Victor Niederhoffer (R) plays his arch-rival,
July 2001, Concord MA, Â© 2001 SquashTalk
Photos: Â© 2001 SquashTalk
by Pamela Lawrence in
1978, updated and expanded by Ron Beck in 2001
Pamela Lawrence interviewed and wrote about Victor Niederhoffer
in the long-defunct USA magazine Racquet in 1978. Curiously,
considering Niederhoffer’s achievements in the USA Hardball game, little has
been written about him since. Here SquashTalk updates and presents Lawrence’s
1978 review of his career and personality.
The first thing to understand about Victor Niederhoffer is that he is totally
unlike any other athlete or human being you will ever meet.
bulky, flat-footed appearance oncourt contrasted sharply with that of most
top level squash players, was the main driving force in North America behind
creating the "open era" of squash and the North American WPSA pro
tour. He also made and lost a fortune and recently authored
the eclectic autobiography, "Education of a Speculator."
possessed of the idea of excellence. He is wholly inner-directed. He is a
loner, an intellectual, a champion. His desire for money and personal achievement
has led him to become a PhD, an accomplish pianist, the creator of a multi-million
dollar financial firm, and a speculator. His personal motto is "Create
Value." For a long time he wore two different colored sneakers on court
(to the total annoyance of the squash establishment in America,) sometimes
with black tie, to remind himself, he says, that no two people are alike.
When he entered Harvard University in 1960 he was not a squash player. One
year later he won the national junior title and by the time he graduated from
those hallowed halls, which among other things housed 42 squash courts and
host an unparalleled squash dynasty, Niderhoffer was the National Intercollegiate
coach, the legendary Jack Barnaby, recalled a self-confident,
arrogant pupil. "Early in his freshman year," Barnaby says, "before
I ever met Vic, I learned that he was going around school saying that he intended
to be the national squash champion. At that point Vic had never set foot on
a squash court."
Of course Niederhoffer
was right. He won the U.S. Nationals
five times (a record exceeded only by Stanley Pearson who won his sixth
in 1923) and would have won more if he hadn’t stopped playing between 1967
and 1972 (more about that later,) three national doubles titles and one U.S.
Open. He won the open in 1975 by defeating the great champion Sharif Khan.
"Vic was not the greatest
|Niederhoffer’s mentor: Jack Barnaby
natural talent I’ve
come across," says Barnaby, "but he had tremendous drive and competitive
spirit. He worked harder at it than anyone I ever instructed."
ever really look like a squash player. His six foot two inch frame was always
strong, bulky and curiously inflexible. John Jacobs, the Harvard Club of NY’s
pro for 50 years, once remarked that, "Niederhoffer uses the racquet
like a hammer." But body structure and inexperience were apparently unimportant.
And Niederhoffer had some advantages — he had grown up in New York playing
one wall handball, and had developed advanced racket abilities that way. He
had incredible hand-eye coordination and wrist quickness that gave him the
ability to create deception.
his game by practicing each shot individually until he mastered it and knew
how to hit it from anywhere on the court. He trained alone, playing entire
games with himself, hitting shots and making the appropriate returns. This
drill was mixed with a grueling exercise regimen designed to fight his metabolic
tendancy to flab. Niederhoffer’s game became technically unimpeachable. He
based it on the theory that the low risk shots, not the showy flamboyant ones
are the winners and he pioneered an aggressive overhand serve, playing it
too for the percentages. Critics considered his game plodding and colorless
in its efficiency, more like watching a computer than an athlete, but Niederhoffer
believed in out-foxing his opponents, not out-flashing them. This he learned
growing up in Brooklyn.
Niederhoffer grew up in Brighton Beach, a section of Brooklyn inhabited by
blue collar workers and a disproportionate number of handball and paddleball
players. "Brighton Beach is a mecca for court sports," Niederhoffer
explains, "and both of my parents are top players. I was five years old
when they entered me in my first tournament. I won the handball singles, the
handball doubles and the ping pong. I guess you could say my competitive urges
were nurtured from a very early age."
As a youngster, Niederhoffer played handball or paddleball or tennis daily.
He became something of a local celebrity and would often use his court skills
to hustle nickles and dimes from unsuspecting adults. When he was thirteen
the Brighton Beach group backed a challenge match between Niederhoffer and
a national paddleball champion named George Baskin who was 35. Niederhoffer
dispatched Baskin and collected a pair of sneakers. Thirteen is a dangerous
age to taste the sweetness of heroism, and it caused Niederhoffer to accept
nothing less of himself.
Jim Wynne was his
college roommate for all of their years at Harvard. They first met playing
in junior tennis tournaments on suburban Long Island. Wynne recounted his
first run-in with an impassioned, young Niederhoffer. Now, here comes Victor
in his bedraggled tennis clothes and his basketball sneakers with the tongue
flaps hanging out. "Vic was always aware," explains Wynne, "that
he grew up in a poor section of Brooklyn, the other side of the tracks, and
that he was Jewish. He always had something to prove. He would chew on glass
Niederhoffer entered the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business
in the fall of 1964. He took with him a degree from Harvard, a summa thesis
on the stock market, and a notorious squash reputation. The latter distinction
he earned by his frequent "discussions" with those in the unenviable
position of refereeing his games and by his unendearing habit of playing through
an opponent to reach a shot.
Earlier that year
Niederhoffer lost to national champion Henri Salaun in the semi-finals of
the US Nationals. The verbal battles between Niederhoffer, Salaun, and the
referee led to Niederhoffer’s censure by the USSRA and a bloody nose at the
hands of Salaun. But Niederhoffer attributes the incident to "deplorable
refereeing." Says Tready Ketchum, then president of the USSRA, and a
frequent referee of high level matches, "Victor would yell ‘appeal’ usually
before his opponent had crossed the "T" in his let call. I used
to tell him to at least count to ten before he opened his mouth, it would
make a better impression. Sure, Vic was overbearing and not very popular for
it, but the reason for it was that he knew the rules better than anyone, including
many of the referees." He won every major amateur tournament in 1965,
then captured his first national title in 1966. The next one was not to come
for five years.
ELITISM AND DISCRIMINATION
Niederhoffer is an ardent exponent of the libertarian philosophy: let me be
myself until I step on your toes. One thing everyone agrees about Niederhoffer
is that he is eminently predictable in these things — his Jewish toes have
bruised those of several gentile elitists, and vice versa.
While in Chicago,
Niederhoffer applied to membership to the city’s five private clubs that had
squash facilities. He was turned down by all five. His version is that he
was denied membership by anti-semites. One of the clubs, Lake Shore, was the
location for the 1967 National Tournament, and Victor opted not to defend
his championship. Tready Ketchum investigated the situation
at the time and recalls, "Vic had his reputation for abrasiveness that
didn’t sit well. I’m not saying he wasn’t discriminated against, maybe if
he wasn’t Jewish his behavior wouldn’t have been an issue. The Lake Shore
Club did have Jewish members, and I spoke to one of
|Niederhoffer accepts the ’72 National Trophy
them about Vic’s
rejection. The fellow said Niederhoffer wasn’t turned down because he was
a Jew, but because he was a Jew with a deportment problem." So Niederhoffer
refused to compete in a sport where "I couldn’t be treated as an equal,"
and with the exception of the 1968 National Doubles tournament, he left the
game for the next five years. "I recognize a private club’s right to
refuse me membership," Niederhoffer said, "but the fact that the
national tournament was being held in this kind of closed environment is typical
of the short-sighted, elitist attitudes of the ruling body. This kind of thinking
deterred me from playing the game at a time in my life when I could have given
competitors and spectators a lot of pleasure."
In 1972, stating that he had made his point about predjudice at squash
Niederhoffer battles Nayar in 1972
his return to squash. In his absence, the Indian hall of fame player, Anil
Nayar, had risen to prominence and won the past three National Championships.
In the first tourney
of that season, with Niederhoffer rusty and out of shape, Niederhoffer lost
to Nayar in the finals. From that point on, though, to the amazement of most
observers, Niederhoffer dominated Nayar and won back the championship at Detroit
THE HARVARD CLUB
It is a steamy summer weekend. NIederhoffer and I are discussing his favorite
subject, capitalism, in the Great Hall of the New York Harvard Club, an endless
towering room that looks like the main concourse of the Grand Central Station
if you filled it with red and black leather couches and big game trophies.
The place is empty except for the two of us. Niederhoffer has his sneakered
feet propped up on a mahogany table and is casually slumped back against black
cowhide. "I love to make money," he says. "If the squash powers
would move to get people making money, you’d see a better game all around."
I was about to ssuggest
that I would prefer to know about his financial conquests when I became aware
of a small, conservatively well-dressed man standing over us. He was glaring
at Niederhoffer’s pale blue T-shirt with U.S. Open Philadelphia 1977, across
the front. The small man cleared his throat.
Mr. Niederhoffer," he said tentatively.
Mr. Niederhoffer, that this time everything is wrong."
into the first truly amused grin I had witnessed in all our meetings.
of the club, as you well know, are that gentlemen must wear ties and jackets,
conduct themselves in an orderly fashion, and there should be no conspicuous
display of papers. I’m afraid, Mr. Niederhoffer, that I must ask you to leave,"
the man concluded fearfully.
We gathered our
paraphenalia and rode the elevator to the sixth floor squash area. Niederhoffer
was visibly embarassed. We went outside through a fire door and sat on the
tarred roof. Niederhoffer laughed at the incident and griped about the irony
of not being allowed to conduct business in a club of businessmen.
A FUTURE OF SQUASH
"There is a natural tendancy among the aristocratic ruling powers of
squash," Niederhoffer continued, "to keep it a clsoed fraternity
where women and children aren’t welcome. where Jews and unwealthy men aren’t
welcome. What I’ve always stood for is the opposite of this, the opening up
of the game, to have things on a business basis where the masses could enjoy
it and where people could derive a profit. The private group, the people who
have been running the USSRA for the last 40 years, are the ones with the money
who should be encouraging people to go make a buck. Why did racquetball grow
to one hundred times the size of squash in two or three years? It’s not because
its a better sport, it’s that the people involved have an interest in making
It was the fall
of 1975. Victor had collected his fifth national title the previous spring,
and didn’t feel that he had been tested by the best — the best, he knew,
were the pros — at that time Sharif and Mo Khan, and veterans like Rainer
Ratinac and Ken Binns. Victor decided on a dramatic move — he was going
to defect to the pro ranks. Victor showed up at the Boston Open — at that
time the second most prestigious Pro event in North America and entered not
as an amateur, but as a pro. He circulated a press release announcing his
reasons — but the unstated one was to shake up the squash establishment
and open up the game.
Victor in 1977 became
a leader of the burgeoning pro organization — as the existing pros, especially
the Khan clan, realized that Victor’s financial knowhow, drive, and organization
could benefit them all.
By his lead, he
recruited other former "amateur" players to join the pro ranks —
Frank Satterthwaite, and then a growing group of players, so that the real
competition was now taking place at the open events.
"With Vic at the helm, the pro association was a very exciting place
to be. He lined up some sponsors for new tournaments and negotiated better
deals for the pros as the circuit started to open up."
This growth was
also made possible by the confluence of the pro groups efforts to build a
tour with the emergence of public squash clubs, pioneered by Harry Saint and
his New York Town Squash. The Boodles Gin Tournament, held at Saint’s Uptown
Racquet Club was a cornerstone of this new direction.
So Victor succeeded
beyond his wildest expectations. By 1979, a year after Victor’s retirement
from active play, there was a vibrant pro tour and most of the top players
had defected to the "open" game. The traditional "invitational"
amateur events, held in the stuffy, closed venues Niederhoffer had railed
against, immediately became footnotes to the main event, the open tour. And
the pro association gained in stature and power, providing checks and balances
against the directions of the USSRA.
END OF THE FIGHT
Victor Niederhoffer was sitting behind a huge, cluttered desk discussing his
reasons for quitting squash. It is our second meeting. His back is to a 30
foot long window that brings Park Avenue into the spacious office. A narrow
ledge follows the bottom of the window and it shelves a surprising collection
of Americana. They are all toy banks and each of them does something when
coins are deposited — fire engines clang, monkeys tip their hats, bears
clap cymbals. Like Niederhoffer, they are both practical and unique.
gave up competitive squash. At 34, it was getting harder for him to keep in
shape, the demands on his time were greater with business booming and his
family growing. He sprained his ankle very badly in the 1976 Metropolitan
Open. It was a signal to him, but because he had turned pro the year before
and committed himself to playing and organizing he finished the 1977-78 season.
did not do very well. "I felt like I was playing like a dispassionate
observer," Niederhoffer said, "like I was someone in the grandstand.
I also got to thinking when I was beating the amateurs, like Tom Page and
Michael Desaulniers, who I knocked off last year, that it was too bad for
me to be beating those guys."
ruminates a bit about not having the chance to beat Sharif Khan one more time.
"I was the only one at the top who didn’t play squash full time. If I
had I would have been clearly better than anyone else in the game." Niederhoffer
had been searching for words to explain his retirement and now he found them.
"What it is," he said, "is that I’ve lost the killer instinct."