Beer pong gets (almost) serious

January 5, 2009 9:14:41 AM PST
Don't let the smell of beer and the rock music fool you: Beer pong is a serious game. Some dare say a sport. [SIGN UP: Get bizarre news sent to you]

Granted, they tend to be grinning and drinking when they say it.

There was plenty of both going on this weekend at the World Series of Beer Pong IV, a loud and sloshy annual tournament that elevates a college fraternity house staple that includes ping pong balls and beer to an (almost) serious competition.

With a $50,000 prize on the line, more than 400 teams flocked to the Flamingo hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip for a chance to bring their skills out of the bar and into the big time. They wore matching uniforms and talked about focus and strategy.

Some also wore matching hot pants and talked about drinking more Pabst Blue Ribbon, the official beer of the tournament.

But the winner, Ron Hamilton, 25, of Brentwood, N.Y., preferred liquor to beer, and said he got ready for Sunday's play by drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels.

"The key today was me getting real drunk and my partner not missing, and us coming out and proving we're the best," Hamilton said shortly after winning the top prize with Michael Popielarski, 25, of Massapequa, N.Y.

Hamilton said he and his partner -- who form the team Smashing Time -- met three years ago at a bar in Long Island.

"We've been unstoppable ever since," he said. Hamilton said he planned to eliminate his personal debt and pay part of his mother's mortgage with the winnings.

The game is played with cups of beer lined up like bowling pins on two ends of a 14-foot table. Team members alternate trying to toss a ping pong ball into the cups. The team that lands all the cups wins, the losers drink.

While one team is tossing, the other is free to create any sort of distraction, hence the skimpy hot pants. "The skill is the psyche out," said competitor 23-year-old Ryan Young.

Beer pong came to prominence largely in East Coast college campuses in the late 1990s. It has recently left the campus for the mainstream.

More bars are setting up tables and weekly tournaments. A new documentary, "Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong," captures the growing pong culture. "Beer Pong" the video game was designed for Nintendo Co.'s popular Wii game system, but JV Games Inc. changed the name to "Pong Toss" amid complaints about appropriateness for teenagers. The World Series of Beer Pong has seen its ranks swell five fold since its first tournament in 2006.

Devotees say the game is a hit because it requires just enough skill and concentration that you can improve with practice, but not so much that you can't also have a few while playing.

This World Series of Beer Pong is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Billy Gaines, Duncan Carroll and Ben "Skinny" Solnik. The trio met as students and beer pong aficionados at Carnegie Mellon University.

After graduation, they set out in their spare time to turn the game they loved into a moneymaker. Their site,, sells tables, T-shirts, balls and other gear. The company organizes satellite tournaments and is a clearinghouse for detailed and occasionally heated conversation about the game's rules. This one made it into the world series official rule book: "No player may take offense to anything said or done during a game, even if it involves their mother."

But the world series' rules don't require the losers to drink, a deviation from original game, and a concession, perhaps, to critics. Beer pong and other drinking games have been targeted by those trying to curb binge drinking. Some college campuses have banned the game.

Gaines said beer pong is misunderstood.

"I know the media will say this is a chugging contest," he said. "This is about a sport, it's about a competition. They aren't here to drink. Yeah, they're drinking, but that's not why they're here."

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