Why Dartmouth Beer Pong Is So Dangerously Fun

Editor’s note: Crispus Knight ’03 recently published a memoir about Dartmouth College’s unique form of beer pong and an obsession with it that nearly ruined him, called “Three For Ship.” Here’s an excerpt:
On any given night you can be sure that in Dartmouth’s [Coed, Fraternity, and Sorority] houses, basement Beer Pong games are being played. In Beer Pong, two teams compete on a flat playing surface (at Dartmouth about the size and shape of a standard Ping Pong table) on which a predetermined number of beers are distributed into plastic cups and arranged into one of many formations. The object of the game is to successfully hit a Ping Pong ball into the opposing team’s cups using a paddle; the team whose cup is hit or sunk drinks the beer inside. A game typically ends when all the cups on one side of the table have been hit or sunk away.

There is a special connection between this drinking game and Dartmouth students and a certain pride in the fact that our school was likely the origin for all existing forms of Beer Pong. One variation in particular, called Beirut, has become a familiar staple across the country and can be found under every nook and cranny where young adults are prone to binge drink. When high school and college kids refer to Pong, as in: “Come over to my place, we’re going to play some beer-pong in my dad’s garage!” the game they are actually referring to is what we call Beirut, where teams take turns throwing the ball across the table at their opponent’s cups. Having played both versions extensively, I can tell you quite honestly that our version is light-years more fun.

Not to knock Beirut, but it is a much simpler game that requires less setup, space, and equipment — this adaptability is also probably why it is much more popular. It’s easy enough to get the basics down so that anyone can play a game and the skill gap so minor for the majority of players that most games result in toss ups. Hand someone a Ping-Pong ball and ask them to throw it at a grouping of cups 10 feet away and anyone who has the use of their arms and can see further than a few feet will be able to play with some reasonable amount of success. Anyone should be able to come within a foot or two of the cups after a throw or two. Hand someone a Pong paddle on the other hand and ask them to make difficult lob shots from a variety of angles and locations, having never done anything similar before, and most of them won’t be able to even keep the ball on the table. I have introduced many first timers to the game over the years and it usually takes a full game before the person has even grasped the concept of how to serve and return the ball fluidly. Hitting cups with regularity doesn’t come until much later. A superior Pong player will almost never lose to an inferior one if their partners are more or less equal in skill, while in Beirut, drastic upsets can and will occur on long enough time-lines.

Since the game was first conceived at Dartmouth — teams using paddles to return the ball back and forth across the table rather than each team taking turns throwing it — we claim our version as the original and most pure manifestation. The history of American Beer Pong has almost mythological qualities. If you believe certain sources, the invention of Beer Pong can be attributed to table-tennis playing Dartmouth fraternity members who would rest their beer mugs on the table while they played. It was eventually discovered that it was actually more fun to aim for the mugs of beer rather than follow traditional Ping-Pong rules. At first the game was played at full speed with high velocity, close to the net shots. I imagine that the constant breakages in play this style presents eventually led to the switch to lob shots, which slows the game down and makes it more about finesse and less about brute strength. Now, almost universally so, the game of Pong at Dartmouth is played with a continuous back and forth of high arching paddle shots where a hit on a cup costs a half a beer and a sink the whole thing.
This paddle version is much more fluid, requires players to possess a sufficient level of hand eye coordination, and heightens the level of athletic competitiveness in a game. We find this to be vastly superior and don’t play Pong solely as a means to get drunk; to us it is a recreational activity first, a drinking game second. Many Dartmouth students, believe it or not, are actually as competitive about their Pong ability as they are about their grades. The obsession is so complete that in every basement, off campus house, or student controlled social space on campus, you could be assured of one thing each evening: Pong is being played. The first group of students you see materialise in these places set up the first contest. The last standing are those participants of the final game. In between, the ball never stops bouncing.

A second major difference between Beirut and true Dartmouth Beer Pong, in addition to the use of paddles, is the quantity of beer that the participants are required to drink. With a Beirut game it is common practice to use a single can of beer to fill between three and five cups. Each “beer” on the Beirut table actually contains only a few ounces of liquid. With Dartmouth style Pong, a plastic cup is filled as close to the brim as possible — to the very top line of the moulded ridges of the clear plastic cups that are so common on campus. This amounts to a full eight ounces per cup and there is no exception to this rule. Because these cups were clear, it was easy to tell how high your opponents’ beers were filled and you would often hear one team tell another to add additional beer to not quite full cups because they were too weak. So even with your standard Dartmouth game of Pong, you are drinking three, four, sometimes five times as much as you would drink in a normal Beirut game. And the only way to do so comfortably and with expertise is through dedicated repetition.

Dartmouth students have devised many variations of the game, the most basic of which is called Shrub and uses a triangle formation of six beers with one beer serving as the stem of the “shrub.” From above, one side of the table looks like so:

A Tree formation is similar but employs either eleven or twelve beers per side, depending on if house rules call for a one or two beer stem. The main difference between Tree and Shrub is the speed in which you drink. The opening of either game is normally a barrage of hits and sinks, and with Tree you are basically just drinking four more beers in roughly the same amount of time. A single two-stem Tree (fairly unusual) looks like this:

Variations of Shrub and Tree are the most common formations found on campus — however the possibilities are practically endless for creative minds bent on dreaming up ever new ways of tactically arranging the campus’ inexhaustible supply of plastic cups. Games of Death, Two-Cup, Corners, Line, World Cup, Enchanted Forest, Social, Harbor and so on are played on a nightly basis in the CFS basements and occasionally games were even made up on the spot by enterprising players and subsequently never played again.

Then there was Ship, which had an allure all its own. This is what half of a Ship game looks like:

Ship certainly deserves some added attention but what is important here is that freshman year I fell in love with Pong and to play Pong I had to brave fraternity basements.

Almost completely devoid of bars, clubs, or local hang-outs and with a limited selection of off- campus residential spaces, Hanover doesn’t at first seem like it would be entirely conducive to supporting a binge drinking culture, until you consider Dartmouth’s location, size, and history of male- dominated drinking clubs.

At Ivy’s like Harvard, Columbia, U-Penn, Brown, or even Cornell to an extent due to its huge undergraduate population, students never had to rely on Greek organisations as a social outlet the same way Dartmouth kids do, as they had access to a varied citywide social and cultural infrastructure. At the smaller elite schools the necessary infrastructure wasn’t in place because of a lack of historic precedence and alumni voice. As opposed to Dartmouth’s 60 per cent affiliation rate, only a relatively small number of the eligible student body at these other elite schools fully invests itself in Greek culture. When out in the real world, these students had to handle themselves somewhat responsibly — the boundaries of the “college bubble” extend only to edges of their own urban-enclosed campuses. Blacking out and strolling through downtown Boston or Philadelphia at two in the morning is not a recommended practice but in Hanover one could do so with near impunity — the biggest danger coming from the laughably ineffective Safety and Security vans that patrolled the campus at night in an attempt to capture zig-zagging, homeward-bound drinkers. Hanover was Dartmouth — we never had any reason to go elsewhere.

As a result, Greek organisations have played an important role in student life for a hundred and 50 years; the integration of women in the nineteen-seventies did little to alter that landscape. Sororities and coed houses quickly sprung up alongside the fraternities and adopted many of their drinking practices — Pong, Meetings, and parties for starters and since Dartmouth CFS houses are the only places for students to socialize in large groups while using alcohol, they could safely foster as extreme a drinking culture as they themselves could tolerate.

Over time this has evolved into a drinking tradition and a certain pride has arisen that this was both a place of academic excellence and extreme partying. And since this isn’t a few rotten apples we’re talking about — it’s the whole beer- soaked system really — the college administration has historically been at a loss at how to address a problem that much of the student body and alumni dismiss as being a problem altogether. Support for the system until the last decade and a half has been near universal. The existence of the SLI now threatened what has always been taken for granted on campus and many feared that this strange, wonderful world we had newly discovered was in the process of being altered irrevocably.

My own drinking habits were fairly normal during that first year and I found myself doing what most other kids did at Dartmouth and many other schools across the country — I studied and went to class during the week, while partying in freshman dorm rooms and fraternity houses during the weekends. I had struck a sustainable balance between academics and social experimentation and was enjoying my newly discovered weekend rager lifestyle. It was surprising and refreshing to see such a vibrant and engaging social scene at an Ivy-League school.

Crispus Knight’s enjoyment of pong would soon become a dangerous obsession.

Click here to see how he turned into an alcoholic and failed out of Dartmouth College >

Click here to buy his memoir, “Three For Ship” >

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