Once upon a time, some Dartmouth fraternity brothers playing table tennis rested their mugs of beer on the table while they played. A few stray ping pong balls landed in the cups by divine accident, until someone proposed that it was more fun to aim for the mugs of beer themselves.
According to both Dartmouth students and the “Origin” section on the Wikipedia page for “Beer Pong,” Dartmouth students invented pong. Though the story is impossible to verify, and the details get hazy, these bragging rights are sacred to many Dartmouth students.
Jay Satterfield, head of Special Collections at Rauner Library, said that little record exists of beer pong’s origins.
“I am afraid this is one of those Dartmouth traditions that wasn’t documented, which isn’t really a surprise, but it is still frustrating,” Satterfield said.
However, the ambiguous legacy of pong lives on through its practice on campus today, and its borderline mythical history endures in the fond memories of alumni.
Mary Es Anderson-Beaver ’90 remembers how popular the game was during her time at Dartmouth.
“There were just huge crowds around the table all the time, so it was a really fun game that I think brought people together,” Anderson-Beaver said. “It was something that was unifying, sort of like freshman trips or the bonfire. It was something everyone did because it was fun, it was social and it was traditional.”
After graduating from Dartmouth, Anderson-Beaver has since passed on the game to her daughter, teaching her how to play in their backyard — with water.
Though some incoming freshmen may be familiar with beer pong, few know the version played at Dartmouth.
Jenna Thompson ’20 recounts that she first heard about Dartmouth’s relationship to pong from her tour guide while visiting campus.
“I don’t think he mentioned how prevalent it was on campus, but it was one of those anecdotes thrown in because it’s something that makes Dartmouth stand out,” Thompson said.
Though pong was allegedly invented in the 1950s at Dartmouth, it was not popularized nationally until the 1970s. As the game spread throughout the Northeast and eventually westward, the paddles disappeared from the game. At the place of pong’s founding, however, the paddles remain a critical element.
Complete with handle-free paddles and a tree-shaped cup formation, Dartmouth pong differs from the more well-known version that involves throwing ping pong balls into a triangular cup formation, which Dartmouth students refer to as “Beirut.”
According to a 2004 article for the Dartmouth Independent, the name “Beirut” has historical significance. In the early 1980s, responding to a series of brutal terrorist attacks and kidnappings in eastern Europe, then-president Ronald Reagan bombed Libya, one of the alleged culprits. The public demanded the same punishment for Beirut, Lebanon, where much of the same violence had also occurred.
At the same time, college students at Lehigh University had started playing a version of pong without paddles and were looking for a new name to differentiate their version from Dartmouth’s. According to the Dartmouth Independent article, Lehigh students noticed an analogy between the ping-pong balls going back and forth on the table and the back-and-forth idea that the U.S. should bomb Beirut in retaliation.
While some enjoy the game, others believe its competitive nature contributes to a problematic drinking culture at Dartmouth. Crispus Knight ’03 voiced this opinion in his memoir “Three for Ship: A Swan Song to Dartmouth Beer Pong.” Knight describes his pong-playing college self as “a truly elite pong warrior and the most degenerate kid you’ve ever met.”
In the book, Knight describes his own obsession with pong as a fraternity brother at Dartmouth. He blames pong for his eventual failure out of Dartmouth and subsequent alcoholism.
“Pong, by its very nature, had incited a terrible rampage of self-destructive tendencies and unapologetic nihilism that crashed violently into what had until that point been a promising young academic career,” Knight writes.
Other critiques of pong focus on the hierarchies associated with it. Some consider pong to be a male-dominated sport. Thompson said that because Dartmouth social life is centered around Greek culture, fraternities tend to have control the rules of pong.
“They get to decide what ‘line’ is, they get to decide who’s invited into the basement at all,” Thompson said. “I think occasionally it can be used as almost a transactional thing, socially or sexually.”
Though Thompson does not have any personal negative experiences with pong, she said she has had friends who felt like they owed people something if they were allowed to play, especially as underclassmen. She said she is thankful to be a member of Sigma Delta, a sorority that has pong tables of its own.
“We don’t really have to rely on fraternities, which I find really empowering,” Thompson said. “We don’t really play with beer; if it’s just four sisters, we’ll play with water or juice, or we’ll play pizza pong.”
Overall, Thompson said, pong is a “really fun game” which she associates with positive memories because it has been a great way to meet and talk with people.
The fairytale beginnings of beer pong influence its role in Dartmouth culture now. Though its legacy is complicated, pong remains a core memory of the social life on campus — for better or for worse.
This article is a part of the 2019 Freshman Issue.