They don't play for money. They don't play for their team or their hometown or even their country. In fact, they don't even play for a trophy.
And while this sometimes silly and always social group who play the up-Island brand of table tennis called Quinapong may seem more interested in chatting with their fellow players than actually playing - don't be fooled by their casual manner. When the plastic ball drops they are all business.
Clearly, the men and women of Quinapong tend to think of themselves more as works in progress than masters of the game, but there is no doubt they are in it to win. This group of players is as diverse as it is colorful, and the Quinapong championships held at the West Tisbury school on Thursday evening featured sailors, a part-time farmer, a tennis pro, painters, potters and professional contractors.
Professions aside, this particular game seems to attract a certain breed - those who are one part thrill seeker and one part soul searcher - who seem driven to find their kicks in life and to try new things. The ages of players on Thursday ranged from early 30s to early 70s, although in the past they have run the gamut from high school students to players in their 80s.
The range of ages is perfect for the timeless game of table tennis, or ping pong, where success is often measured by the number of games played more than the power of the serve. And focus can be as important as skill.
As one player explained, there is something very Zen to it all.
"I kind of think of the game as a different type of yoga because it's all about valuing and focusing on the exact moment and not judging it against any other moments that came before," said Geoffrey Borr, the owner of Chilmark Pottery.
"You have to take the one moment when the ball comes your way and react to it. If at that moment you are looking forward and maybe thinking of winning, you lose your focus, because if you are only trying to satisfy a need to win you have already lost," he added.
But just moments after this new-age explanation of the game, Mr. Borr suddenly shifted gears and flashed his competitive side.
"Don't get me wrong, I want to win. All of us here want to win. We just realize that winning isn't everything," he said.
Scott Smith, the tennis pro for Vineyard Youth Tennis, described the game in more studious terms. For Mr. Smith, who has trained tennis greats like Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, analyzing people's games is clearly a force of habit.
"You see this guy over there has a wicked top spin on his serve, so you need to counter that by undercutting the ball," he said, demonstrating a slicing return with his paddle. "It's really a matter of physics."
Despite his obvious edge in the game of tennis, the game this night was table tennis, and Mr. Smith wound up placing second overall in the Quinapong Championship.
The winner was Standa Harag, a Vineyard Haven resident and native of the Czech Republic who defeated Mr. Smith three games to one. Thursday's championship was the first time that Mr. Harag had ever played Quinapong.
But, as regular Bob O'Rourke explained, the unpredictable nature of Quinapong is the only thing predictable about it.
"Anyone here can beat just anyone on any given night," said Mr. O'Rourke, who won the championship during the first year of Quinapong in 2005. "That's the appeal - nobody has a real edge. The young guy in great shape does not have an advantage over someone in their 60s or 70s."
Quinapong started three years ago when Aquinnah residents Craig (Spa) Tharpe and John Walsh came up with the idea to host a twice weekly tennis table game that hopefully would appeal to a wide range of people. Although envisioned as a winter sport, it now runs for the better part of the year, starting in September and wrapping up in June with the championship.
Mr. Walsh and Mr. Tharpe at first played games at the Aquinnah town hall - every Monday and Wednesday in 2005 and 2006. But this year, the group got a green light from school officials in West Tisbury to use the gymnasium of the West Tisbury school one evening a week, a venue that features both better lighting and more space.
The number of players has varied over the years - some nights only a few will show up, while other nights attendance reaches 20 or more. The group now has the use of several brand new tennis tables rescued from a facility in Boston and donated to the Aquinnah park and recreation department.
Mr. Walsh said the game has come a long way in just three years. Where once the twice weekly games were attended by people with only a passing interest in the game - including families with young children and dogs - the level of competition has spiked dramatically in only a few short years.
"When we first started it seemed like more of an indoor picnic than anything; there would be kids watching videos, dogs running around, birthday cakes - not that there's anything wrong with that - but suffice to say it has more of a competitive edge now. You see the same players who last year were new to the game and now they are beating everyone. That's the real thrill; watching these players get better and better," he said.
Perhaps the biggest student of the game playing on Thursday was Mr. O'Rourke, who won the Quinapong championship last year and at age 70 will be playing in the National Senior Games Olympics in Louisville, Ky., later this month.
Mr. O'Rourke, who qualified for the National Senior Games by winning first place in the singles and second place in the doubles event in the Massachusetts Senior Games, has an infectious enthusiasm.
"It's the kind of game you play as a kid and then sort of forget about. Life hits you all of a sudden and you're working and you have a family and you have less time to play. Then you pick up the [table tennis] racket and all of a sudden it all comes back," he said.
While most players on the surface have a casual attitude, there is an underlying respect for the game that for some borders on reverence.
Mr. Borr, for example, has played since he was a child and can recount stories about playing the eighth ranked table tennis player in the United States when he was still a kid. Another time he played the captain of a parish team in Jamaica.
"[Table tennis] is like life . . . the longer you go, the more you learn," he said.
Mr. Tharpe, who first envisioned the game as a way to pass the time during the cold Aquinnah winters, said he is pleased and a little surprised by the popularity of Quinapong. Mr. Tharpe has built an interesting legacy of leisure on the Island, having thought up the idea for the annual Whippoorwill Yacht and Rocket Club model sailboat race and the Moshup Challenge Gravity Race.
Quinapong, he said, is just the latest in a quest to find good times for himself and his fellow Islanders.
"It's ping pong - how can you not enjoy ping pong? I think that most people in life spend so much of their time chasing a buck - especially here on the Vineyard - that they forget to stop and chase the ball around a little," Mr. Tharpe said.
This fun attitude was personified by Chilmark resident Sam Feldman, who despite being one of the first players eliminated from the championship, was both gracious and affable in defeat.
Like most of the players, Mr. Feldman pursues many other interests in the community. But on this evening, he has put aside his causes and his passions and thrown himself into the game of table tennis, if only for a few hours.
"You wouldn't even believe how much I get into it. I have this robot at home that knows how to play ping pong and I practice with it all the time. It serves you the ball then you hit it back and the robot collects it and serves it back again," he said.
But Mr. Feldman said he realizes the winner is ultimately decided by skill and not the quality of a player's equipment.
"Here I am playing with this expensive Wang Chen table tennis paddle, and these players are out here are beating me with a paddle they bought for $3.99," he said, adding:
"But, win or lose, I love it. It's just great to be out there playing with these guys that are 30 years younger than me. It keeps you young," he said.