Why New York Times’ Puzzlemaster Played Table Tennis at an Alaska Middle School

Photo courtesy Kurt Smith

Tim McLeod (left) and Robert Roberts. (Photo courtesy Kurt Smith)

Tim McLeod (black shirt) and Phil McMurray (blue shirt) play against Will Shortz and Robert Roberts. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Will Shortz talks about his passion for table tennis. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Alaska is the 40th state, Shortz has played in. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

NPR’s puzzle master Will Shortz launched his seven-day Alaska table tennis tour in Juneau at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School Wednesday night. At an exhibition hosted by Juneau’s Table Tennis Club, Shortz and Caribbean table tennis champion Robert Roberts explained techniques of the sport and even played some matches.


The best match of the night was a game of doubles between Juneau table tennis players Phil McMurray and Tim McLeod, and visiting players Will Shortz and Robert Roberts.

“I think we only got a couple of points as I remember and they weren’t trying that hard,” McLeod says.

McLeod is part of Juneau’s Table Tennis Club, which has been around for 14 years. McLeod, McMurray, and several other Juneau players meet at AEL&P every Monday and Wednesday night throughout the year for two hours of table tennis.

McLeod isn’t surprised they lost to Shortz and Roberts. Roberts is a three-time table tennis champion of the Caribbean and Shortz isn’t happy just being a master of puzzles. He wants to also master table tennis.

“My ultimate goal is to be national champion for my age, whatever age that is. If I do it in my 60s, fantastic. 70s, 80s, 90s – doesn’t matter. Someday I want to be champion for my age.”

Shortz is 60 years old. To be national champion in table tennis, one has to win the US Open Table Tennis Championship, which has divisions for every age group. The next US Championship will be in Las Vegas this July.

“I’m not going this year because I’m not good enough, but someday,” says Shortz.

When asked when he will be good enough, Shortz laughs a bit

“I guess it’s like art, I’ll know it when I see it.”

Shortz is coming close to fulfilling another table tennis dream – to have the greatest club possible. In 2011, he opened the Westchester Table Tennis Club in Pleasantville, New York with friend, coach and Caribbean table tennis champ Robert Roberts. With 18 tables, it’s the largest table tennis facility in the country. Shortz’s club is gaining recognition both nationally and internationally. Recently, 15-year-old Kai Zhang from China joined the club.

“He’s the champion for his age in Beijing. He moved to Pleasantville to play at our club because he idolizes Robert and he loves our club,” says Shortz.

Zhang is already ranked number one for players under age 21, and is ranked 5 in the US overall.

Shortz’s table tennis schedule in Alaska is tight. He’s visiting six towns in seven days – Juneau, Anchorage, Homer, Soldotna, Eagle River, and Fairbanks – and he’ll be playing table tennis each night, which fulfills two more goals – to play table tennis every day this year and to play in every state in the union. Alaska is number 40.

While Shortz may have cast a spotlight on table tennis in Juneau, McLeod says Juneau Table Tennis Club doesn’t have the space for growth.

“We don’t have room at AEL&P. We set up one table that I own in the evening and we play. Sometimes we can set up a second one but it’s in really bad shape,” he says.

A new generation of table tennis players are sharpening their skills through an after school program at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, which allowed the students to play on four brand new tables.

Here’s some video from the match: