From the archive
Steven Heller: Susan Sarandon is part owner of Spin, a Ping-Pong parlor in New York City. What came first, the chicken or the Ping-Pong ball? In other words, do you believe your book launched this, or vice versa? Or, it’s in the air?
Roger Bennett: It has taken eight long years to build our collection, and during that time, we have been delighted to see Ping-Pong fire up the popular imagination, but our research revealed that, while Scientology was just a twinkle in L. Ron Hubbard’s eye, Ping-Pong was always tightly connected to celebrity. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had two tables installed in their homes. One in the east wing to soak up the morning light; the second in the west to bask in the setting sun. Henry Miller would battle young starlets in the nude. And Primal Scream front man Bobby Gillespie admitted he loved to “do loads of cocaine, get ‘sniffed up,’ and play table tennis,” explaining, “That’s the way to do it. You can do those Japanese topspins and backspins right … That’s when I am at my best.”
Heller: I’m dying to ask this. What is the origin of the term? And is there any connection between the digital connotation, as in “ping,” and the video game “Pong”?
Bennett: Ping-Pong was invented, like most pure modern games—dice, chess, cockfighting, kabbadi—in India. British soldiers sought relief from tough days spent in colonial exploitation by playing with cigar boxes and corks across tables divided by a stack of books. The fad spread to Europe under a slew of names including flim-flam, whiff-whaff, and gossima, until Parker Brothers trademarked “Ping-Pong” in 1901. Pong is directly a reinvention of the sport. In 1971 Nolan Bushnell had just founded Atari. He desperately needed a game to launch his video console and commanded his programmers to invent something “so simple any drunk in a bar could play.” They returned to Ping-Pong, giving the world “Pong” to avoid Parker Brothers litigation. Our chapter on the connection between Ping-Pong and the rise of video games documents this revolution assiduously.
Heller: Is Ping-Pong a retro fad? Will it go the way of dodge ball as a spectator sport? Or is there something more enduring?
Bennett: Every sport claims to be the world’s game—soccer, basketball, petanque. Few can match the global status acquired by humble Ping-Pong. It is modest yet ubiquitous. Far from being a fad. Ping-Pong is here to stay. We challenge Thomas Friedman’s assumption that the world is flat. We believe it to be round, plastic, and always spinning.
Heller: What did you learn from this immersion into Ping-Pong culture that stands out as real enlightenment?
Bennett: Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson wrote a stunning essay about his love of the game for our book. In it he says, “Table Tennis is an unillusioned game. We choose it because we accept defeat is inevitable, and we play to reconcile ourselves to its bitterness. You could say we play because we know we have lost at something else already.”