“I’m willing to keep a rally going 75 or 80 shots,” says Victor Niederhoffer. “I have to force myself to take the pain during those long rallies. But there is no gain without pain. Great things come only after great effort. You must be patient, wait an eternity, erode your man’s position, make no mistakes, and look for the right opportunity—the high reward in relation to risk.”
If Victor Niederhoffer’s conversation sounds like a curious hybrid of the sports and financial pages, it’s because the 31-year-old New Yorker has melded both worlds to achieve one purpose—winning. On the squash court and in business—he arranges corporate mergers—Victor Niederhoffer is an unmistakable winner.
He has been the top U.S. amateur squash player since 1972. Last month, on his way to copping the 1975 title, he swept all five matches without losing a single game. Two months ago he became only the fourth amateur to win the North American Open. But for all his triumphs, he does not earn a penny at squash—as an amateur, he can’t even endorse T-shirts. He doesn’t have to; though his office day may last 15 hours, his Manhattan firm is already a $1 million enterprise.
Shamelessly aggressive in his play, Niederhoffer has brought to squash—a four-wall sport traditionally rooted in the gentility of upper-crust men’s clubs—an immodesty matched only by his skills. “I may be,” he says matter-of-factly, “the greatest amateur ever.”
Niederhoffer’s analytical and methodical game exploits opponents’ weaknesses. Looking for his opponent’s “fatal flaw,” he rarely makes mistakes of his own, while waiting to score with his “high percentage” winner—often, a soft, deftly-spun drop shot off the front wall. Asked if there are any players without fatal flaws, the 6’2″, 183-pound champion replies: “Just me. I’d be the toughest competitor for me to beat.”
Niederhoffer likes to say that both heredity and environment have gone into his success. Nature gave him what one court rival calls “the fastest hands in the game, the gawky grace of a giraffe—he’s noisy when he runs—and great strength.”
Environment provided him with drive. The son of a strapping former New York cop—who now is a professor of sociology—Niederhoffer grew up in a lower-middle-class section of Brooklyn, “a great mecca for court games.” He mastered Ping-Pong and tennis (ambidextrously) by his teens but didn’t play squash until he arrived at Harvard in 1960. Two years later he won the national junior championship. When he graduated in 1964, magna cum laude in economics, he was national collegiate champion. He won his first U.S. amateur title in 1966 while a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. But for the next five years he withdrew from competition. Niederhoffer, who is Jewish, was protesting his denial of full membership by private clubs where he had played in tournaments. “I didn’t want to demean myself,” he says now, “by playing where I couldn’t be treated as an equal.”
Despite the layoff, Niederhoffer stormed back in 1972 in better form than ever. His confidence has no boundaries. Next month in Las Vegas he will enter the national tournament for a game he has competed in for only a month. It is called racquetball—somewhat like squash, it is played on a handball court—and he fully expects to become the new champion.
The key to winning in business and sport, he believes, is confidence, which comes only through struggle and self-reliance. “Leaving bread crumbs for birds destroys their instincts to survive,” he says. “And the same with people. Capitalism, like squash, brings you the satisfaction of succeeding on your own.
“There might be a socialist philosopher in this game,” he concedes, “but he’d never beat me. He has the wrong philosophy. A team sport would suit him better. Oh, yes, I still believe the Russians are anxious to bury us—and I am told there isn’t much in the way of squash in the Soviet Union.”