Storied drinking game began with fewer rules, less beer
By Jennifer Garfinkel, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, November 17, 2005
Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series looking at the evolution of beer pong as a social and cultural phenomenon at Dartmouth. This article will examine the 50-year history of pong at Dartmouth as it relates to today's game.
It is hard to untwist the history of beer pong from the history of the College itself, as the two are inextricably linked. Pong dominates the Greek social scene, which in turn, has been dominant on campus.
Students often overlook the evolution of the storied sport, assuming generations of their predecessors played by the same rules. But while its place in Dartmouth culture remains constant, the game of pong is always changing.
Although it may be hard to imagine, pong began as a game mostly devoid of rules. Many College old-timers have said that the game may have started when someone put their cup of beer on the table during a friendly game of ping pong.
Emeritus history professor Jere Daniell '55 recalls playing pong at Alpha Theta fraternity during the early 1950s. At the time, the game was not named and lacked formal procedures. For Daniell, it was little more than a way to combine activities: drinking and ping pong.
"If you were a crummy ping-pong player, you had to drink more than if you were a good one," he said.
Daniell remembered plastic or paper cups of beer on the ping-pong table and players trying to hit the cups for points.
In fact, Dartmouth's beloved alcoholic sport was more sport and less alcohol in Daniell's day. Kappa Sigma fraternity member Jim Adler '60 agreed.
"It was just a casual game -- not a way to get drunk fast," Adler said.
Even through the 1980s, Dartmouth alums concurred that the alcohol was certainly secondary to the game at hand. Getting drunk was just an added bonus to having a good time, said Chris Marriott '82, an alumnus of Gamma Delta Chi fraternity.
"It was played more to be social and competitive," Marriott said.
From its inception through the first 40 years of its existence, pong was clearly not the vehicle for the large quantities of beer that now mark the game. Until the 1990s, pong featured just one cup for singles and two cups for doubles on each side of the table -- a stark contrast to today's seven-cup minimum, with some versions ranging up to 15 cups per side for two players.
For the majority of its lifetime, pong utilized a point system to keep track of score. Players would drink from each cup on their side from three to five times and both teammates would drink a portion of the cup after it was hit. Sinking the ball or knocking over an opponent's cup resulted in an immediate win, and each loser had to chug a beer.
For decades, speed pong dominated -- a fast-paced game of table tennis with the added target of beers on the table. Eventually, slam pong came into fashion. In slam pong, one partner lobs the ball to his teammate who slams the ball toward the cup, similar to a set and spike in volleyball. This version, also known as volley pong at the time, was invented around 1979 and came into style in the early 1980s.
"Slam was for the hardcore," Marriott said. "Regular pong was for women and [fre]'shmen."
Dartmouth students still harbor a bias against other similar drinking games. Today, students find their game to be superior to Beirut, the drinking game of choice at many other colleges. Beirut, which may have grown out of Dartmouth's pong, is played by two or four players who toss a ping pong ball toward a rack of beers -- without paddles. But many Dartmouth students argue that the more common game requires less skill and is less competitive.
"I, like many other Dartmouth students I suspect, die a little on the inside every time I see a game of Beirut played," Jarred Colli '08 said.
But it is only a matter of time before another chapter in the story of Dartmouth pong provides students something to sneer about. Marriott and other fans of slam pong frowned upon its predecessor speed pong, believing their version required more skill.
And alums who watched the fast-paced style develop frowned as certain fraternities began to arc, or lob, the ball back and forth in the late 1970s. Alumni on the whole appear disheartened and sometimes disturbed by today's common shrub and tree formations. They miss their two-cup formations and have trouble grasping a game in which so many beers are consumed at one time.
"We wouldn't make people drink," said Doug Britton '73, an Alpha Theta fraternity alumnus. "We just enjoyed playing."
The plant-like formations of tree and shrub with their drastically increased alcohol requirement really only emerged in the early or mid-1990s, according to Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member Rich Yeh '97, who pinpointed 1994 as the year SAE introduced tree. As Yeh remembers it, the ship and tree formations were both widely played on campus by the 1996-1997 school year, although many houses were still playing two-cup lob pong in addition.
Today's game has continued its metamorphosis, marked by deformed paddles and sheets of wood propped up by garbage cans and saw horses. Students can hardly believe that their darling pastime was once a civilized, relatively sober occasion.
The less-than-pristine acoutrements of current pong -- those aspects that will linger in the hazy memories of current Dartmouth students forever -- are relatively new to the game. Intact paddles were common through the 1990s, and tables did not proliferate among campus basements until later that decade.
As beer pong evolves, so does its relation to the community -- even to women, who arrived on campus 20 years after the game began. Lest the old traditions fail, the College's sport of choice will continue to develop as it fills its niche as a favorite social pastime.