On Sunday afternoons in Dogtown, neighborhood regulars at Pat's Bar & Grill can be found filling their faces with chicken Parmesan and firing up smokes. As the cold drafts flow amid the raucous wash of televised NFL championship games, the younger crowd upstairs is engaged in spirited beer-pong competitions.
The game, whose origins are said to date back over 60 years, is mindlessly simple: All it takes are teams of two standing on either side of a table, lobbing Ping-Pong balls toward each others' cups of beer. If the ball lands in your beer well, you drink it. The rules are all quite mutable. You can bounce the ball, or you can strike it with a paddle. At some competitions, it's even OK to try to blow an opponent's ball out of the cup or flash some cleavage to distract an opposing player.
Players in the Midwest have dubbed the game "beer pong," while players in the East, for reasons never fully illuminated, call these alcohol-fueled scrimmages "Beirut" a reference to the deadly bombings that terrorized Lebanon's capital city in the early 1980s.
In any case, the late-November atmosphere at Pat's is Porky's meets Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. A few dozen players have each paid fifteen dollars to compete for the grand prize: an all-expenses-paid trip in January to the inaugural World Series of Beer Pong in Mesquite, Nevada, where the winning team will collect a $10,000 bounty.
"I'm ready to get drunk or eliminated, though they usually go hand-in-hand," cracks beer-pong enthusiast Robert Hazelwood.
Hazelwood is predicting victory for the Jolly Bastards, a team composed of two of his former fraternity brothers, Adam Schaeffer and David "Frack" Frackleton, the co-owner of Pat's. On this evening, Frack is clad in a copyrighted T-shirt with a frontal view of stick figures playing pong. On the back, the figures are shown passed out in an alcoholic daze.
On the other side of the room, a Super Troopers-inspired duo called Car Ram Rod talk strategy. "Is bouncing wussy?" asks Ram Rod's Katie Quinn, a 22-year-old Saint Louis University grad. "You will probably get made fun of. But if you miss ten times in a row, that's when I do it."
World Series of Beer Pong rules apply tonight, meaning that victory can only be achieved by sinking the balls in your opponents' six cups. Of course, players are imbibing before, during and after the competitions. By nightfall a pair of well-sedated coeds spice up the event, in a literal sense, by smearing barbecue sauce over each other, making out and removing their tops.
"I don't know whether to puke or get a hard-on," quips bartender Rocky Hazelwood, Robert's older brother. Later, an intoxicated member of Daddy's Little Squirt slaps a female player on the ass. This is not legal, and prompts co-owner Joe Finn to disqualify the team and call the police when they refuse to leave.
Adding to the surreal environment are a quirky group of improv actors and a camera crew. Running this ragtag production is James Finn, Joe's younger brother, who, in the style of Christopher Guest's Best in Show, is making a "mockumentary" about a beer-pong tournament.
The tournament at Pat's will be added to background footage for a contrived plot featuring various fictional teams, including one described by Finn as "the first openly gay professional sports team." Another has been convicted of "juicing" that is, enhancing their playing ability by taking a supplement to offset the effects of conspicuous beer consumption.
Back at the real tournament, the final showdown at Pat's pits the Jolly Bastards against a team named Whatever. Since Whatever upset the Bastards earlier, Frack and Schaeffer must now win consecutive games to claim victory in the double-elimination tournament. The bar is left unattended as 40 spectators including one saturated woman who keeps yelling, "What's up, bitches?" gather around the center beer-pong table.
Frack, like any true champ, manages to block out distractions. "You gotta tighten those up a little," he demands of Whatever, implying that the cups he's aiming at are asymmetrical. Standing a full foot behind the table, Schaeffer, a St. Louis business consultant, tosses line drives. Frack's precision, meanwhile, appears to grow in direct proportion to the number of Pabst Blue Ribbons he sucks down.
Frack breaks a 5-5 deadlock with a deadly accurate lob and wins the match, which triggers a winner-take-all final contest. Visibly nervous, Whatever's Mike Evans spills a beer bottle on the table. His frayed nerves are reflected in his team's sloppy play, and the Jolly Bastards coast to victory.
"We were way ahead and I knew we could make it, so we made it," says the girthy Frack, allowing himself a small, satisfied smile.
Many beer-pong insiders seem convinced that the cradle of civilization for this pastime was a 1940s Dartmouth College frat house. (Others say it germinated at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.) Later, it spread to northeastern college campuses before fanning out, in recent years, across this great land.
To no one's surprise, college administrators, looking to quell binge drinking, have banned the so-called sport. Similarly, Anheuser-Busch, once an unfettered sponsor of beer-pong promotions, has grown hypersensitive about such boozy endeavors and goes to great pains to distance itself from the contests.
Still, pong continues to thrive, leaving other drinking games in its frothy wake.
"Regardless of what you do, college kids are always going to be drinking," sums up Atish Doshi, president of University of Illinois publication The Booze News. "But pong is better than just sitting around drinking, because it combines things that everyone likes doing drinking and competing."
Philadelphians Matt Brady and Tom Schmidt derive their livelihoods entirely from beer pong. In fact, the 28-year-old former Penn State buddies are pitching a beer-pong show to Spike TV. And if that doesn't work out, they'll try the Game Show Network.
"There's always a percentage of people who have competitiveness in them and want to be involved in a competition even at a party," Brady says of the game's allure. "Could be animal instinct, for all I know."
The enterprising Brady and Schmidt are presently at work selling eight-foot-long beer-pong tables, which are made from aluminum and wood. Founded in 2004, their company, Bing Bong Inc., has sold nearly 2,000 tables at $150 each.
"We sell a lot in Florida, because people do it for spring break, and it's starting to boom in California," notes Brady. "A lot of the Midwest hadn't even really heard of the game a year or two ago, but we've noticed a ton of orders coming in from St. Louis, and even from Alabama and the deep South."
Brady's biggest competition are homemade tables and closet doors. "But you can't bring a closet door to a tailgate or a concert, or down the street to your friend's house."
Bing Bong sponsored a tournament in Philly last October, hosted by Real World: Las Vegas' Trishelle Cantonella and Road Rules' Mark Long. More than a thousand spectators turned out for the two-night event, which featured sixty teams and cash prizes.
Covering the tournament for the New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman described an Anheuser-Busch promotion called "Bud Pong," a game similar to beer pong except (wink, wink) it was played with water. The company provided cups, tables and balls to bars in dozens of markets.
Gettleman's story, though, raised doubts that anyone was actually playing with water, and A-B quickly scuttled the promotion.
"Despite our explicit guidelines, there may have been instances where this promotion was not carried out in the manner it was intended," Francine I. Katz, the company's vice president for communications and consumer affairs, told the Times.
Meanwhile, a Coors affiliate in Las Vegas provided banners, cups and beer-dispensing equipment for the recent World Series of Beer Pong. In a pre-series interview, sales manager Bob Sabbe spoke of the demographic goldmine. "The [participants] are prime beer-drinking age, 21 to 35. Every cup is going to be filled with Coors or Coors Light."
Asked if the game might foster dangerous consumption, Sabbe replied, "They're only putting two ounces of beer in a cup. So if a guy played the game and only drank the beer in the cups, he technically wouldn't even be drunk."
But by the World Series' second day, Coors' corporate office caught wind of the promotion and pulled the plug.
"[Sabbe] used our logo against our industry and company guidelines," says Kabira Hatland, spokeswoman for Coors Brewing. "Beer-pong promotions are a violation of Coors' marketing policy. We discourage beer-pong promotions because the game is generally associated with overconsumption."
Pabst Blue Ribbon also disassociates itself with beer pong. Although they donated hats, shirts and banners for Pat's event, the company's Riverfront Times ad was oddly vague, saying, "Come on down [to Pat's] on Sunday for bar games and prizes." Pabst officials did not return requests for comment for this story.
Matt Brady, who hoped to collaborate with a major beer company for cooperative advertising and promotional purposes, says the Bud Pong debacle ruined everything.
"We'd gotten interest from Miller, Coors and every other company that's out there just because it's become such a popular game," he says. "We made proposals and discussed it, but everything pretty much came to a halt when Anheuser canceled [Bud Pong]."
Brady insists beer pong is a gentleman's game and need not become a drunken orgy.
"The best way to run a tournament is to just play one game per team per week," he says. "Have it be like football you don't play four football games on the same day."
Says World Series of Beer Pong co-founder Billy Gaines: "We're trying to take it out of the undergrad houses and put in regulations to encourage the sport's positive aspects: the competition, the camaraderie and the interaction."
Andrew "Roo" Yawitz honed his beer-pong skills at Connecticut's Wesleyan University. Yawitz, a local investment banker and Ladue High School grad, describes his left-leaning college alma mater sometimes known as "Wesbian" as a "3,000-person, liberal-arts, anti-Greek, anti-sport, anti-everything school."
Beer pong's popularity accelerated dramatically during Yawitz's academic tenure, which he completed in 2001 with a degree in political science. "When you play 'Asshole,' or these idiots that flip the cup, no one's really into winning those games. If you sit around playing quarters, you're not going to have 30 people watching. But Beirut is a reasonable spectator sport if you ham it up a bit."
Though he couldn't attend the World Series of Beer Pong because of work obligations, Yawitz took time to read the event's lengthy list of rules and was particularly critical of one provision that mandates "reformation," or bundling cups together after others have been removed from the table.
"If you don't reform, it's more of a skill game," posits Yawitz. "You can have the 'seven-ten' split, or single cups just sitting by themselves." Yawitz uses baseball comparisons to estimate one's beer-pong proficiency. "If you can throw .400, then you would be very skilled, whereas .200 is mediocre," he says.
Jennifer Garfinkel, a twenty-year-old sophomore at Dartmouth, calls pong the "Texas Hold-'Em of drinking games." She recently penned a three-part series for her school paper on the history of beer pong at the Hanover, New Hampshire, campus, describing in part the sociological protocol of making a beer-pong date.
"It's not usually an official thing, but if you meet somebody and you want to get to know them, you'll often suggest, 'Let's grab a game of pong sometime,'" she says, adding that she's grabbed a few herself.
Dartmouth players use paddles, and they insist that those who don't commit blasphemy. Joe Stange, however, offers a more nuanced view.
"Beer pong is like our Constitution," says the 28-year-old Mizzou grad. "It is organic. It lives and breathes, and is interpreted differently by different people in different situations, at different levels of drunkenness."
Champaign, Illinois, Police Sergeant Scott Friedlein says beer pong has taken the University of Illinois by storm. "Last year, at the beginning of the school year, I was driving down the street and literally every yard was littered with pieces of plywood on sawhorses and kids playing beer pong."
And Friedlein is none too happy about it.
"This is a way for people to get excessively drunk," the police sergeant says. "In order to advance, you have to consume more. 'Would adults engage in this behavior?' is a question I would ask. Or is it more designed for the college-age person? How many 45-year-olds are out competing in beer pong? Drinking is a social activity, not a competition. Any time we say, 'Drink more and win,' it is probably going to be, ultimately, a loss."
Illinois law prohibits bars from hosting drinking games. (Happy hours are banned in the state as well.) In 2003 Champaign police ran a sting operation to break up a clandestine game of "flippy cup." "We used cameras and shot as an enforcement sweep was occurring," Friedlein recalls. "People kept drinking for five minutes before they realized we were filming."
Recent Illini graduate Atish Doshi believes the crackdown is much ado about nothing, saying, "I've never heard about anyone getting hospitalized related to beer pong."
Whatever the case, beer pong is also making serious inroads on St. Louis campuses. Recent Washington University graduate Nicole Buskus says students often play the game with hard liquor instead of beer.
Frack says his former fraternity, Theta Xi, is well-known at Wash. U. for hosting games on the handcrafted wooden table that sits on their front porch. But according to Rob Wild, the college's associate director of residential life, drinking games are not permitted on campus.
"The goal of drinking games is usually so that the individual can consume a large amount of alcohol over a short period of time, which is inherently dangerous," Wild explains.
Yawitz says beer pong is more about the game than the drinking.
"In college, when someone used to play for the first time, we would ask: 'What is the point of Beirut? Getting drunk, getting the other team drunk, or winning?' Most people say getting the other team drunk but the answer is winning."
Virgin is the name of Mesquite's craggy mountain range, its meandering river, and the southern Nevada valley where it's located. Settled as a Mormon outpost, it is today an eternally sunny burg of 17,000, offering little of the titillating entertainment that lures the lusting hordes to Las Vegas some 80 miles away. But heck, there's plenty of skeet-shooting, golf courses and two-dollar craps tables. And this year: the first World Series of Beer Pong.
Series organizers liked the cheap rooms (some as low as $25 a night) and spacious grounds of the town's Oasis Resort. With few distractions, they figured, participants would confine their rummy shenanigans to the premises.
"There's nothing out here but mountains and sausage," complains one beer-pong contestant, who's arrived from Yuma, Arizona.
The World Series begins on a balmy early January morning, with a grand total of three female participants in attendance. The vibe is decidedly homoerotic. There's a duo from Long Beach, California, called You Kiddin Me? They sport what they call "gay Olympian" costumes bare chests and tight warm-up pants. Their pre-game routine calls for push-ups, aerobics and a lot of flexing.
A team named Dominance features Mike Filanowski wearing nothing but pink undies, a ball gag and a chain around his neck. His partner, Natalie Ramsey, a Hollywood actress who starred in Cruel Intentions 3, is clad in a dominatrix suit. She holds her whip in one hand and tosses the Ping-Pong ball with the other. Other characters include Playboy's Cara Zavaleta, Miss November 2004, and a cavalcade of local and national media.
Some 160 players from across the United States and Canada have amassed in the Oasis' convention center, where 14 Bing Bong tables sit at the ready amid a row of bleachers and an attached beer garden. Sponsors like Chaser (which sells anti-hangover pills) and Pregame.com (which dispenses advice for gambling on sports) have set up shop, while teams like Cleveland Steamers, Back Door Equals No Babies and the Eh? Teams show off custom-made shirts with messages such as "For Every Animal You Don't Eat, I'm Gonna Eat Three."
Although nearly everyone is jug-bitten, the event feels like a high school swim meet. Anxious contestants pace nervously as they prepare for upcoming qualifying matches.
The Jolly Bastards are without Adam Schaeffer, who couldn't get the week off. He's been replaced with Edward Rhee, a 24-year-old financial planner from Chicago and Frack's former beer-pong partner at Theta Xi. In their first match, the Bastards are roughed up by New York's The Nutty Irishman Champions. Frack blames sleep deprivation resulting from a late flight, and the team finishes the day with three wins and three losses.
A particularly besotted participant decides to take up a collection to hire prostitutes. "We can't spend four days without any 'tang," shouts Jason Coben, a member of Team France who, in real life, works as a legal administrator in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Following a night at the blackjack tables, Rhee and Frack dismantle a team called Off with Your Mom the next morning. Later, they'll lose a pivotal match to a team wearing shirts that say "Bouncing and Blowing Is for Bitches."
While Frack hits cups with dead-on accuracy, Rhee appears out of whack. They win their final match by default, as the sauced Team France sleeps through the game. Still, the Bastards' 5-6 record isn't good enough to qualify for the tournament's final day.
To "celebrate" losing every single match, Dominance's Ramsey climbs aboard her teammate's shoulders and unfurls her bosoms. "One more time, one more time!" chants the encouraging crowd.
Some considered New Jersey's Team Hoff favorites, based on their success at hometown bar Fatso Fogarty's weekly tournaments, where they've won $15,000. Team member Aniello Guerriero says he started playing pong after an injury cut short his baseball career.
"I don't want to say pong is the same, but, like baseball, you want to prove you're the best," says Guerriero, a 23-year-old Rutgers University criminal justice major. "I'm a very competitive person. I don't care what it is, I hate to lose. The people who don't think [pong] is a real sport probably aren't good."
When Team Hoff is eliminated the next day, Guerriero says he was too damn sober to compete. "I was so nervous," he says. "The more you drink, the more calm you get, the more flow you get."
The World Series finals feature Team France and Long Island's Slippery Fetus. Team France's Jason Coben claims to have put away six cocktails and four beers by mid-afternoon, a figure hard to dispute since his shirt is missing a sleeve and drenched in slobber. Still, Team France rallies to win the tournament.
"We're the fucking champs, baby!" roars Coben, embracing teammate Nicholas Velissaris before the two accept their ceremonial, oversize $10,000 check. Later, Coben admits he failed to procure any hookers and tells contributors he'll return their money.
World Series organizers Duncan Carroll and Billy Gaines, who each fronted thousands of dollars for the tournament, say afterward that they believe the tournament was a success. But they didn't achieve one pre-tournament goal: finding the nation's "Michael Jordan of beer pong."
"In order to do that, I think we'll have to track stats a lot closer," says Gaines. "Ideally, we'd love to take stats on every single shot that's thrown. Did it hit a cup but not go in? Did it bounce off the table? Did it miss the table? How many shots did you hit in a row? We'd have to have one staff member per table, and we just didn't have enough money to hire them. Maybe next year."