Getting Serious About Table Tennis

Members of the Baltimore Table Tennis Club include, from left, Steve Ashkenazi, Jack Jacob, Gene Metzger, Irving Goldstein, Avi Finkelstein and Mark Radom. (Connor Graham)

“This is not ping pong. This is table tennis.”

This line — one Irving Goldstein is known to repeat — usually gets a laugh. Even though he chuckles himself after saying it, he quite seriously believes the two activities are not the same.

For the last 25 years, Goldstein has run the Baltimore Table Tennis Club out of the gymnasium at the Northwest Academy of Health Sciences in Pikesville. The club operates 11 months of the year, and when it started back up in August, it began its 49th consecutive season. Goldstein has been there since the beginning, when Fred Tepper founded the club under the auspices of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks in 1970.

Now 83, Goldstein has been playing table tennis since he was a kid. He frequented the Broadway Table Tennis Club at 59th and Broadway in Brooklyn, where he got to rub elbows with future U.S.A. Table Tennis hall of famers Dick Miles and Bobby Gusikoff.

Throughout his competitive career, Goldstein has played in the U.S. National and U.S. Open tournaments in Las Vegas, and in the Maryland Senior Olympics. Although Goldstein no longer competes, he said he has won the singles tournament in the Senior Olympics three times, and the doubles tournament four or five times.

Even now, accomplished, and in several cases internationally recognized, table tennis players and coaches surround Goldstein at the club in Pikesville. It’s no wonder he holds table tennis, not pingpong, in such high regard.

“The point I’m trying to make is that table tennis is an Olympic sport,” said Goldstein. “If you get really good at it, above a basement level, you have to learn the correct strokes. It becomes more of an athletic game than a basement activity.”

By 6:45 p.m. on a Thursday evening, the gym at Northwest Academy is filled with 14 tables, all of which are occupied by competing players with sweat on their brows. Sitting atop the folded-up bleachers are half a dozen or more people, waiting for their turn to play. The club, which operates from 6:30 to 10:00 p.m., sees anywhere from 40-50 members stop by over the course of the night.

“One of the nice things about this club is that it’s extremely diverse,” said Hubert “Shepp” Sheppard, a longtime club member. “There are Chinese people, Korean people, black people, white people, Russians, Germans, dentists, doctors, surgeons, businessmen, salesman, convenience store clerks, retired people…” and several wearing yarmulkes.

Jack Jacob, 82, plays
competitive table tennis and is the national over 80 champion. (Connor Graham)

A walk around the gym confirms that Shepp’s assertion is not an exaggeration. If anything, his list is incomplete, as he forgot to mention Trinidadians. The club always has two of the 14 tables reserved for one-on-one instruction. The coaches, Boris Shafir and Nazruddin “Asgar” Asgarali, respectively hail from Russia and Trinidad. Both Shafir, the former coach of Russian National Team, and Asgarali coach players of any age, any gender and any playing level.

Many of the Baltimore Table Tennis Club members agree that playing the game is an athletic endeavor. Members named improved hand-eye coordination, heightened attention, quickened reaction time and maintenance of physical and mental health among the benefits they receive from coming to the club.

Jack Jacob of Pikesville, 82, has played competitive table tennis for most of his life, beginning as a child in Shanghai, China. In July, Jacob competed in several tournaments in the U.S.A. Table Tennis National Championship in Las Vegas. He is currently the Senior Men’s 80+ Champion.

After Jacob posed for a photograph, clad in at least four championship medals, he reminisced about his days in Shanghai, and later in then-Portuguese colony Macau. He said he received lots of media attention for his accomplishments as a table tennis player and was even recognized on the streets for the publicity he received.

“I had newspaper articles every day,” he said. “When you win a big tournament, you were very respected in the community.”

Mark Radom, now 70, has played competitive table tennis since before he was a teenager. (Connor Graham)

During the Northwest Academy’s basketball season, the table tennis club changes its weekend morning meeting time from Saturday to Sunday. For Jacob and his adult grandson Avi Finkelstein, this part of the season is preferable since, as Orthodox Jews, they don’t attend during Shabbos.

Another lifelong competitive table tennis player who attends the club regularly is Mark Radom, 70, also of Pikesville. Radom was a child prodigy of sorts, winning six national titles in the ’60s including the National Champion for players under 13. Radom is currently the Maryland State Champion for players over 70, and participated in the same tournament as Jacob in July. He was eliminated in the semi-finals of the Men’s 70+ tournament.

Goldstein noted that Radom was an exceptional hitter when he played baseball as a teen. Radom credits that success to playing table tennis. He laughed when he said that after playing table tennis so frequently, a baseball, even coming at him at great speeds, looked about as big as a beach ball.

“That’s how I was able to make contact,” he said. “I tell people now: Take up table tennis if you want to get better at baseball. It’s a great game for hand-eye coordination.”

Goldstein said the club tries to appeal to players of all backgrounds, including women and children. While children and teenagers have been a harder draw, there are many adult women that frequent the club. Sandy Steeley, who lives not far from the middle school, said she has come to the club for two and a half years.

“I started playing because of a personal tragedy in my family,” she said. “I needed something to occupy my mind. When I started this, I found it does that. It’s such a stimulating game and it occupies you completely, your mind and your body.”

Emily Wade of Owings Mills started coming about six months ago. “I’d play at home, but my kids are older and they are gone. I needed someone to play with, so I started coming here,” she said.

Wade agrees with Steeley that the game is all encompassing and credits even the number of times members bend over to pick up stray balls as a form of exercise.

“I really recommend it, you’re definitely moving,” she said.

Although children and teenagers don’t have a significant presence at the club, Goldstein has a history of working with youth. During years when the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC hosted the Maccabi Games, Goldstein organized and ran the tournaments. For 10 years, when he was not running the tournament, Goldstein coached Maccabi players from around the country.

“When we host, organizing the tournament goes from making sure we have the right facilities and equipment to making sure that all the kids have a good experience in the tournament,” said Paul Lurie, COO of the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “It’s a big undertaking, and Irv has always been the guy to step up.”

According to Lurie, Goldstein is “in it for the people. When we first started doing Maccabi table tennis, Irv was one of the people on the national level that said kids weren’t getting enough play time out of it. He took it upon himself to shift the national rules and the national culture of what Maccabi table tennis looks like, to a more engaging, interactive format.”

Before Goldstein wrote the new rules in 2010, kids in the Maccabi tournaments could play as little as one table tennis match if they were eliminated in the first round. After Goldstein’s intervention, a round-robin style of play was implemented, allowing for participants to play every competitor in their assigned group before determining which of those players will move on to the next round.

Since the mid-2000s, the Weinberg Park Heights JCC has hosted pick-up table tennis games on Monday and Wednesday evenings, while the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC hosts each Tuesday night. Lurie said Goldstein was instrumental in establishing each of these programs.

For athletes who question whether or not table tennis is a “real” sport, Lurie suggests competing against a seasoned table tennis player.

“I had some good hand-eye coordination. I was an athlete, I thought I was pretty good,” he said. “But when you play someone like Irv who has played on a national level, it’s really pretty humbling.”

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  1. I am looking for table tennis matches on Wednesday nights from 7-10PM close time in Baltimore. My skill level is modestly respectable.


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