Anxiety mounts around the recessed, ovular dance floor while three, long folding tables are being set up at one end. Two fivegallon buckets mostly filled with water are lugged out, and cups are dipped in and set into triangle formations at the end of each table. Then the lights dim, Seether’s cover of “Careless Whisper” starts blasting and the guy in the DJ booth grabs his mic.
“OK, people,” he says. “It’s going to be Justin & Lela vs. the Jackasses on Table 1. Cuntpunchers vs. the Alkies on Table 2. And Dipshits vs. Joel and His Little Leprechaun on Table 3. Let’s go!”
And so begins tonight’s water pong tournament at Rookie’s Food & Drink on Highway 27 in Lansing. Rookie’s has three tournaments a week, with prizes ranging from the honorary (bragging rights, your name engraved on a plaque) to the truly rewarding (gift certificates to Meijer, a $100 check with the winner’s name on the “pay to the order of” line). And yes, you get to pick your team name.
“We wanted to do something different, something no one else in town was doing,” says Bob Coscarelli, manager at Rookie’s (and son of owners Frank and Franca). “One of our old DJs came up with the idea, and it took right off. It’s been five years now, and it’s still going strong.”
For the first year, Rookie’s got away with calling it “beer pong.” Then the Michigan Liquor Control Commission caught wind, and apparently there’s something illegal about having drinking games (or games that share the same name as drinking games) in reputable establishments. Who knew? So even though Rookie's had been using water all along, it officially became “water pong.”
A drinking game that includes no mandated drinking and pays out in gift certificates is a bizarre concept. It’s like playing strip poker for bottle caps — point missed, big time. But after watching the concentration and (dare I say?) athleticism involved in water pong, it made this writer realize this is definitely a game where you want your wits about you. Mind you, you’re still allowed to drink alcohol while you’re playing, but the cutthroat competition alone seems enough to keep everyone from wanting to get carried away. In fact, the vast minority of all water pong players had a drink riding sidecar. Guess those gift certificates and the burning desire to have your name engraved on the wall of fame is incentive enough.
Coscarelli says on any given night the number of teams that show up ranges from 12 to 43. The best players can make mincemeat of their competition in less than 10 minutes, but a slow game between two lousier teams can last nearly half an hour. With a double-elimination progression, that means tournaments last anywhere from two to five hours. The burning question now, of course, is, “How do you play?”
Ten plastic cups are placed in bowling pin formation (four in the back row, three in the next row, then two and one in front) on each end of a table that’s about 8 feet long and 2 feet wide. The cups are filled about halfway with water. Each twoperson team gets a pair of ping pong balls, and each player gets one chance to throw it across the table into one of the cups on the opposite end. If you make it in, that cup gets removed. If both players make it in, both cups are removed and they both get to go again. If one or neither makes it in, play shifts to the other side. And so it goes, back and forth, until a team has successfully tossed a ball into each cup and is declared the winner.
Of course, there are a million by-rules and party fouls. If both players make a ball into the same cup, two extra cups are removed. You can try and bounce the ball in, allowing for the removal of an extra cup if you make it, but the other team is allowed to swat it away. No blowing is allowed to prevent a ball from making it into a cup. At different stages in cup removal, the cups will be reorganized into pre-determined arrangements. And so on.
“Everyone gets along really well, and we’ve never had anything close to a problem,” Coscarelli says. “But it does get heated. You can tell when people are more than just excited about the game.”
The game was invented at college parties with beer, not water, in those plastic cups, and the losing team was required to drink every time the other team made it in. Slamming 10 half-filled cups of beer in 15 to 20 minutes isn’t only dangerous (considering the implications of binge drinking), but disgusting: when the ball doesn’t go in to the cup, nine times out of 10 it goes bouncing across the floor, with dozens of people a night touching the ball. Your classic alcoholic-germaphobic conundrum.
“Yeah, every now and then I see someone go to drink the water, and I have to yell ‘No!’” Coscarelli laughs. “Habits, I guess.”
The median age at Rookie’s on water pong nights seems to be in the lower 20s. Yes, there are teams who play every week and are pretty darned good (Justin Frye, 22, claims his team has made more than $400 in recent months), but competition is friendly, and teams are willing to coach newbies, regardless of age.
So even if you’ve never honed your pong arm in the basement at a frat house listening to 7-second long belches and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” eight times in a row, there may be hope for you, yet. Besides, it’s fun to come up with vulgar team names and listen to them announced in public.