When Rachel Smith took her nine-year-old son, Ivor, for ping-pong lessons, she took him to a Manhattan table tennis club she’d heard good things about. What she didn’t discover until later was that she hadn’t brought him to just any club — he was learning from a former Olympic athlete.
“This is what he loves to do,” says Smith of her son’s first day of lessons. “We were so excited to find this place, and I’m excited that a champion ping-pong player runs it.”
The Wang Chen Table Tennis Club (250 West 100th Street, Manhattan, wangchenttc.com) is named for a woman who made it to the quarterfinals in the 2008 Summer Olympics. “I teach everyone from 4- to 84-year-olds,” says Chen, 42. Her clients at the club have included an NYU professor, an orthopedic surgeon, and Keanu Reeves. “I gave him lessons. He always wanted to play, but he wasn’t very good.”
The club is a rare affordable hangout in today’s New York. It helps that Chen’s landlord is a former student, Jerry Wartski. “He had this small table tennis club on West 100th Street, so he offered me a job,” says Chen. “I didn’t know he’d name the club after me. I just pay a little bit of rent. I thought there’s no interest in table tennis in America. But I started teaching and I found out students are interested.”
The club is packed most evenings, and with more than your average ping-pong enthusiasts. The Upper West Side spot draws table tennis pros from across the city and regulars of all ages, including young newcomers, with after-school programs, training sessions with expert coaches, and affordable membership rates. Unlimited play is just $20 a month — what you’d pay for just one hour at Susan Sarandon’s SPiN. And as the main game room is the size of a small gym, with seven professional tables available, anyone who wants to improve their game or just learn how to play can walk in and hope to grab a paddle. (The club doesn’t take reservations.)
The low-key, no-frills club doesn’t have the bar and nightclub atmosphere of other table tennis venues, but it has seen its share of other high-profile celebrities besides Reeves, including John McEnroe on occasion. And Chen herself often makes an appearance. “I’m still active and still playing, and I think people who come to my place admire what I did in the Olympics and they share my passion for the sport,” she says. “We don’t need alcohol and food here — we only need table tennis.”