Will Shortz Interview

By Rahul Acharya | Jan. 23, 2015, 12 a.m. (ET)

Wow! I can't believe 2014 is over already! I sat down to reflect on my table tennis journey in order to set goals for 2015. Just then, it occurred to me that I would have no journey without one man - Will Shortz, the owner of Westchester Table Tennis Center (WTTC), Pleasantville, NY. WTTC is truly my "home" club, my second home where I spend a significant number of my waking hours outside of school.

It is a great pleasure to interview Will, the Puzzle Master and table tennis enthusiast. I hope you enjoy getting to know him!

Quick facts about Will Shortz:
Highest rating 1935
Owner - Westchester Table Tennis Center, Pleasantville, NY


Will Shortz (Owner, Westchester Table Tennis Center, NY) with Club Pro Robert Roberts (left)
Photo credit: Henry Lee
Will Shortz with Rahul Acharya

1. Tell us how you got started with table tennis.
I grew up on an Arabian horse farm in Crawfordsville, Indiana. My family had a ping-pong table in the rec room, so I played a lot as a kid, but with no training. I won several tournaments in high school.

After moving East in 1977, I played at Marty Reisman's place on West 96th Street in Manhattan; later at Lost Battalion Hall in Queens. Then I quit for 15 years.

In 2001, after moving to Pleasantville, about 30 miles north of New York City, I discovered the Rivertowns Table Tennis Club in nearby Hastings, where I started playing twice a week and got progressively more serious.

2. What equipment do you use?
Blade: Stiga Titanium 54 (because it's fast and light)
Forehand rubber: Butterfly Tenergy
Backhand rubber: JUIC NeoAnti

3. How would you describe your playing style and why did you choose your grip over popular styles?
I use a so-called Seemiller grip - but, strictly speaking, it's not Seemiller, because I put my index finger straight up the back of the paddle. That's not how Danny plays. I can generate lots of topspin on my backhand.

I think of myself as an offensive player. In reality, though, I block a lot.

4. How often do you play and train?
I play everyday, literally. As of now, I've played for 820 days in a row. The last time I missed was Oct 3, 2012 and before that, Christmas Day, 2011.

Robert Roberts trains me six days a week. I also get training from Rawle Alleyne, one of our club pros, and 17-year-old club member and whiz, Kai Zhang.

5. What is it about the sport that has kept you interested over the years?
Table tennis is a thinking person's game, so it's my sort of thing. I love its speed and challenge. I also like its social nature. Unlike tennis and many other sports, you can talk to your opponent while you play, and you can play many different people during a single session. It's inexpensive, it's year-round, it's healthful, and I like most of the table tennis people I meet.

6. What are your personal goals with regards to table tennis for 2015?
To get my rating over 2000. Of course, I've been hoping for this for years.

7. Do you see any connection between puzzles and table tennis?
They're both brain games, so the connection is strong. Also, they're both activities in which you can get completely immersed and forget the rest of the world for a while. For most people puzzles serve this function. Since puzzles are my job, table tennis is my release.

8. You have played in many states in the US and in many countries. Where did you enjoy playing the most? Why?
So far I've played at 195 clubs in 48 U.S. states + Puerto Rico as well as 70 more clubs in 26 foreign countries. As far as states go, I'm missing only Mississippi and Hawaii. I want to be the first person ever to play at clubs in all 50 states.

There are too many great clubs to list. But my fondest memories tend to be of ones where there's a strong social element. For example, in 2007 the club in Kokomo, IN, warmly welcomed me to their post-Christmas bash. That was special. I've gone out to eat and drink after play with club members in Allentown, PA, Omaha, NE, Madison, WI, and New Albany, IN. There were table tennis parties in Anchorage and Fairbanks that I will never forget.

9. Who is your favorite international table tennis player? Why?
Greece's Kalinikos Kreanga, because of his fierce backhand.

10. Tell us how Westchester Table Tennis Center happened. When did you first get the idea of opening a club? How did it become a reality?
My coach and best friend, Robert Roberts, came to the U.S. from Barbados in 2006. Since he didn't have a car, I became his driver to the club. We played at local community centers at the time. It was actually his idea to open our own place.

In 2010, I bought a 50% interest in a large building in Pleasantville. The next May we opened our club in about 14,000 square feet of the building. Since the club doesn't yet support itself financially, revenue from the rest of the building makes up some of the loss.

11. Gordon Kaye, CEO of USA Table Tennis, recently referred to the club as the "Mecca" for the sport. How does that make you feel? What are your future plans for the club?
Gordon's comment makes me feel proud and honored.
My goals for the club are:
1) Increase our membership, which currently stands at a little over 150
2) Get sponsorship for our tournaments - so we can increase the $5,000+ prizes at our monthly Opens
3) In the more distant future, have one or more of our young members represent the United States in Olympic table tennis.

12. You are hosting the 2014 North American Tour - the only 5 star tournament with the exception of the US Open, US Nationals, and the National Collegiate Championships. What special preparations are you doing for the event?
I see this as a big table tennis party, and I want everyone who comes to have a blast. We're giving the 16 invited players free lodging for two nights, their meals all weekend, airport pick-up and drop-off, a welcome party with a fun handicap contest on Friday night, and a $300 travel stipend for anyone flying to New York. The main room of our club will be set up with just two tables, surrounded by bleachers and other seating. We'll have tournament banners and player T-shirts. The matches will be live-streamed. Prizes will total more than $10,000.

As you can imagine, there's a huge amount of work involved in putting on this event. Fortunately, many club members are pitching in to help.

Now, on to some personal questions:

13. What do you like to do when you are not working or playing table tennis?
A big hobby is collecting puzzle books and memorabilia. My library has more than 25,000 puzzle books and magazines dating back to 1533. I'm also a voracious reader and a big moviegoer.

14. If you didn't play table tennis, how may your life have been different?
I'd have a lot fewer friends and not be in as good physical shape.

15. What is your favorite food?
Barbecue spare ribs and root beer.

16. If you had a chance to go on vacation anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Most of my vacations involve either puzzles or table tennis -- or both.

Robert and I have taken many table tennis road trips together - twice to Canada, twice to the Midwest, also New England, the South, Alaska, and other places. Three years ago we flew to San Diego to play at Stellan Bengston's place, then rented a car and drove back to New York, playing at clubs all along the way. Last spring we flew to Trinidad and Tobago and island-hopped through the Caribbean, playing at clubs in Trinidad, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Antigua, and Puerto Rico.

This October the World Puzzle Championship will be held in Sofia, Bulgaria, and we're planning a table tennis road trip through Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Trips like this are a great way to meet people, experience other clubs, and see the world.

17. Would you like to share any surprising fact that many people who know you don't know about you?
My favorite breakfast cereal, appropriately, is Alpha-Bits. 

I once won $2,000 in a gum-naming contest.

It should not be surprising that one of my goals in life is to be a national table tennis champion for my age. I'm not saying what age, though, and I hope to be long-lived.

Thank you, Will, for your time, but most of all for your incredible contribution to USA table tennis by creating one heck of a table tennis center.