Food & Drink

Beer Pong: The Living History of America's Game

They'll kick your ass for lots of things in Hanover, New Hampshire, but never more swiftly than if you throw a ping-pong ball at a cup of beer.

Go ahead: piss on the wall, or collapse into that ramshackle plywood bar in the corner. No harm, no foul. But don’t throw that damn ball. Down in the fetid basements that power Dartmouth College’s best minds into oblivion, they simply won’t tolerate that kind of beer pong*. So grab a paddle, or grab a seat. From there, observe America’s favorite drinking game in its primordial form.

Some questions may strike you. When did they start playing beer pong with paddles up at Dartmouth? Why doesn’t the rest of the country? How did this esoteric diversion spawn such a universally beloved pastime? What does it all mean, dammit?

Fret not, dear readers. We’ve got answers. After interviewing alumni from the four corners of the US, combing the archives of the country’s oldest student newspaper, and consulting several pong prophets who claim to see the game’s future, we can now tell you, definitively, about its uncanny past. Behold: the history of beer pong.

dartmouth beer pong
Crispus Knight

The birth of the beautiful game(s)

DARTMOUTH
The game: Teams aim a ball at beer cups with a handle-less ping-pong paddle
There, it's called: “Beer pong” or “pong”
First known instance: Late ‘50s

“The way I’ve heard it, Dartmouth frat brothers in the ‘50s and ‘60s were playing ping pong in the basement with cups of beer resting on the table,” recounted Crispus Knight, author of Three For Ship: A Swan Song to Dartmouth Beer Pong. Knight, class of 2003, was speaking with Thrillist on the phone from Brooklyn, where he now lives. At some point, he said, “someone made the discovery that you could aim for the cups and incorporate them into the games.”

Just like that, Dartmouth pong was born. Excluding a downturn in the ‘60s (actual drugs being the drug of choice) and a pivot in the ‘90s after the school banned unregistered kegs, the game has thrived at Big Green ever since. “All the frats play pong,” he continued. “Kids at Dartmouth feel like they have ownership of a very special [game], like we’re guardians of the ‘original’ version.”

But the “original version” of beer pong is actually versions, plural. Dartmouth frats wasted no time developing their own variations of the paddle game. Shrub and Tree, both named for the arboreal shape of their cup arrangements, are the most popular games on campus. Then there’s Ship (a Battleship-esque game that demands voluminous beer intake), Harbor, Slam, Line… you get the idea. Despite their different configurations and bylaws, Dartmouth pong variants are all built on the same foundational practice: palm a handle-less paddle, loft a ball skyward across the table, and try to sink the cup on the other side.

Regardless of the game, handle-less Champion Sports paddles quickly became the weapon of choice. “Stinson’s Village Store in Hanover is where we bought [them],” explained Knight. “Then we snapped the handles off,” usually by bracing a paddle against a table and smashing the heel of one’s hand down on it. Some players notch thumb grooves to ensure grip while aiming at the 12oz, clear plastic cups on the other side of the table.

In 1972, a Dartmouth student named Ted Lippman wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times, inquiring about who held beer pong’s world record, so that he and his classmates could break it. “We would like to try for the record in early June of this year,” he politely concluded his note, “so a quick response would be appreciated.” Word was spreading of Dartmouth’s beloved drinking game. Paddle pong was about to hit the road.

LEHIGH & BUCKNELL
The game: Teams throw a ball at beer cups across the table
There, it’s called: “Beirut” (Lehigh); “beer pong” (Bucknell)
First known instance: 1980

Like plagiarized term papers, it wasn’t long before beer pong spread to other schools. Knight thinks of its dispersion “sort of like a game of telephone.” The paddle game made the rounds in New England, and as far south as Pennsylvania, where Lehigh University was playing paddle pong as late as February 1979, when the term first appeared in the school paper,The Brown and White.

Halfway across the Keystone State, Bucknell was paddling, too. Marc*, Bucknell ‘82, remembers playing beer pong as late as 1978. “They must have played the game in [the Phi Psi fraternity] basement for many years because it smelled like hell down there,” he speculated to me via email.

But by the '80s, the winds of change carried whispers of a usurper to beer pong’s Pennsylvanian sovereignty. “Throw pong” -- a variant that required no paddles -- was on the rise.

In his 2004 essay for the now-defunct Dartmouth Independent, Anoop Rathod quotes Geoff Hill (Lehigh ‘87) on the throw game’s watershed moment. “We [had broken] all our ping-pong paddles and wanted to use the free-throw part of beer pong.” By ‘88, Hill said, they'd “made [the throw game] famous.”

Rathod also spoke to Brian Poulton (Lehigh ‘85), an early evangelist of the paddle-free game. "Stubby," as he was called in his fraternity, claims he first discovered the game in unpolished form on a visit to Bucknell four years prior.

Indeed, even today, alumni of Lehigh’s Patriot League rival are indoctrinated as keepers of the paddle-less flame. John*, Bucknell ‘11, told me via email that “Bucknell is referred to as the place where beer pong started” on campus to this day. “I’m not sure if that’s a fact,” he says, but photo evidence taken at Bucknell’s House Party weekend in 1980 -- suggests it might be. This would’ve been three years before Stubby encountered the offshoot game there, and yet there’s not a paddle in sight.

The exact date and place will remain forever uncertain, but somewhere on the decade’s high plateaus of acid-washed, synth-fueled excess, Lehigh and Bucknell gave birth to a new, paddle-free game. Like all newborns, this offspring would need a name.

Enter... Ronald Reagan?

Outside America’s boozy baccalaureate enclaves, these were grave days. Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office, and, determined to negotiate with force where predecessor Jimmy Carter had opted for diplomacy, he’d chosen to act with decisive force to protect US interests abroad. Three international flashpoints in the Reagan era caused global ripples that washed ashore in the Lehigh Valley, forever changing the course of beer pong.

  • In 1983, suicide bombers killed 241 US Marines stationed at a barracks at Beirut’s international airport. Earlier that year, another bombing at the Lebanese capital’s US Embassy killed 63 Americans.
  • In 1986, at Reagan’s command, US planes began bombing Tripoli, the stronghold of Libyan warlord Muammar Gaddafi.
  • Also in 1986, an Iranian sect held US hostages in Lebanon. Reagan’s administration maneuvered an arms-for-hostages swap that would eventually blow up into the Iran-Contra Affair.

Back in Pennsylvania, besotted frat bros were reading headlines and hunting for a name to differentiate their new throwing game from Dartmouth’s paddle pong. There was an "analogy between the ping-pong balls flying across the table and landing on the opponent’s side,” Duane Kosten, Lehigh ‘86, told Rathod, plus “an idea that the US should bomb Beirut” in retribution for the ‘83 attacks. Three years later, Hill recalled efforts to dub the game “Libya” in reference to the ‘86 US air siege there.

When Lebanon hit the front page yet again during the Iran-Contra Affair, anti-Lebanese sentiment may have broken the tie. The game would be called Beirut (“Never beer pong!!” emphasized Alison*, Lehigh ‘02, via email). Lehigh legend has it that there was originally a table painted with a map of Lebanon and a star on its capital, but if such a thing existed, it’s long since been lost to the frat basement of history.

Either way, throwing the ball was the next big thing. Beirut was faster, more intuitive, and punctuated with consistent moments of required drinking so that, as Koston and countless college kids after him noted, “if you played, you got bombed.”

Beirut goes national, becomes beer pong (again)

At this point, history begins to run away from the paddles, racks, and considerable nuance of Dartmouth pong. By the end of the ‘80s, Beirut was growing explosively on Northeastern campuses thanks to its simplicity, adaptability, and inclusiveness. Co-eds at schools like Penn State, Moravian College, and Fairfield University passed on paddles in favor of this new game, which required little more than a flat surface, able limbs, and a child’s comprehension of geometry.

Soon, Beirut had traveled far enough that it was reaching colleges where no one had ever played, or even heard of, Dartmouth pong. It hit the Midwest, popping up at Miami University of Ohio in the early ‘90s. Then it spread south: students at the University of Georgia and the University of Florida were throwing by the late ‘90s. By the turn of the century, the game had arrived at the University of Southern California.

Outside the Northeast, where no one had ever heard of the paddle game (and therefore saw no need to differentiate from it), the throw game became known by its more intuitive moniker: beer pong.

The World Series, and beyond

Don’t tell Billy Gaines that Beirut is a juvenile pastime. In 2003, Gaines graduated from Carnegie Mellon with an engineering degree, and he set about finding a way to combine entrepreneurship, his competitive streak (he swam for the Tartans), and his love for the ball-throwing, beer-drinking game he encountered for the first time at his alma mater. He wanted to help it grow.

“My Indiana buddies didn’t see beer pong until around 2003,” the Indiana native told Thrillist in a recent phone interview. The game was still cornered in the Northeast. But “something connected me with beer pong,” Gaines said. He thought it could be bigger. So he and some partners founded BPONG.com to serve as an online community for the drinking game.

Gaines told me that the site’s original goal “was to create a platform that didn’t try to define the game, but respected… and gave people a common place to discuss it. We had a problem though. Beer pong is a very real-world game.” To bring the BPONG.com community into the real world, they launched the first annual World Series of Beer Pong in Mesquite, Nevada, in early 2006.

People laughed. “When we announced the $10,000 grand prize, it was so distant from anything else people had done that no one believed it would happen.” Beer pong was the Big Game on Campus, sure, but would adults pay money to throw balls at cups of light beer in a convention center 80 arid miles northeast of the Las Vegas Strip?

Of course, the answer was yes. Eighty-three teams registered for WSOBP 1. About 280 registered for the same event next year. At its peak in 2009, that number exceeded 500. Lawyers, bums, wives, college kids -- everybody wanted to see if their skills could go the distance.

Gaines estimates that his company has handed out “over half a million dollars” in prize money to date, as well as sold $100,000 in branded tables, cups, and other merchandise. In 2010, Forbes cited the website’s annual revenue at $3 million.

When I spoke to Billy Gaines, he was in Vegas, preparing to announce another tournament and optimistically navigating the choppy waters of a TV deal. “I used to travel, and a 60-year-old would ask what I’d do,” he responds when I inquire his opinion on the throw game’s future. “They’d be puzzled when I told them. Now, they say ‘Oh yeah! I’ve played that with my grandchildren.’ It’s not just frat kids anymore... it’s about people having fun & doing something together.”

That’s what it’s all about, really. Prize money or not, as long as there’s beer to drink, there will be drinking games to play. Thanks to generations of college students, and Ronald Reagan (sort of!), the game America plays is beer pong. Except in Hanover, New Hampshire, where they simply don’t play that kind.

*The etymology of this game is a hotly contested point. Some call it “beer pong” or “pong," and others insist it’s “Beirut." For clarity, we used the first term (or “the paddle game”) to mean a game played by paddling a ping-pong ball into some number of beer cups; and the latter (or “the throw game”) to signify a game played by throwing the ball into those cups.

**Names followed by asterisks were changed out of respect for that source's desire for privacy.

Note: This piece was originally published in 2014, and re-edited for length & clarity in August 2016.

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Dave Infante is a producer and writer-at-large at Thrillist. Follow @dinfontay on Twitter.