The Definitive History of Pong

Pong is quintessentially “Dartmouth.” It links students of the past to the students of the present, and emphasizes the camaraderie that exists within the larger Dartmouth community. Whether he or she won or lost, everyone remembers his or her first pong game with a great deal of affection. A right of passage for all freshman, most will eventually find themselves behind a table, paddle in hand, desperately trying to avoid being golden tree’d — losing a game without hitting a single cup — by the end of their first game. While the fate of any Dartmouth student’s first game of pong might be an eternally sore subject, it marks the start of an intimate and long lasting respectful relationship with the game. However, the adrenaline rush that comes as you sink your first cup is one that most students never forget. Pong through the ages is a topic often discussed by outsiders without context for its true importance— Total Frat Move, Business Insider, The New York Times, The Tab, and strangely enough even The Yale Daily News have all written about pong. One accordingly famous ‘78 even wrote his thesis on the game. We at The Review wanted to write this because we love pong and all of its longstanding traditions and quirks.

Pong at Dartmouth

Pong at Dartmouth

The first reported game of pong was in the mid-1950s. However, it was a niche social activity reserved only for certain fraternities that didn’t gain mainstream popularity until the early ‘70s — Fraternity leadership from the class of 1967 remarked that they did not ever play pong when they were on campus. Multiple members from the class of 1971 made comments along the lines that pong “wasn’t a campus-wide folkway…[and its] culture only thrived in fraternity basements.” However, certain members of the class embraced this new game and played an average of anywhere from two to four nights a week — a number that may sound familiar to the average current student. As pong continued to permeate fraternity basements, its popularity began to spread. In 1976, with the addition of female students on Dartmouth’s campus, fraternities began breaking the handles off of ping-pong paddles to make it more difficult for women to hold the paddles and become acclimated to the game. Like most weak and pathetic attempts of excluding women from social spaces and activities, this failed miserably. Women quickly integrated themselves into pong culture, adapting to these new paddles and sinking cups. In 1977, the College revoked pong’s status as the only college sponsored drinking game in history. Today’s Master’s tournament — played over each class’s sophomore summer might be considered an homage to this historical legacy — each Greek house puts forth their two best teams and one house reigns supreme in an epic tournament of pong. By the late 1980’s, pong’s place on campus had solidified. More and more frats integrated pong into their basement scenes and it became a fundamental part of culture at Dartmouth. The game spread and subtle changes began to emerge between the various houses on campus. Today, students can be seen playing pong in every basement, almost every day of the week. 

The Review reached out to alumni to attain a better understanding of how the set up and execution of our favorite pastime has evolved since its widespread adoption in 1970s. A Sigma Kappa ‘74 — a self proclaimed pong expert — concisely described the rules he played with, “the game in the 1970s consisted of putting a full cup of beer in the middle of each quadrant of the ping pong table. The objective was to hit the opponent’s cup in which case he and his partner had to drink 1/4 of his cup or even better to hit the ping pong ball into the opponent’s cup in which he and his partner had to chug their beers.”  However, should you knock over your own beer, you had to fill it, and both you and your partner had to chug their cups. After hitting your opponents cup 4 times, they were out and the next team came on table. Despite the common objective, the current practice of aligning the cups in a tree bears little resemblance to the game of old.

Even the way we execute pong shots has changed. Prior to the turn of the century, pong much closer resembled the game of ping pong where shots were low and difficult to return. A strong player would ideally be able to smash the cups off the table in which case the opponent had to refill the cup and then imbibe. While still observed in houses such as GDX and Sig Ep today, aces were also crucial to prior variations of pong. An Alpha Chi ‘79 confirms that pong players were just as conniving back then as today with a description of service tactics: “pong involved both fast serves as well as serves using subterfuge, surprise, unconventional serving, and distraction (even physical distraction in doubles).”

Nowadays, two players per team is the standard, and the standard pong shot is a lob hit which follows the trajectory of an arc on it’s journey from the paddle to (hopefully) the opponents’ cups. One can only guess as to why pong moved away from the fast pace slams to the elongated lobs. Perhaps influence from pong’s ugly red-headed step sister—beirut, a carnival game that no reasonable person would ever consider as being classified as pong—encouraged the use of an arced shot to attack cups. Maybe, the slam pong involved much more movement and our game was bread of laziness. Regardless, many students would be shocked and uncomfortable to see the game of old played in our familiar basements. Not only is slam pong frowned upon, lobs are the only truly acceptable way to hit a cup. If a player hits the ball too low, or, more accurately, with a downward arc, anyone playing or even observing the game can call “low” and have the player re-serve. 

Cup placement has also deviated from earlier times. Many think of the eleven cup Tree formation as a sacred symbol to Dartmouth. Bearing questionable resemblance to the Lone Pine, the arrangement can be seen on table (in order to aid in set up as the night grows long) and even embroidered on fraternity shirts. Although this is the default formation in most Greek houses, a variety of different patterns are used for special occasions.

When time is of the essence and waiting lines are long, many houses resort to Shrub, a smaller version of tree that only uses seven cups and less beer. On the other end of the spectrum, empty basements sometimes see the infamous Sequoia formation, a tree with an extra row of five beers behind the previous back row of four beers with a double stem. Obviously, this game takes longer and leaves participants substantially more intoxicated than a game of Tree. An even more ambitious and rare formation referred to as 3-D pong which refers to the three dimensional set up. On top of the original tree, cups are stacked higher and higher until reaching a peak cup four cups above the table. Because of the larger target, this game can quickly turn into hedonistic chaos and is normally preserved for big weekends or reckless Keystone enthusiasts.

One of the last four player pong formations played today is referred to as The Line of Death and still can be seen in the basement of Sigma Nu on rare occasions. Line consists of 9 or 11 cups placed in a horizontal line a paddle’s length away from the back of the table. A Sigma Nu ‘92 remarks that in his day, Line of Death had three separate variations. Standard Line of Death consisted of 8 cups centered on the table. Wall of Death consisted of 16 cups lining the entire width of the table. Great Wall of Death consisted of 32 cups—two rows together, lining the entire back of the table—and a great deal of regret the next morning. Line formations are thought to reward pinpoint accuracy as all the cups are at the same distance away from the other side of the table.

Occasionally, games of pong involve more or less than four players and thus require adjusted set ups. For players serious about improving their game, 48 is a variation that requires only two players. The name is derived from the point system used to score the game, and it bears some resemblance to pong played in the 70s. Two cups are needed for each opponent placed side by side a paddle’s length from the back. One beer is split between the two cups and each cup contains four points. A hit represents one point while sinking a cup finishes whatever points are left in the cup. Although often overlooked, it is customary that after a cup is finished, it remains on the table and any strikes or sinks of said cup result in a point deducted from the remaining beer cup. These cups are only refilled when all beer is gone which happens to fall of multiples of 8 hence the name of the game, 48, referring to a game that ends when the loser finishes his sixth beer. An opponent may have to refill his cups multiple times before his adversary if severely outmatched. Considered a “gentleman’s game” it does not matter who serves the ball and participants are obliged to refrain from spin serving.

When more than four players are looking for a game, often times two tables will be pushed together for a round of Harbor which requires four teams of two players. Harbor, as the name suggests, is comprised of five ships, straight lines of cups of varying lengths that are “sunk” when a cup is sunk and less that two and a half full cups remain in the ship. Each team starts the set up in a corner of the now square table. A ship consisting of six cups runs from the corner to the teams right along the edge of the table while a ship of five runs along the left edge starting about a cup length from the start of the six boat. From this “L” shaped start, a four length boat runs diagonally towards the center of the table, bisecting the ninety degree angle created by the first tow boats. Running along the same edge as the five boat is the three boat which lies on the edge of the teams region right where the two tables have been pushed together. Placed horizontally in front of the four boat is the elusive two boat. Lastly, the one boat is placed in between the six, five, and four boats and is actually not a ship at all, but a mine. The mine is notoriously easy to hit and, when struck, the offender must go over to the opponent’s side of the table, drink the mine, and then refill it. This ordeal leaves the offender’s side vulnerable as the game does not stop while his other partner must now defend their whole quadrant. As teams are eliminated, they must leave the table and when two teams are left, they take their remaining cups and play on one table as if a regular game of pong. It is important to remember that harbor waits for no one — anybody is able to serve the ball and stepping away from the table does not stop the game. Some also play where off table shots can be slammed at opponents and hitting them results in the drinking of a half.

Today’s fraternities and sororities all have their own unique rules and customs. Chi Heorot, known for its high ceilings and spacious pong area, offers a space suitable for expert-level pong. Pong at Heorot is played with the regular tree formation, but without medians. Teams can usually decide who serves, and 3 serve attempts are allowed. Ceilings are always good at Heorot, even on serves, regardless of how hard the ball is hit. Slams are only good off of elbows or on saves, and there are no team saves, meaning that only the person whose turn it is to hit can save the ball. When one’s teammate is especially bad at saves, this rule can be liver-killer.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon also uses the tree formation, but requires that serves be played to the person that has just sank a cup, if applicable. Servers also get 3 tries here, but team saves, along with team returns are allowed, meaning that anyone playing at SAE can save, or return a save.

The brothers of Beta Alpha Omega have no problem flipping over their tables and clearing out their basement for dancing during the night, but pong is nonetheless an important activity in their basement. Beta uses the tree formation like most fraternities, and also allows 3 strikes on serve, but only counts a serve as a strike if the ball goes off the table. Beta allows team saves, and also allows the use of the body throughout gameplay. The one rule that makes Beta unique is that they allow ceiling slams.

Phi Delta Alpha, or Phi Delt, has a heavy-drinking atmosphere that is very conducive for pong. The rules at Phi Delt are pretty standard, with tree formation and 3 off-table serve attempts, although any use of the body is strictly prohibited (and may get you booed out of the basement). Make sure not to hit the ceiling on serves!

At Sigma Phi Epsilon, pong is played in tree formation, with only 2 serves, and aces garner a cup from the other team. Sig Ep also has a unique rule called the “playmaker,” where sinking the middle cup on the first hit will kill the entire back row of cups. Sig Ep also allows team saves, as most fraternities do.

Tri Kap (Kappa Kappa Kappa) is one of the few frats to use the shrub formation, making games shorter, but also making lines move more quickly. Tri Kap allows 3 serve attempts, and allows players to serve to either side of the table, and also allows team saves. The brothers here can chug like no other, and you’ll scarcely see beer being poured onto the floor. That being said, their somewhat-newly renovated basement contains a water fountain in close proximity to their tables. If you want to play with water— go for it, and drink it to stay hydrated!

Alpha Chi Alpha, known as Alpha Chi, has a uniquely shaped basement with three standard pong tables and one table reserved for a drinking game called chesties— four players with one cup each stand at each corner, and attempt to hit the ball off of their chests into their cup. Alpha Chi allows 3 serves, and also allows environment on hits, meaning that they play anything that hits the table off of any object that is not the floor. Ceiling slams are also allowed. See a brother saluting while drinking? Ask him what it’s about!

TDX (Theta Delta Chi) hosts a heavy-drinking pong scene, and plays with a double stemmed tree, placing a 12th cup at the base of a normal tree set up, and often pouring 7 beers. This basement also can often turn into a dance scene, but is great for pong during the early and extra late hours of the night. TDX doesn’t allow team saves, but does allow use of the environment and the body.

GDX (Gamma Delta Chi) has a two-floored basement, allowing for a simultaneous dance and pong scene. One level of the basement is your standard scene, but the lower one used to be an underground pool. Ceilings are accordingly especially high at this lowest level. They only allows 2 serves, but play aces on serves as a cup. GDX doesn’t allow ceiling serves, but does allow for team saves.

Chi Gamma Epsilon, known as Chi Gam, has the basement divided into two sections: Varsity and JV. The Varsity table has a higher ceiling than the other tables, but the same rules are played on the Varsity table and the four JV tables. Chi Gam only allows 2 serves that miss the table, and doesn’t count ceiling serves. People are expected to serve the ball to someone when they sink a cup, and team saves are allowed.

As stated previously, Sigma Nu will sometimes play with the uncommon line formation as an homage to past pledge classes of the 80s and 90s. However, the basement more commonly plays tree. They allow for 3 serves. They no longer play with aces, and environment is good. Bodies fall into a weird gray zone, where nobody in the basement will you out on it, but they will give you a dirty look. Respect the house, respect the basement—only use your paddle.

Psi U mostly plays with shrub, but most brothers prefer to play tree. Unfortunately for those unfamiliar in playing in their rather short  basement, Psi U allows for ceiling slams. The brothers of Zeta Psi also mostly play shrub.

As the first sorority to cut ties from a national organization and go local, Sigma Delt’s basement is always open as a female dominated social space. The women of Sigma Delta are known for their utter mastery of pong. Coining the phrase heard in most every house on campus “Sinking Halves and Respecting Women,” Sigma Delts are a force to be reckoned with in basements— especially their own. Sigma Delt’s claim pong as theirs and are happy to share that love of the game with all who wish to share it. The house’s official rules reflect this. There must be at least one sister on table at all times, and when playing with water they request that the cups be taken from their sustainable cup dispenser. If someone isn’t in the basement, nobody may call line for them. In order to ensure that as many games can be played as possible, the house plays with shrub and harbor may not be played on on-nights when people are waiting to play. Sigma Delt’s open basement and rules clearly show how pong can be used as a tool on Dartmouth’s campus to promote equity and fun — all those in their basement and respecting the line can expect to play and have a wonderful time. A game can only be as good as its players’ desire to play fairly, and the sisters of Sigma Delt ensure that rules are respected and upheld within the entirety of their domain.

Regardless of what basement one plays in, pong is a quintessential bonding opportunity. This can be seen in its role as a social event for many non-Greek organizations, including varsity and club sports teams, academic clubs, and even classes and study groups. Usually everyone in the group will plan a convenient time for an organization-wide tournament, and “rent out” a frat basement early during an “on” night (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) or on an “off” night (any other night). These tournaments are always open to anyone within the student group, regardless of affiliation, but usually at least one member of the student group must be affiliated with the house that is being used. Pong tournaments are so crucial in fostering team camaraderie that many clubs will hold a tournament every term. In tightly-knit sports teams, two separate “rankings” will often develop — one for the actual sport being played, and one for pong. Sometimes certain playing traits will even carry over from the given sport, making for a distinct playing style and outlook on the game.

Pong can be played with or without alcohol, and with almost any type of alcohol. While Keystone Light is certainly the most common poison picked, cups can be seen with everything ranging from batch and boozy lemonade to an IPA of one’s choosing and hard cider. Recently, White Claw’s hard seltzer has made its way into basements and cups, much to the chagrin of beer-lovers everywhere. Once a term, Sigma Alpha Epsilon hosts “Champagne” where invitees dress in classy garb and play with sparkling wines ranging from a $7 Prosecco, to bottles of Veuve Clicquot. However, an important terminology change must be noted — when one plays pong with champagne, one ought to call it “Champong.”

There is an argument that pong — like all drinking games — encourages a drinking culture. To a certain point, this argument has merit. A team holding table could easily consume 15 beers over the course of a few hours. Certainly, there are variations of the phrase “losing means drinking, drinking means winning, therefore losing means winning” espoused by alumni as far back as 1975. However, to play pong one is not required to drink. An Alpha Chi ‘79 emphasizes this sentiment stating “for all the folks who say [pong] only encourages drinking alcohol, please note that we played plenty of water pong when we didn’t want to drink beer.” As nights grow long and players’ tolerance become stretched, cups filled with beer get spilled onto the floor — much to the chagrin of new members responsible for cleaning the basement — and get replaced with water for the next games. This care to not push students past their limits could be attributed to numerous features of pong. The most cynical explanation might be that as pong is a team sport, teammates have a practical interests associated with preventing one another from over-indulging lest their overall performance suffer. There might also be a more tender explanation— the camaraderie brought about by pong could breed a semblance of mutual respect that incentivizes all players to look out for everyone’s best interest. After all, there is no honor in winning a game against someone incapable of truly playing it.

Another important element of pong is that, throughout the ages, students have found ways to endow games with mirth. A Sigma Kappa ‘74 recalls of a fond memory of dragging a pong table onto his front lawn for a game on a lovely spring Sunday morning — only to see then-President Kemeny walking down Webster Avenue with his wife on the way to church and greet them warmly with a jovial “Good Morning.” In the late evening of November 6th, 2016, two unknown students stole a regulation sized piece of plywood from a construction site and carried it across the green. After spending hours in Chi Gamma Epsilon’s hot tub and consuming quite a lot of wine, one student fondly recalls her decision to fill cups up with leftover Chinese food rather than alcohol. Certain houses might bring up empty cases of beer to build a wall in the center of the table and play “battleship” — each side decides where to put their cups, and each player blindly lobs the ball over the divider to try to sink their opponents’ ships.

While pong may be just a game to some, it is the respect of the game that defines its value on Dartmouth’s campus. People call lows on themselves as a way to keep themselves to a high-standard. Close-calls are often left to the discretion of those closest to the cup. There are rarely referees in a basement. Instead, there is an overriding sense of honor that each player ought to have — one that is taught, reinforced, and cherished in every house and on every on-night. Life-long friends are made across the pong table. Dartmouth’s unique version of pong has become embedded in virtually every aspect of student life, and the game has, time after time, proven not only to bring friends closer together, but also to make friends of strangers. In the wise words of a Sigma Nu ‘92, “Pong is…emblematic of Dartmouth as a whole. The underlying traditions and love of institution stays, while the specifics change with the times… we still bleed green and maintain that pong is not pong without paddles.”