A ping-pong paddle and ball

Photo: Anna Knott

Trey Runcie’s obsession with table tennis started last year when his employer bought a Ping-Pong table for the office. The 38-year-old Web developer from West Town figured a lesson might give him a leg up on his coworkers. So he wandered into the Chi-Slam Table Tennis Club, an unassuming graystone storefront wedged between a phone card shop and a used-furniture store on West Chicago Avenue.

It was late and the club was empty, save for one other player and Ardy Taveerasert, the director. “I told Ardy I might be interested in taking a lesson, and he gave me one right there,” Runcie says. “My first impression was that serious people play table tennis here.”

Taveerasert, a compact Thai immigrant in his 40s who owns a flower shop, learned the sport as a boy in Bangkok. He and his older brother cut paddles out of wood and rallied on a concrete table in the alley behind their house, not infrequently catching the ire of the local beat cops. It took Taveerasert just a few months of practice until he started beating his brother. Before long he was king of the neighborhood. “I never give up,” he says. “If I lose to you today, tomorrow you’d see me show up again. You’re going to see me keep playing and playing.”

He joined Chi-Slam shortly after it opened in 2004. Two years later, he was running it. A teacher certified by USA Table Tennis, he has attracted disciples such as actors Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Connelly, who studied with him to prepare for a scene in the 2011 movie The Dilemma. “Beat me and then I’ll hire you,” he recalls Vaughn saying. It was a shutout.

The popularity of table tennis today is a far cry from what it was in the 1950s, when Chicago was home to two popular Ping-Pong clubs: Stay and Play in the Loop and Net and Paddle in Uptown. The latter attracted the nation’s top players, many of whom competed in international tournaments. A 1957 Chicago Tribune story quoted a man from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who made the 120-mile round trip each night to play with Net and Paddle’s “topflight paddle wielders.” Both clubs have long been shuttered.

But interest in the game is rising in a very public way. Actress Susan Sarandon has expanded SPiN, a chain of high-end Ping-Pong social clubs that she co-owns, to five cities (the closest: Milwaukee). Here in Chicago, Ping-Pong equipment maker Killerspin hosted the first Chicago International Table Tennis Festival last September, an event that drew five Olympic gold medalists. (Robert Blackwell Jr., the CEO of Killerspin, says that the company plans to hold another festival this fall.) The private Chicago Sport and Social Club runs four Ping-Pong leagues each year, with 300 competing. And bars such as Ukrainian Village’s Happy Village and the West Loop’s Market have heavily trafficked tables.

But on any given evening, the competition tends to be fiercest among the dozen or so regulars trading forehands and backhands at Chi-Slam. For one thing, the club is the only place in town that hosts open play seven days a week. You can slip in and rent a table for $15 an hour. Taveerasert will give you a lesson for $35 an hour, no matter your skill level. The club hosts a tournament every quarter. Its patrons—about 1,000 of them last year, Taveerasert estimates—are diverse. Table tennis is a “democratic sport,” says Sharon Levine, a design professor at Columbia College who plays at Chi-Slam regularly.

“It doesn’t require any specific physical attribute,” adds Hui Lin, another club regular, who teaches accounting at DePaul University. “Anybody can play; anybody can be very good at it.”

The appeal of the sport extends beyond its inclusiveness. It demands both mental focus and physical stamina, it’s relatively cheap, and injuries are rare. And there’s a certain catharsis that comes from slapping a lightweight plastic sphere with a paddle. “It’s great to come here and hit the ball really hard,” Levine says with a grin.

Despite the seriousness of many of the players, Chi-Slam’s atmosphere is relaxed. Stacks of plants from Taveerasert’s florist business stretch to the ceiling; dollies and U-Haul boxes from a moving business that he also runs flank the front door. (Taveerasert sells Ping-Pong equipment too—including tables that cost more than $3,000—which he will personally deliver in his truck.) The blue and green fiberboard Ping-Pong tables, awash in fluorescent light, occupy a wooden floor in the back. There are couches, leftover cocktail wieners with Sriracha sauce to munch on, and stray balls in constant orbit.

Taveerasert, whose businesses card reads “Mr. Ping Pong,” sets a genial tone. As the players loosen up, he saunters from table to table, tightening nets and cracking jokes. Running Chi-Slam is his “dream job,” he says, and his demeanor reflects that. “Ardy just loves the game, and he loves seeing people play and passing on his knowledge,” Levine says.

Runcie now plays a couple of hours a day, five nights a week. On a recent weeknight, Taveerasert is helping him hone his loop stroke, a sweeping shot where the paddle grazes the ball just enough to create a heavy topspin. While they rally, a sweating Runcie cocks his right wrist and fixes his eyes on the white ball, walloping it over the net in quick bursts. Taveerasert, with his graying hair tucked under a camouflage-print baseball cap, nonchalantly returns each shot with a swift left backhand, occasionally delivering a pointer. It’s all about muscle memory, Taveerasert says: Good players learn how to hit and then hit a lot.

Finally, one of Runcie’s returns nicks the end of the table and shoots toward the wall, just beyond the reach of his coach. Taveerasert’s smile widens. “When he started,” he says of his pupil, “he couldn’t hit like that!”

WANT TO WATCH—OR PLAY? Chi-Slam’s spring tournament takes place May 18 and 19 at 1647 W. Chicago Ave. Watch for free; play for $15. For info and future tourney dates, chislamclub.com.