How Did Beer Pong Become America’s Most Iconic Drinking Game?

Practically a collegiate rite of passage, beer pong has become so firmly established in the American imagination that it’s inspired books, a World Tournament and most recently, a documentary. Drew Lazor on how pong became our most beloved drinking game.

beer pong illustration

When it comes to the iconography of American higher education, this one’s right up there with Belushi’s bourbon-stained “COLLEGE” crewneck: a white plastic ball hurtling toward a thicket of red plastic cups, then dropping into a shallow measure of shitty lager with a satisfying plop. Beer pong is the most popular drinking game we’ve got—the recreational lifeblood of thousands of students with a thirst for common-denominator competition. Over the years, it’s crept out of damp fraternity basements and into the mainstream consciousness, acting as an avatar for misspent youth and long-gone sporting glories. Yet for such a simple pursuit, determining how, when and why it became the preferred contest of our future leaders is trickier than nailing that final cup.

The true parameters of beer pong, not to mention its provenance, have been squabbled over in Talmudic detail for decades. Today, the game’s most recognized format—a prerequisite of the college party movie genre—involves two 10-cup triangles, set up opposite each other, on a long, flat surface. After filling each cup about a third of the way up with beer, two teams of two tossers each stationed behind the triangles take turns lobbing Ping-Pong balls across the field of play with the goal of landing them inside their opponent’s cups. If one of your cups is hit, you have to chug it. There are additional rules and penalties that come into play depending on whose directions you’re following, but that’s the core concept: Sink or be sunk.

If all this seems self-explanatory, you’ve probably never met anyone from Dartmouth. Most attempts to follow the beer pong breadcrumb trail backward, deep into the annals of Ivy League lore, place you on the school’s idyllic New Hampshire campus, among the oldest in the country. Here, “pong” is less a popular party activity than a vital slice of student identity. “One common thing you’ll hear is that pong is more than a game—it’s a way of life,” says Crispus Knight, a Brooklyn-based alum who wrote the memoir Three for Ship: A Swan Song to Dartmouth Beer Pong(Animal House was largely inspired by the Big Green hijinks of screenwriter Chris Miller.)

The pong that Dartmouth kids love is not the widely played throwing-based version sticklers insist on calling “Beirut,” a latter-day simplification commonly credited to Lehigh and Bucknell universities in Pennsylvania. Way up in Hanover, players use actual Ping-Pong paddles, their handles snapped off to give the wielder more precise control. “Remember: It’s not really Dartmouth pong unless you break the handles off,” reads a bit of advice in the university’s official alumni magazine, which should give you an idea of how integral this all is to the Dartmouth experience. Cups are set up in varying configurations, shapes with names like “tree,” “shrub” and “ship.” Teams volley in an effort to strike the sides of their opponent’s beer cups, which requires you drink half, or sink the balls outright, which means you’re drinking the whole thing.

Alums are proud of this distinction. “It’s more sporty, more involved. You really can’t do it casually,” says Nina Markey, an attorney who graduated in 2002. “You have to be there to return the serve. It requires more focus and more active involvement.” Mindy Kaling, class of 2001, made pong the subject of an episode of The Mindy Project—the characters play Beirut, it should be noted—guest-starring Shonda Rhimes, another alum. (Rhimes also lovingly referenced pong in her 2014 commencement speech.)

“One common thing you’ll hear is that pong is more than a game—it’s a way of life.”

Dartmouth’s student newspaper traces pong in its embryonic form back to the early 1950s when the student body, at that time all-male, would up the stakes of conventional Ping-Pong by incorporating players’ beers resting on the table; nailing your opponent’s cup(s) could earn you extra points. Robert Serenbetz, a retired international management executive who graduated in 1966, was a brother of the fraternity Bones Gate (about half of Dartmouth’s current student population is Greek). He remembers pong as just another event in the spirited, ongoing inter-frat battle, largely based around intramural sports. “It was more of a guy thing than a coed thing—it wasn’t necessarily played with dates,” says Serenbetz.

Though plenty of Dartmouth’s current female students are into pong (“My friend and I, sometimes we’ll just play with water to figure out our serves,” says Leigh Steinberg, a junior history major), the stereotypical idea of the activity as a “guy thing” will resonate with anyone who’s witnessed a match between some bros shift from a friendly pursuit to near-brawl. “It’s a heavily male, testosterone-driven environment of guys yelling at each other,” says Billy Gaines, founder of bpong.com, beer pong’s premier governing body. (See for reference: the trailer to Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong, a documentary about the high-stakes national tournament Gaines founded.)

Most college students’ athletic careers end after high school graduation. Beer pong, offered up as a competitive outlet the second they step foot on most campuses, scratches that man-in-the-arena itch—even if it’s indeed accompanied by Costco-size caches of Keystone Light. “I love the fact that you can beat people—and when you didn’t beat people, you could practice and get better,” says Gaines, who considers pong to be “more of a sport than many people say it is.”

Gaines, a competitive swimmer who attended Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon, launched bpong.com in 2001 with the mission of “[creating] the center of the beer pong universe,” a forum where likeminded players could swap stories and strategies, but also an e-commerce business selling official merchandise. The World Series, held annually in Gaines’ current city of Las Vegas, came around in 2006; this past summer, close to 300 teams entered, each vying for their share of a $65,000 prize pool.

Now 35, Gaines, who recently underwent a serious but successful surgery to correct a faulty heart valve, has a more wizened attitude toward pong than he did as a wide-eyed, hard-drinking undergrad. “I’m still very passionate about the game as a whole . . . just not as passionate about playing it,” he says. Confident in pong’s mass appeal, he’s working on pivoting bpong.com in the same way the sanctioning bodies of organized bar-adjacent hobbies like billiards, darts or rock-paper-scissors have claimed their stakes in the market.

For Gaines, the appeal of the game at its most elemental level has little to do with getting lit up. “If you were to ask a random college kid why you play beer pong, the answer you typically get back is, ‘to get drunk,’” he says. “I would propose that that’s not really why they’re playing. If the point’s really to get drunk, why aren’t they just doing shots? I think there’s something deep—the fun, the camaraderie, the competitive side. It’s part of what’s made the game thrive for years.”

While entrepreneurs like Gaines work on extracting the essence of pong out of its collegiate framework, others sporadically revisit the game for nostalgia’s sake, emboldened by the perspective only time can provide. “It doesn’t dominate my life in the way it did when I was in college,” says Three for Ship author Knight, more than a decade removed from his wildest Dartmouth days. “But if I see a Ping-Pong table, I’m definitely going to find a way to play pong on it.”

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