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May 13, 2014

How I Almost Didn't Go or Stay Full-time in Table Tennis

Sometimes when I look around the Maryland Table Tennis Center I marvel at the series of events that led to the place opening, and all the things that could have derailed it or me from full-time table tennis. There would be no MDTTC if Cheng Yinghua, Jack Huang, and I didn't get together back in 1992 to make it happen. All the players developed there wouldn't have happened. All the training centers that copied our system to open their own training centers might not have happened. How history in U.S. table tennis might have been different!

If Cheng had been chosen to be on the 1989 or 1991 Chinese National Team to the Worlds, as most expected he would, he might have stayed in China. If he had taken the offer to be the Chinese Men's Coach, he would have stayed in China. But after being burned by coaches who wanted stick with the historical Chinese close-to-table styles while using players like Cheng (as well as Huang Tong Sheng, i.e. Jack Huang) as European-style practice partners, he decided to come to the U.S., as did Coach Jack.

As to me, here is a brief listing of all the ways I might have been derailed from joining up with Cheng and Jack in 1992 and from becoming a full-time table tennis coach, writer, and promoter. It's largely biographical, so bear with me as I talk about some of my background.

I'll start at the beginning. Back in 1976 (age 16), I was on my high school track team as a miler. I went to the library to get a book on "Track & Field." I happened to look to my left . . . and there was a book on table tennis, "The Money Player," by Marty Reisman! I had been playing "basement" ping-pong at a neighbor's house, and spur-of-the-moment checked the book out. From it, I found out about USATT (then called USTTA). I contacted them, found a local club, and went there. I got killed, but I stuck with it, and a few years later became the best at the club. I later became a professional table tennis coach and writer, and from 1985 on, I've been full-time table tennis almost continuously in various capacities. If I hadn't happened to look to my left and saw that book, you would be staring at a blank screen right now. (Interesting note - years later I met Marty for the first time and told him this story. His response? "Great . . . another life I've ruined.") So ended my career as a normal person.

Now we move to North Carolina, 1979-81. I went there a year after I graduated high school for the sole purpose of training at table tennis. But I had to make a living, and so at age 19 I began working in restaurants at minimum wage. Meanwhile, I began making batches of my own secret recipe for chili for members of the table tennis club, and many raved about it. Here's a little-known secret - I came close to dropping table tennis at one point and opening up my own chili franchise! It would have started with one of those pushcarts you see at shopping malls. I got all the info needed, and even began experimenting with the chili recipe. But the table tennis bug was too much, and though I got prices on carts and on selling in malls, I finally gave up on my temporary lifelong dream of opening a chili chain. So ended my career as a chili chef.

Now we move to 1985. I've just completed my bachelors in math at University of Maryland, with minors in chemistry and computer science. A Dr. Harold Reiter has invited me to work on my Ph.D in math at the University of North Carolina. (He and I had co-written a paper published in a math journal.) I could have gone there, and eventually I'd have been Dr. Larry Hodges, math professor. But I decided to take time off for table tennis - and USATT hired me. So ended my math career.

Now we move to 1990. At this point I've spent four years working for USATT as (in order) assistant manager, manager, and then director/assistant coach for the resident table tennis program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. But politics intervened, and I was released. (Funny story - when the board decided not to renew my contract, they also went out of their way to "help" me by making arrangements for me to go to Anderson College where I could get a degree. Not one of them realized I already had a degree in math!) Anyway, I returned to Maryland and debated what to do next. At the Nationals that year I did something I'd done year after year in Las Vegas - won piles of money playing 7-card stud. There was no question - I could make a living at it. I debated it, and there were times where I was on the verge of packing up and moving to Vegas to play poker full-time. But while I could make good money at it, I kept asking myself a simple question: Is that what I wanted to do with my life? The answer was no. So ended my poker career.

Now we move to 1992. I'd started work on a master's in journalism, with concentrations in science writing and magazine production. I'm now planning on a journalism career, and plan to be a science writer. But two things intervened. First, I was hired by USATT as editor of USATT Magazine. Second, I met with Cheng and Jack, and we decided to open up MDTTC. So ended my science writing career.

Now we move to 1996. I'd just finished four years as editor of USATT Magazine (while coaching nearly full-time at MDTTC as well as well as coaching USA junior teams around the world), but politics once again intervened and my contract wasn't renewed. I began coaching even more hours at MDTTC. But I began to have injury problems, and I was so disgusted with USATT that I needed a break from table tennis. In 1997 one of my students hired me as a computer programmer. So I spent a year programming while playing and coaching table tennis part-time. I made good money, and for a time planned on becoming rich that way. But the company I worked for closed down. So ended my computer programming career.

Now we move to 1998. I could have gotten other jobs as a computer programmer, but I was more into writing. Plus I had just finished my master's in Journalism, which I'd been working on part-time for five years. So I applied for editorial positions. I was hired as editor of The Quality Observer. I spent nearly a year there. But the table tennis bug began to bite again, and I kept thinking about how I could make about twice as much per hour coaching as editing. Finally I resigned that position and went back to coaching. So ended my non-table tennis editorial career.

I was hired back as editor of USATT Magazine in 1999, and stayed on until 2007. (I continued to coach at MDTTC during this time.) At that point I was disappointed that USATT wouldn't focus on the things needed to be done to grow the sport (sound familiar?), and I was tired of all the politics. So I decided to take some time off and focus on something I'd been doing part-time for years - write science fiction & fantasy. So I resigned as USATT editor/webmaster, and spent the next couple years mostly just writing. My SF writing career has had lots of ups and downs. (Here's my SF writing page.) I've sold an even 70 short stories. Thirty of them were compiled in an anthology, "Pings and Pongs: The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of Larry Hodges." I wrote two novels. The second one was published last November, the humorous fantasy "Sorcerers in Space." (You can also buy it at Amazon.) A publisher (Larger than the one that published "Sorcerers") is very interested in the first one, Campaign 2100, a SF novel that covers the election for president of Earth in the year 2100, but requested a rewrite on a number of sections, which I'm currently working on. But while I'm still doing this part-time, I returned to full-time table tennis in 2008, and have been at it ever since. (Both of my novels feature characters who play table tennis.) So ended my full-time science fiction writing career.

I'm a full-time table tennis coach/writer/promoter. But if I hadn't looked left, if I'd become a chili chef, a math professor, a poker player, a science writer, a programmer, a non-TT editor, or a full-time science fiction writer, I wouldn't be doing table tennis full-time. And there'd be no MDTTC if hadn't look left, or if I'd become a chili chef, math professor, or poker player.

Samsonov and Ma Long on the New Plastic Balls

Here's Samsonov ("I think the change will not be that big") and Ma Long (he endorses it). Readers, feel free to send me links on what other top players think about this, or post your own comments below.

The Different Chinese Eras

Here's an interesting posting (and some follow-up responses) about the three most recent eras of Chinese dominance - the Kong Linghui/Liu Guoliang era, the Wang Liqin/Ma Lin era, and the current Zhang Jike/Ma Long era. Wang Hao should probably get more credit in there as he's been dominant throughout the last two of these eras, and I'd add Xu Xin to the current era. Before the Kong/Liu era was a period of 4-6 years where China didn't do so well, the Ma Wenge/Wang Tao era. Before that was the Jiang Jialiang/Chen Longcan/Teng Yi era. Before that was the Guo Yuehua/Cai Zhenhua era. Before that was the Zhuang Zedong/Li Furong era. (I've left out plenty of top players, such as Li Zhenshi, Liang Keliang, and many others, but can't fit everyone in every era! Plus we're only talking about the men, leaving out the women.)

ITTF Pongcast - April 2014

Here's the video (13:22).

NCTTA Best of the Best

Here's the listing of winners from the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association.

No Money in Ping-Pong?

Here's the article/posting.

Table Tennis Profile Picture

Here's one of the nicer ones I've seen! I should have that on my wall when I'm writing about table tennis . . . like right now. See the action coming out of my keyboard!

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