed seeing such Caesar celebrities as Pancho Gonzales and Johnny Weismuller.
By the summer of ’75, Neil was an avid tournament-goer who so enjoyed the Houston U.S. Open that he wrote a letter to Topics praising the “conditions in the arena, the TV coverage, and the presence of so many of the top 20 world players.” You could see his burgeoning interest when he emphasized “the right direction” this tournament took “towards the continuing development and improved public image of the sport we all love so well.” No surprise that soon he wanted to make his own contribution to that image.
The short-lived, very controversial USTTPA (Players Association), formed in July, 1975, had as one of its aims the establishment of a U.S. Closed. Smyth had hoped Table Tennis would become more recognized in the U.S. with the historic beginning in 1974 of the world’s best players coming to our U.S. Opens—but since these players were so much better than our own, the Players Association felt it was time to reward those who struggled to honor the Sport here in this country. Smyth was receptive to this suggestion—indeed, with Caesars President William Weinberger’s blessing, was ready to offer the facilities of the hotel for a U.S. Closed in Dec., ’76—and, if all went well, to make it an annual event. But he was worried when some of our leading players, incensed that the ’76 Philadelphia U.S. Open was offering only $1500 in total prize money, made demands of the organizers, and when they weren’t met not only refused to play but picketed the venue. He thought that they might be their own worst enemy come the Closed.
He sent prospective Tournament Director Bill Hodge as Emissary to the players who were striking at the Open, and urged him to seek assurances from them that they wouldn’t try to sabotage the Caesars Closed if it were held. Naturally, from Caesars’ point of view, that would be unthinkable. Of course with the then staggering sum of $12,500 in prize money being offered by Caesars, the players protesting the Open were only too happy to attend the Closed and behave themselves. Likewise the USTTA officials, who in view of this common goal promised cooperation with one and all. Thus was born the U.S. Closed that, thanks to Neil and Bill, thrived at Caesars and continues to this day in Vegas, though no longer at Caesars.
Hodge’s very subjective write-up of his stressful negotiations in Philadelphia with both Players Association and USTTA officials may be found in the July-Aug., 1976 issue of Topics beginning on page 21A. Here I want to include only the following lines:
“…Neil Smyth is not an ordinary man. Those who know him know him to be one of the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate men alive. He is truly a man whom no one dislikes. Being his kind of a man in the job that he has is, to me, truly incredible. Most men with his power can be hard, cruel, power-wielding, and would not associate with us little people. Neil is just the opposite. I wasn’t sure how he would respond to my story. I knew he wanted the tournament for table tennis more than for Caesars. I also knew that he was a business man and for Caesars, and that Caesars could not have a tournament that might be plagued by pickets or other problems. In talking to Neil, I remember constantly telling him the situation was incredible, that it was impossible for me to tell him of all the recent events, but I did give him the highlights. Neil is a great listener. Here I was distraught and almost in tears, and after hearing all the facts, in a calm voice he says, ‘What is your recommendation?’ Wow!…Suddenly I felt good. It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Neil was giving me his trust and blessings on how to handle the Proposal…” (29A).
Smyth received a trophy from USTTA President Sol Schiff in appreciation for his successful efforts to bring about this initial Closed, and for the next four years he would be a power behind the tournaments at Caesar’s, which also included the U.S. Team Trials. Improvements would be made in the venue conditions, two of the tournaments would be nationally televised, and entries would increase from about 325 in 1976 to approximately 500 in 1979/80. As Neil said in a letter to me, “We had no unpleasant incidents of any kind, and we always received the full cooperation of the USTTA.”
During this ‘70’s time, Neil arranged for local table tennis exhibitions—for example, during half-times of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas basketball games—and of course continued to provide hospitality to visiting celebrities. Case in point: Chessmaster Anatoly Karpov who, in a memorable photo with Neil was being offered not a doll-like image of some esteemed rival with pins stuck in him, but a jump-suited, engaging-looking little figure with table tennis racket in one hand, ball in the other. Or, maybe it was Karpov presenting a thoughtful USSR present to Neil? Anyway, it was typical of Smyth to encourage international goodwill.
At the 1978 Closed, Neil, partnered by another helpful Caesars Tournament Director, Paul Therrio, reached the semi’s of both the 1600’s and the 50 Doubles. The following year he did better—he and the legendary Bernie Bukiet (whom Neil and others would later help finance an eye operation for) beat Defending Champions Dr. Michael Scott/Russ Thompson to get to the final of the 50 Doubles before losing to future World 70’s Champion George Hendry and his veteran partner Harry Deschamps
In 1980, as Neil was working with Vice-President Walter Mondale and others to bring the People’s Republic of China’s table tennis team to the U.S., our Olympic Committee appointed Neil its Nevada State Chairman. I think of the USOC as a very patriotic organization and since Neil was honored with this position it seems as good a time as any to mention that he is a member of the Retired Officers Association, the Sons of the Revolution, and the Society of Colonial Wars.
Neil left Caesars in 1980 to become the President of the Las Vegas Sands Hotel, which unfortunately hadn’t the facilities to accommodate our Closed. So for the next four years the tournament was held at the Tropicana Hotel.
In Aug., 1981, at the behest of Chairwoman Ruth Guillen, Neil was honored at the Santa Monica Western States Open with a special trophy (presented by Ruth’s son Ray, 1977 U.S. World Team member) for his outstanding contributions to table tennis. Topics columnist Mary McIlwain made note of this Award, and also told us of Neil’s participation earlier that day not in the Santa Monica tournament but in “the 5th Annual WORLD Body Surfing Championship at the Oceanside Pier near San Diego.” Neil was one of the few competitors who didn’t use feet fins, and word was “that if it were not for the changing tides and breakers Neil might well have been among the winners.”
After his 1983 trip to Japan, Neil reported that he’d discussed with Hideki (Dick) Yamaoka at his office in the Tamasu Company’s Butterfly Headquarters in Tokyo “the possibility” of holding a World Championship in the U.S. Las Vegas, he said, would be very interested. And though no such World Championship materialized in the last millennium, it may be that Las Vegas is still interested. On this particular trip Neil got to hit some with 1967 World Champion Nobuhiko Hasegawa, and also to tour Hikosuke Tamasu’s “Butterfly Table Tennis Scientific Research Institute.”
. Later in 1983, at the Tropicana U.S. Open, Neil paired with Bill Hodge to come 2nd in the Senior 3400 Doubles. Then in 1985, with the Closed returning to Caesars, Neil made a triumphant return. He won the 50 Doubles with Tim Boggan, knocked off two California teams—Y.C. Lee/Leon Ruderman and Don Chamberlain/Rich Livingston.
Although by 1985 Neil was Executive Vice President of Latin American Operations for Caesars World International, the Closed wasn’t held at Caesars Palace again until 1988. And as it would be the last one there, perhaps Neil and Bill Hodge could win the 3300 Doubles for old time’s sake? Almost: alas, another runner-up trophy.
I can’t note here all of Neil’s affiliations—about this time he was a Director of the United Way and also the United Cerebral Palsy Association. Nor can I detail all his playing successes, though I’ll continue to mention some of them to show you what a competitor he’s been. At the 1990 Closed, in the 60 Doubles with Hendry, Neil was again a finalist. And again in the 3400 Doubles with Ruderman at the 1992 Meiklejohn National Senior Championships at Laguna Hills, CA.
In the 1993 Sun City, AZ Swing Into Spring Open, Neil won the Over 55’s from future California Hall of Famer Dick Badger, and the Over 40/Under 1600’s from Peter Bazso, his Las Vegas Clubmate. As Neil will tell us in one of his articles some years later, it’d be Club President Baszo who, by immediately applying CPR to a collapsed comrade playing next to him, would save the man’s life. Since Baszo’s experience is hardly unique, Neil urged all USATT Clubs and competitors to prepare for medical emergencies.
At the Oct., ’94 Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, Neil paired with the about to be USATT Vice-President Y.C. Lee to take the Silver medal in the 65-69 Doubles. A few years later, he’d pick up two more medals there. More runner-up finishes in ’95 at the U.S. Senior Olympics in San Antonio and in ’96 at the Sun City Senior’s. Even as late as 2001, in the stiff competition of the National’s, Neil, then 75, would be a finalist.
In 1996, it was only fitting, since Neil had always supported our USATT Hall of Fame, and had served as Toastmaster on occasion, that he himself was inducted into the Hall. I remember former U.S. Champion Bobby Gusikoff saying “he should have been the first one in there, the Board’s unanimous choice.” Of course there followed in 1997 his induction into the California Hall of Fame.
By late spring of 1998, the San Diego TTA had a permanent home at the new 4.5 million Balboa Park Activity Center—which suited Neil just fine as he and his wife would retire to San Diego…but not of course from table tennis. If anything Neil was even more enthusiastic about playing and helping out. He quickly became an SDTTA Board Member with Pam Ramsey and others, and served as Tournament Director for the Club’s May, 2000 month-long “Colossal Doubles Jamboree.” Further, in an article Neil wrote for our magazine we learned that the Balboa Park Club had “20 tables, wood floors, perfect lighting and thirty-foot ceilings.” Also, that on their way to the Sydney Olympics, the U.S. Team held training sessions at the Club, and that the SDTTA and the Barona Indian Casino, with Neil handling the Team introductions, hosted a welcoming luncheon for 150 people (Team, media, SDTTA members and their families) in the garden patio of the Activity Center.
In Aug., 1998, Neil celebrated his 72nd birthday at the 25-sport Nike World Masters Games at Portland, Or. Blew out all the candles on his cake, and damned if his wish didn’t come true. He won a Gold. Yep, with Canadian Heather Fox in the 70 Mixed Doubles, and even added a Bronze with a win over a Russian in the 70 Men’s.
Perhaps Neil should have retired decades ago and just played the circuit?…
I don’t think so. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had more than a quarter of a century of U.S. Closeds. In fact, we might not have had any at all.