Editor's Note: This is the first 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 prominent role pong plays in social life on campus.
The air is humid, stagnant and reeks of beer. Ping-pong balls zip back and forth across 9-by-5 sheets of solid wood straddled across garbage cans. Students wait for their turn to play beer pong on tables that are "four-games deep," mingling with one another while sipping cans of Keystone Light. Secretly wishing they were "on-table" instead of chatting, the beer-guzzling students never avert their full attention from the game in front of them. A Friday night at Dartmouth College is well underway.
Pong is a four-player drinking game derived in part from ping pong. Participants lob the ball toward their opponents' side of the table aiming for the formation of cups on the other side. With most Greek organizations having up to five tables in their basements, pong is the main staple of Dartmouth's Greek-dominated social scene. A study former College Statistician John Pryor conducted last spring revealed that 80 percent of students have played the game.
A much more common drinking game, Beirut, is played across America and on many college campuses, but Dartmouth students pride themselves on the uniqueness of their "sport." Beirut is played without paddles and involves merely tossing the ball toward the cups. But Dartmouth students believe that their method requires more skill and concentration -- making it the elite among drinking games.
"Beirut is horrendous and an embarrassment to all drinking games," Toby Lunt '08 said.
An October 2005 article in The New York Times about the perils of drinking games labeled Dartmouth the founder of pong, "a game also known for some reason as Beirut." While some students were proud to see their school's name in The Times, others were dismayed by the factual error. The New York Times was not the first to attribute the genesis of pong to Dartmouth. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, also attributes pong to the College.
"It is unclear where the game was first played, some have suggested Dartmouth College in the 1950s, but there has been no definitive date or place," the encyclopedia claims under "beer pong."
Unofficial College historian and history professor emeritus Jere Daniell '55 recalls playing pong in its most primitive form when he was a member of Alpha Theta fraternity between 1952 and 1955.
"I'm not even sure it had a name," Daniell said of playing the game over 50 years ago. He remembered that a point system accompanied the game but said there weren't even ground rules yet.
Although a handful of other colleges may play pong with paddles, including Cornell University, it seems there is no place in the country where pong is as pervasive as it is in Hanover. Bouncing ping-pong balls can be heard up and down Webster Avenue day and night.
But Dartmouth students get so wrapped up in their pride that they sometimes have trouble stepping back and acknowledging the game's importance on campus. Most social interaction revolves -- quite physically -- around pong tables as students mingle in basements. For fear of losing track of the ball, competitive players often ignore friends who visit them in the depths of basements.
While many students of college age come up with many diverse methods for drinking, Dartmouth students are not quite as creative. Pong is a way to begin the night, a way to end the night or a way to spend the whole night. The rules are simple but the intrigue is not.
When interviewed, 80 percent of students who belong to a co-ed, fraternity or sorority organization had played pong within the last two weeks. Members of religious organizations and of international student organizations were least likely to have played within the last two weeks, but still 41 percent of these students had played at least once.
But the pong players of today, whether or not they realize it, are partaking in a pastime that has come a long way from the original game. Pong consisted of two cups of beer per side from the 1950s until the 1990s, and the last 10 years have seen a proliferation in the amount of beer consumed during one game. The most common pong formations at Dartmouth include "shrub" and "tree," which consist of seven and 11 cups of beer, respectively. According to common definitions of "binge drinking," even a single game of pong can cross the line from social to binge drinking.
For some this culture of excess can increase one's alcohol tolerance and require more beer to elicit the "social lubricant" on which they become dependent. Dartmouth men often use pong as a first date or a way of getting to know a girl. Typical date requests such as, "Can I take you out dinner?," sometimes take a back seat to a more pong-centered approach. "Do you want to get a game of pong sometime soon?" has become a pick-up line of choice for students of all grade levels. Instead of going out for a drink on the town with a romantic prospect, a simple trip to the closest fraternity sometimes suffices.
"Pong is almost like a cop-out for guys -- a way to avoid taking a girl out on a date to see if she's interesting," Ilissa Samplin '08 said. "If she doesn't work out, well at least you had a fun night of getting drunk without having to take her out for a meal."
But that doesn't mean that Dartmouth women do not embrace the culture themselves at times.
"While we girls love it when guys go that extra step and ask us to a meal, it is a lot easier and less stressful on us too to go the pong route," Christina Luccio '07 said. Luccio thinks pong can be a good first date because you're surrounded by other people and if anything becomes awkward "you can always blame it on the alcohol."
When Pryor released his statistical findings in the spring, 33 percent of pong-playing students said they played with new partners, while steady romantic couples made up 17 percent of the pong players. Ten percent played with "potential romantic partners."
"It seems at times much more important who you're seen with in the basement than who you might accompany you for stroll into town or a coffee break," Ursula Grisham '08 said.
When freshmen arrive on campus, they waste no time joining in the furor that is beer pong. It is as if by agreeing to attend Dartmouth, one agrees to embrace and cherish the beloved drinking game.
"Beirut is but a distant memory in my mind," Bret Tenenhaus '09 said of the game he played during high school. "The first night you walk into a frat basement you are immediately overwhelmed by the teamwork, competition and the aura of pong."
Pong is as much a part of Dartmouth as the Greek system itself and has evolved during the last 50 years to become the game that students know and love today.
As pong evolved, it has ensured its special place in the heart of Dartmouth students, and it has developed a long, storied history of its own.