Some people know what beer pong is all about, while others do not.
It's a game involving two teams, a table of some kind (a piece of wood will do, until you get serious), ping pong balls and tall plastic cups of beer. Cups are racked, much like billiards balls, on either side of the table in various formations: 10- or six-cup full racks, in a diamond, small three-cup triangles, two cups side-by-side, or in the stoplight (picture red, yellow and green cups) or “I” formations (two cups, one above the other). Sometimes an isolated cup (or “iso”) will hang off to the side for an added level of difficulty.
To start a game, a member from each team grabs a ball, locks eyes with the other team, and shoots to determine who goes first. “You keep going until someone makes it,” says Todd, a 24-year-old longtime player from Granby (who didn't want to use his last name). “Or if there's a champion on the table [i.e. a team that won the last round], that team goes first.” Teams get one shot per member; if you score, the other team drinks. Shots are lobbed in the air (one cup downed by the other squad if it goes in, and no defending) or on a bounce (two cups if made, and defending is allowed). Cups are filled to the plastic line, roughly a fifth of the cup (“basically enough to chug in three or four sips,” Todd says, “depending on how reckless you want to be”), and playing with water is allowed.
“I personally prefer to play with beer in the cup,” says Todd. “There are reasons behind that.”
Beyond certain basics, however, the rules get pretty baroque, with as many variations, regional and otherwise, as can be dreamed up, sort of the adult equivalent of the elementary school blacktop game four square, where kids spend more time arguing about the rules than actually playing.
“Let's say you are playing a long time,” Todd says. “You are supposed to chug your cup, but if you can't for some reason and it's difficult, you could hold onto that cup while you play. If the other team gets it in the cup you are holding for any reason, the game's over. They can bounce it off your chest and have it fall in.” (To keep that from happening, Todd typically holds his hand over the rim.)
Beer pong probably originated with early hominids, who chucked small bird eggs at bowls of animal blood arranged on stone tables. The earliest verifiable records (Wikipedia), however, say the game started in Northeastern college frat houses in the 1950s. Today, it's graduated to a competitive sport; at the annual World Series of Beer Pong in Las Vegas, teams play for $50,000 and the title of World Champion. (The Vegas competition was the focus of Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong, a 2008 documentary that's currently streaming on Netflix.)
“It's one of the oldest games around,” says K.J. Camera, who runs Skip's Garage, on online dealer of beer pong tables and related equipment, out of his South Windsor home. “There won't be a point when it's not popular.”
Camera started his business four years ago, working with table manufacturers to get competitive prices and using organic search-engine optimization strategies to avoid paying for advertising. He doesn't carry any inventory. His customers, he says, are the expected types — college kids and university campuses — but also “a lot of bars and restaurants, some older men and ladies, some in their mid-30s who just enjoy playing the game.” Skip's Garage also sells products and tables with logos licensed by the National Football League (although they can't use the term “beer pong,” opting instead for “tailgate tables”).
“People who go to Steelers games will use them to put food on, to play beer pong,” Camera says. One top-seller is the Tailgate Party Mate, an aluminum table that hooks onto your car or truck's trailer hitch and unfolds when you reach your parking space. Another popular item is the inflatable beer pong table, a 3'x6' floating vinyl device, with holes cut into it for the cups for use in your swimming pool. “These guys in Connecticut started it up five or six years ago,” Camera said. “It's a huge summer product.”
Zach Lowery, a 29-year-old senior animator at Volition (he's the lead animator for the popular Saints Row: The Third video game) lives in Champaign, Ill. He began playing beer pong, naturally, at 18 as a freshman at Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla. His roommate, a Darien, Conn. native, introduced him to the game, which became a regular pastime.
“It was a college-buddy thing,” Lowery says. “We played all through college, learning all the rules and what part of the country everybody was from.” When Lowery moved back to Louisiana after college, none of his friends there had heard of it, so he got them hooked. They initially played on a closet door. “My wife and I just got married,” he says, “and we didn't have a table, so we laid a door across a garbage can.”
When Lowery moved to Champaign to work at Volition, he and a buddy started playing on his back patio on a little outdoor table. “We decided to build a table because it wasn't working out well,” Lowery says. “We went to Home Depot, bought some wood, painted it up. Now any time someone has a party, they'll say, ‘Can you bring it over?' It definitely makes the rounds around here. It's the biggest draw. A lot of people who play don't even like beer. It's the competition thing, talking trash and all that. There's definitely skill involved.”
Of course, you have to be able to hold your drinks. If you win, you stay on the table and face a crew that perhaps hasn't been imbibing as steadily. Most games come down to a couple of cups on each side. You'll end up drinking about a beer per game; if you go on a good run, you've easily had about six or seven beers.
“Most of the time,” Lowery says, “the ground rules are set at the beginning of the day. The first game sets the tone, and depending what part of the country you are from there are different rules.” Sometimes Lowery's friends play with what's called a “death cup”: both players on one team toss a ball simultaneously, and if they land in the same cup, the game's instantly over and the other team has to drink everything. “It's like sinking the eight ball on the break,” Lowery says.
For Todd, the Granby resident, it's definitely a way to do some serious drinking. “If you use water,” he says, “it's less conducive to that. But if you fill the cups with beer, it's a binge-drinking thing.” Usually, he says, he'll pour three cans of beer for a 10-beer rack, or two beers for a six-cup. He got started in high school, where it was more common than you'd think. “Everybody played, drank, it was very competitive,” he says. “I hung out with a variety of different people. It seemed to be played among every [social] group. There isn't really a set personality. But then I wasn't hanging out with book nerds.”
Girls too, which, at least in high school, called for a few gender-specific rules. “If [the ball] is spinning around [the rim],” Todd says, “guys are allowed to pick it out with their fingers before it touches the rim. Girls are supposed to blow it out and guys can finger it. I guess it's a sexual kind of thing there.” (“We stopped doing that after high school,” he adds.) Camera says beer pong has progressed from a game to a sport. “It's a very competitive social team game,” Camera said. “That's one of the biggest things about it. It's notoriously thought of as a binge-drinking game, but you can't be good at it if you are intoxicated.” The players who enter the Vegas tournament, he says, will drink and have fun, but they are paying more attention to winning. Still, Camera says, “I played socially for a long time. I can't remember going to a function in college where there wasn't a table set up.”
Out in Champaign, since Lowery's daughter was born, the amount of time he's able to spend on beer pong is restricted. And, as skilled as he feels he's become, Lowery's never participated in the Vegas World Series.
“By the time that came about,” he said, “I was not convincing my wife I was hanging out in Vegas for a weekend. A bachelor party? Different story.”
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