ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey
What started out as a drinking game has blossomed into a nationwide American competition with a $25,000 ((EURO)20,350) first prize, all for doing what millions of university kids do when they should be studying.
Tuesday night in Atlantic City, Michael Seviert and Byron Findley, of Sacramento, Calif., split the top prize as their team, Drinkin' Smokin' Straight West Coastin', bested all comers.
For those who never went to a fraternity party or stayed in a summer rental on the New Jersey Shore, beer pong is a game in which two teams assemble at opposite ends of a table that has 10 plastic cups filled with beer arranged in a triangle formation at either end.
Shooters try to toss pingpong balls into the cups. If a ball goes in, the cup is taken off the table and a member of the opposing team has to drink the beer in it. The first team to get rid of all 10 of its opponents' cups wins. Of course, there's nothing other than a shortage of beer stopping players from starting a new game – over and over and over again.
But organizers of the World Beer Pong Tour hope the national tournament and $50,000 worth of prize money will help put a respectable face on the activity. Exhibit A: The cups in the tournament are filled with water, not beer. (The cups and balls do, however, carry the logo of GetBombed.com, a company that sells beer pong supplies and helps sponsor the tournament.)
"No one is here to get drunk or act like fools," said Sam Pines, commissioner of the tour and a beer pong fanatic who picked up the game at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 2006. "It's a little rowdy, but it's like any other sporting event. It's all about competition and skill."
Rich Patchett, 22, of New Bedford, Mass., and Pavel Braude, 23, of West Yarmouth, Mass., call their team Jewbacca. Their T-shirts depict the hairy "Star Wars" character wearing a yarmulke. Drinking is way down on the list for them.
"We definitely have the side beers going, but you don't fill up your cups with beer anymore," Patchett said. "That's totally '90s."
But not everyone got the message. Brian Bailey, a 25-year-old unemployed Maine resident, fancies himself the best beer-ponger on the planet. He and a pal call their team Shot-Callin' Ballers.
"I play all day with beer," said Bailey, who was one of about 100 contestants who looked like Eminem. "It's like, we get hammered and make cups all day. I drink all day, and I make cups all day. That's what I do. That's my life."
In the main ballroom of Resorts Atlantic City, the first legal casino to open in the United States outside Nevada, in 1978, hundreds of competitors faced off across tables that were sopping wet from water having been spilled on them during games or practices.
Almost all contestants were males, most of them in their early 20s, and many wore T-shirts with the names and logos of their beer pong teams, including Bus Boys (We Clear Tables), Drunkenballers, Drunk and Drunker, Fizz and We're What Willis Was Talkin' 'Bout!
In the same ballroom where Itzhak Perlman gave a classical violin recital, gangsta rap blasted over speakers at Volume 139. There was plenty of finger-pointing, fist-pumping and crotch-grabbing as matches heated up.
At 29, Antonio Vassilates, of North Arlington, N.J., is an old man on the beer pong tour, but he made a name for himself by winning a tournament three years ago. He plays in a rage, bouncing up and down, screaming at opponents and fans, arms flailing, veins on his neck bulging.
"I play with a lot of raw emotion, trying to get pumped, get excited," he said. "It's not about the drinking. It's about the skill. Actually, not a lot of players get drunk while they do this. It's a lot harder to do anything if you're drunk. The kids who know this is a growing sport take it seriously. It is a real sport."
If that's so, then Thomas Reap may be the Michael Jordan of beer pong. The 22-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., has deadeye aim, and his 6-foot-6-inch frame gives him a great downward angle for his shots. He sank 20 balls in a row into cups. As a video camera rolled, he showed off by pulling his knit ski cap down over his eyes – and sinking a perfect shot into a cup at the other end of the table.
Outside of tournaments, when the cups are filled with beer, people love to go up against his team.
"We're the best in the world, so they have to drink a lot," Reap said.
He's also particularly good at distracting an opponent, a tactic employed by many beer pong competitors who wave their arms in the air above the cups their opponents are shooting at, scream, yell, hop up and down, insult their foes' masculinity, question their parentage and even dis their hairstyles.
"It's allowed," Reap said. "As long as you don't put your hands on the table. It works. If you win the mental game before it even begins, chances are you'll win the real game."
Aside from the tank top-clad Pong Divas hired by the event, few women were at the finals, and most were there to root on their boyfriends. One woman tried to enter the ballroom without paying the admission fee, only to be rebuffed by a security guard.
"Oh, come on!" she whined. "It's my birthday! That room is full of drunk guys!"