USA Table Tennis

History of U.S. Table Tennis - Volume I: 1928-1939 by Tim Boggan

Chapter XVI. 1936: ITTF Proposes a Post-’36 World’s ITTF Member-Country Discussion of an Anti-Pushing Rule. 1936-37 Season: USTTA Officially Adopts Four "Close Laws"--(1) It Awkwardly Begins to Shape an Expedite Rule; (2) It Lowers the Net from 6 and 3/4 Inches to 6 Inches; (3) It Allows Tournament Committees to Disqualify Players"; and It Bans All Fingerspin Services.

Naturally when the U.S. Team came back from the Prague World's they had plenty of "pooper" stories to tell. Of course Zeisberg and Biddell had earlier heartily approved of the disqualification of "chiselers" Cook, Feitelson, Goldman, and Drapkin at the mid-Dec., 1935 Mid-Atlantic States tournament. Now they had no hesitation in urging, even before the next ITTF Congress would meet to ratify it, the immediate provisional adoption of the anti-pushing rule an incensed Montague was proposing.

Montagu incensed? Yes, indeed, so much so that he was beginning to sound like Zeisberg:

"...As table tennis players they [the chisellers] are a menace that must be humiliated, despised, sent to Coventry, driven out of public life if table tennis is to survive. Either they can’t play, in which case they ought not to be competing in tournaments, or they won’t play, in which case they ought to be punished.

...Your real chiseller is yellow, you can always make him pack up if you mean business. All he achieves before he goes out is to dislocate the tournament and disgust the spectators. The proof that chiselling is unsporting is the fact that it can only win by relying on the opponent being kind enough not to play the same game" (Philip Reid’s Victor Barna, 49-50).

The anti-pushing rule that Montagu and his ITTF had quickly suggested to its member countries was specifically this (I paraphrase because the original is painfully verbose):

If a game isn't finished after 20 minutes, the umpire may interrupt play and award that game to the player who's ahead. If the score is tied, the umpire may warn the players that he will award the game to whoever scores the next point. If after another five minutes of play no one has scored a point, the umpire may declare the game drawn--with the following understanding: (a) that in a knockout competition neither player can proceed to the next round; (b) that in a round robin neither player can claim a win for self or team; and (c) that in a final the title shall be declared void. Players in such a declared drawn match "shall be automatically suspended from taking any part in Table Tennis for that season and for the ensuing season." The umpire is to use his discretion in these calls, but if directed to take specific action by the referee he must do so--except where the event is controlled by a "jury" of two or more nations taking part in the competition, in which case a decision is to be made according to the majority opinion of these jurors, a tie among them to be broken by the referee (TTT, May, 1936, 1 and 3).

The immediate match-penalties proposed (which in the ‘37 World’s we’re going to see brought into play) are bad enough, but the suspension suggested (surely the ITTF member countries won’t vote to enforce that?) seems to me outrageous. That an offender can’t play the rest of the season, and then the whole of the next one as well, simply because he and a particular opponent didn’t finish a game in 20 minutes time? That’s irrational. Zeisberg is right to support such a threat?

USTTA Begins to Shape an Expedite Rule

Meanwhile, before this ITTF suggestion was made, the USTTA had come up with an anti-pushing rule of its own--put forward by Mark Sawyer, Secretary. of the Ohio TTA. In a Mar. 11, 1936 letter, Zeisberg cordially invites Cook, Feitelson, Goldman, and Drapkin (the defensive players he and his E.C. had suspended from American Zone competition) to play in the upcoming National's in Philadelphia, but warns them with the following explanation that the Sawyer rule might be in effect there:

"As long as one of the players is willing to do all the hitting and the match is interesting, O.K. But if both players start to defend and the match becomes uninteresting, then it is up to the server to take the offensive. If he refuses to do so, he will be disqualified. This rule will handicap Albert [Goldman] if his opponent refuses to drive while Albert is serving; but I trust he won't object any more than the knucklespin experts out West did not object when the anti-knucklespin rule was passed...."

Is the analogy apt? Surely it's far less difficult for an attacking player to give up ways of getting an advantage by serving than for an inveterate defender to learn how not just to consistently topspin but, without being able to wait long for the right ball, to hit through his opponent who, with close-to-the-net pushes, heavy chop, or a forcing topspin of his own is deliberately, strategically, trying to make that point-winning hit even more difficult. No wonder Drapkin and Goldman don’t enter the National's--they were probably in a funk at the thought of rebuilding their games.

The "Anti-Pushing" rule Zeisberg refers to is one of four new "Close Laws" the USTTA had asked for and the ITTF approved. This means that, beginning with the 1936-37 season, the "anti-push" rule will apply to all USTTA-sanctioned play, except for that involving international competition, such as the ‘37 National’s advertised as "The Second U.S. International Championships."

Specifically, the "AntiPushing" rule, as presented in the Oct., 1936 issue of Topics states:

"(a) A game shall be deemed a pushing contest when and after the umpire has counted the passage of the ball over the net 25 or more times in a single rally. [That is, when defensive strokes are being used exclusively? Presumably spectators would like to see hard-fought points of an extended duration.] It shall be the duty of the umpire to commence counting whenever the rallies approximate the limit of 25. [Again poorly worded: surely the writer’s intent is to say that after it's apparent that players are just monotonously, uninterestingly doing no more than trying not to make a bad return, the umpire must start to count rallies.] When and after the ball passes the net 25 times by the umpire's count he must signal both players in such manner as agreed on before the match. (b) The player serving is the offensive player. Upon receipt of signal from umpire he must employ offensive strokes for the balance of his service and during each of his services thereafter, until the conclusion of the game [though, as Sawyer put it in his original proposal, that "does not mean he must drive every shot"--or does it?]. (c) Failure to comply with the umpire's orders shall mean forfeiture of the game to opponent of guilty player. (d) It shall be compulsory on the part of the umpire to forfeit the match [sic] against the offensive player if, after having been warned, the rally again exceeds 25 [even if the server is being aggressive?]. (e) Offensive strokes are the smash, drive, flick, forcing topspin shot, sharply-angled placement, lob (at least 4 feet above the table) and drop shot (in this case the half-volley is not a defensive stroke). (f) Defensive strokes are the chop, simple return and half-volley (also called trap-shot or block-shot)" (10-11).

Whew! Zeisberg wasn’t kidding when he said he needed help. One can see how that rule will have to be rewritten, modified.

USTTA Changes Height of the Net

Another way of trying to stop the "pushing menace" had to do with changing the height of the table or height of the net. Thoughts on how to do this varied:

One fellow suggested, "Why not try a net 6 inches high in the middle and 6 [and] 3/4 at the ends? This might help driving, at the same time reduce the sharply-angled shots."

The English manufacturer, Jaques, built an experimental adjustable table to combat pushing. "The legs permit lowering it by inch-steps to [the traditional] 2 feet, 6 inches (including net). Leaves enable one to make the surface 10 by 5 or 10 by 6 feet. The net posts can be lowered an inch at a time."

Many English players were said to favor not the standard 9 x 5 foot table and 6 and 3/4-inch net but a 9 and 1/2 x 5 and 1/2 foot table with a 6-inch net...the height of which would be not 2 feet, 6 inches but 2 feet, 4 inches.

Finally, an American said, "If a match degenerates into a pushing contest, I suggest lowering the net to one inch, or remove the net altogether, then let them go to it. No kidding."

But Zeisberg and his E.C. couldn't be more serious. Biddell had asked the ITTF Congress at Prague to lower "the net to 6, 6 [and] 1/4, or 6 [and] 1/2 inches." And while the ITTF was making up its mind (by spring of '37 it was considering an approximate 6 and 1/2-inch net) the USTTA went right ahead and passed its own "Close Law" on the subject. By November 11, 1936 the new 6-inch net was expected to be in place on USTTA tables at all ‘36-’37-season tournaments (except for those used in "The Second U.S. International Championships").

USTTA Passes Disqualification Law

If the lower net didn't make it more difficult for the pushers, there was always the catch-all "Close Law," "DISQUALIFICATIONS." This law allowed the "committee in charge of any sanctioned terminate at any time any match which it considers detrimental to the game, and to default or disqualify the offending player or players" (TTT, Oct., 1936, 1).

USTTA Bans All Fingerspin Services

The USTTA had already banned the knucklespin serve and the rub-against-the-racket fingerspin serve. Now, with the following directives, it sought to ban all fingerspin serves:

"...(a) The ball must be held in such a manner that at least one-half of the ball is visible to the opponent while projecting it into the air. (b) The ball must be released from the hand without impartation of pressure, spin, twist, or indentation. (c) The umpire may require server to toss the ball into the air so he may clearly see the service is plainly legal" (TTT, Oct., 1936, 1).

The ITTF serve rule for the coming '36-37 season--which is going to be exploited at the '37 World's by "Solly" Schiff, as the English have taken to calling him--is simply this:

"The service shall be delivered by the server projecting or dropping the ball by hand only, without deliberate deformation of the surface, into the air..." (TTT, Feb., 1936, 4--reprinted from the English Table Tennis, Jan., 1936).

As for the balance of the '35-36 season, officially only a week remains. The U.S. Team arrives back home from the Prague World’s on Mar. 27. Accompanying them will be Barna and the English #1 Adrian Haydon whose 30-city U.S. Tour, beginning in Baltimore on the 28th, will be interrupted by the Apr. 2-4 National's, which of course one or the other of them is favored to win.

Barna, with Bellak and Szabados--the so-called "Three Musketeers"--had recently made two highly successful "circus" tours of England, but now, following the ‘36 World's, for the first time in seven years he hadn't a World Singles or Doubles title. Astonishingly, from 1930 through 1935, he had been the World Men's Singles finalist, winning in 5 of those 6 years, and from 1929 through 1935 the World Men's Doubles Champion, winning in all 7 years! So what if last year he'd broken his arm, if he wasn't the current World Champion (he would be again, in Men's Doubles anyway). How far, really, could this legendary player have slipped?

As it would turn out, Barna’s second successful Tour of the U.S.--with Haydon, Glancz, Aarons, Purves, Anne Sigman, and Westchester’s Jack Hartigan (who could play deep defense)--wasn’t going to draw as many spectators as the first. But this could be attributed to the fact that the Tour had started so late in the season rather than that Barna was any less popular. Decades afterwards, Dr. Stan Morest remembered, perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly, that, through an advance ticket sale, his Kansas City organization set a "record" of "1,000 paid spectator admissions" (Topics said approximately 500) for Barna’s March (make that April) exhibition, and that Barna was paid "before he went out on the floor to play" (TTT, Jan.-Feb., 1980, 6).