Sacramento beer pong: one cup at a time

As beer pong springs up in local bars and college dorms, players battle to define it as a drinking game or sport—and authorities argue to ban it outright

Taller players, such as Jerrod Birmingham (a.k.a. “Shrek"), have a great advantage when playing beer pong, since they can lean far over the table and almost drop the pingpong ball into the cup.

Taller players, such as Jerrod Birmingham (a.k.a. “Shrek"), have a great advantage when playing beer pong, since they can lean far over the table and almost drop the pingpong ball into the cup.

Photo By David Jayne

The smooth, round pingpong ball spins delicately in Tom Feliz’s fingers as he searches for a sweet spot, the perfect grip.

His targets—sitting 8 feet away on the other side of a long, skinny pingpong table—are 10 plastic cups laid out like bowling pins, each one-quarter filled with beer.

The 26-year-old construction manager is sandwiched amid other tables with other players, but even as balls whiz by and deejay music pulsates, Feliz concentrates on one thing: sinking that ball. He throws it like someone would toss a horseshoe—leaning forward over the table, left hand gently ushering the ball toward the beer, right leg lifting behind in unison. The ball flies across the long table, bounces off the rim of one cup, onto another and then off the table.

Feliz doesn’t hear the sweet kerplunk of the ball splashing into warm beer this time, but there’ll be other chances. Plenty. He just has to make sure he hears that sound more often than his opponents.

Nearly 100 people, including Feliz, gather each Thursday night at Tex Wasabi’s, a restaurant/bar on Arden Way, for Sacramento Beer Pong League games. Dining tables get pushed to the perimeter of a back room, which creates a coliseumlike arena, the focus being four tables. A poster-size bracket sheet has 32 teams with funky team names. Bloody Tampon Ninjas. Shrek and Donkey (who surprisingly resemble the animated characters). Onlookers crowd around tables, supporting their friends. Insults fly like pingpong balls and beer drips down the losers’ chins.

Just another Thursday night for beer-pong lovers.

The Sacramento Beer Pong League is the brainchild of Matt Zuvella, 22, and Nate Higgins, 21, who started playing beer pong together two years ago. According to Higgins, Zuvella saw him across the room at a house party, invited him to play a game of beer pong, and the two have been beer-pong partners ever since.

“[Beer pong] is something interactive. You meet new people each time, especially when you come to a sanctioned event like this,” Higgins explains.

The league held its first event on December 4, 2008, and since has grown to include participants from as far away as San Francisco, Napa and Tahoe.

Although the game is dominated by 20-something “professionals” who have been playing for years, each week brings an increasing number of virgins, young and old, curious about this phenomenon called beer pong.

Pongers origin
As one might surmise from the name, beer pong has two essential ingredients: beer and pingpong balls.

“It’s a mixture of pingpong, basketball and bowling, kind of all mixed into one,” Higgins says. But it’s also a drinking game: Teams of two try to make the opposing team drink beer by landing pingpong balls in a cup. If a team member sinks their ball, the opponent drinks. The first team to make their rivals drink all their beer wins.

Some claim that the modern game of beer pong originated from the ancient Greek game of kottabos. According to Waldo E. Sweet, author of Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece, Greek participants “would try to flip the dregs in their drinking cups in such a way as to hit another cup.” This target could be a cup held by another person or a platter resting on a stand. Players also flung their dregs into small dishes floating in a bowl and attempted to sink them, Sweet explains.

There is one major difference, however, between the Greeks and modern beer pongers, besides the obvious absence of pingpong balls: getting drunk.

Byron Findley is the “Donkey” to Birmingham’s “Shrek.” The duo sinks nearly every shot and has won three Sacramento Beer Pong League games.

Photo By David Jayne

“In classical Athens, moderation in drinking was the rule,” UC Davis history professor Stylianos Spyridakis explains. “In fact, wine was seldom drunk neat, and the proportions of wine and water in the mixing bowl, the crater, were often one to three.”

Unlike this ancient Greek tradition, beer pong pretty much always has been about drinking—a lot. That said, its modern origins are fuzzy.

According to a 2004 article published in The Dartmouth Independent, beer pong began at the college sometime in the 1960s. This version was played more like an actual game of pingpong, with paddles. Eventually, the game evolved into Beirut, which is the current form without paddles. Today, most people have adopted the term beer pong as a replacement for Beirut. Although a small margin of people still play “beer pong” with paddles, beer pong and Beirut have, for the most part, become synonymous as the game without paddles, according to Bpong.com, host of the World Series of Beer Pong.

For years the game traveled in the underground college-party scene, making appearances in garages, dorms and fraternity houses.

“I didn’t even know about the game until I got to college,” Feliz recalls.

When college players migrated into the adult world of full-time jobs and mortgages, they brought beer pong with their diplomas.

“I brought it back from college,” says Ryan Anderson, 24, a regular at the Sacramento Beer Pong League games. “I went to school at Cal Poly for four years, down in San Luis Obispo, and then came back here. We played a lot down there, so we started playing up here.”

Now, beer pong is played regularly at local bars and eateries such as Midtown’s Whiskey Wild Saloon and the Beach Hut Deli in Roseville. Random games of beer pong even pop up during the popular karaoke nights at Pine Cove Tavern in Midtown.

Of course, the World Series of Beer Pong, held every year beginning on New Year’s Day in Las Vegas, has increased the “sports” popularity. More than 400 teams, including many regulars in the Sacramento circuit, make the pilgrimage to this beer-pong mecca for a chance to win $50,000.

“You go [to Las Vegas], you get a four-night stay in a hotel on the strip, and basically you just drink heavily,” explains Anderson. “You drink all day. They play from like 10 a.m. to 6 at night, and then you go out and rip it in Vegas every day. It’s only like $500 a person, so it’s pretty cool.”

Even ESPN covers the event.

“If ESPN, probably the biggest sports network in the world, is taking the time to write an article on beer pong, I think definitely it’s getting bigger as the day goes,” Higgins says.

And although beer pong is a drinking game, it takes some skill.

“It’s not shooting a piece of paper into a garbage can,” Higgins explains. “It’s shooting a tiny pingpong ball into a tiny cup with a little bit of beer in it. It can bounce out. It can rim out. Nothing’s guaranteed.”

Feliz adds that it takes a bit of physics and a lot of practicing.

“It’s basically like what makes a good golf swing and what makes a good baseball-bat swing. People have solid mechanics,” he says.

Players use just about every throwing style imaginable, from the line-drive sinker to the granny-style lob.

“Honestly, it’s all about hand-eye coordination and probably just shot technique,” Higgins says. “I’ve seen everybody from just the typical basketball jump shot to leaning over the table and pretty much, if they’re tall enough, they can just drop it in.”

It’s this convergence of drinking, socializing and sports competition that attracts so many people, Higgins explains.

“Yeah, it’s competitiveness,” he says. “But at the end, you’re shaking hands and just saying congratulations. You become friends, have a drink.”

Pong prohibition
But not everyone is jumping on the beer pong as sport and camaraderie bandwagon.

In January, Maryland state Sen. George W. Della Jr. attempted to ban drinking games, including beer pong, in Baltimore city bars. However, the democratic senator repealed the effort after receiving numerous angry e-mails from fans of the game.

Universities also are stepping up to quell the game’s popularity on campuses by banning paraphernalia associated with drinking games. In 2007, Georgetown University even banned students from possessing “inordinate numbers of Ping-Pong balls.”

Cyndra Krogen-Morton, health educator at Sacramento State University, says the game has become increasingly popular during the past couple years on campus.

“This year in the residence halls, and by a year I mean since fall, the residence-life coordinators have been confiscating beer-pong tables,” Krogen-Morton explains.

The students, she says, aren’t allowed to have drinking paraphernalia or anything that promotes binge drinking on campus.

“Like any other drinking game, we recommend against it, because oftentimes the purpose of the game is to get people intoxicated fast,” Krogen-Morton says.

Yet advocates of beer pong don’t often categorize it as a drinking game like quarters or kings. “That’s the big stigma that beer pong has, that it has beer in it,” says Feliz. “People don’t realize that people take this sport seriously.”

So seriously, in fact, that Feliz has devoted a Web site (www.pongtracker.com) to tracking beer-pong statistics and helping players set up games nationwide, like a social-networking site for beer-pong players.

“I think in 10 years there’s going to be less of a stigma around it, because I think people will start realizing that it’s not a binge-drinking game,” he says. “It’s not like college kids going out and wanting to get drunk and they play beer pong. It’s an actual sport.”

But for other passionate players, beer pong is simply about getting drunk.

“It’s cool that it’s getting big and you can make money doing it, but it’s not a sport,” says Anderson. “It’s not like Greco-Roman wrestling or something. It’s freakin’ beer pong. You’re throwing pingpong balls in a cup of beer.”

Ultimately, it’s not just drinking that keeps people playing beer pong well after college. It’s an addiction of another kind. An addiction to that sweet shot: when the silky pingpong ball gracefully leaves your fingers, following a perfect arc over the long table surrounded by cheering fans, finally splashing into that plastic cup of cheap beer. It’s like a hole in one. Nothin’ but net. A home run. It’s America’s new pastime.