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What a pong show

Drinking game, minus the beer, is moving from the basement to licensed clubs

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A group of locals are introducing competitive beer pong to Winnipeg, minus the beer. The Pegcitypongers meet at the St. Boniface Hotel every Sunday to play; there are even tournaments.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

A group of locals are introducing competitive beer pong to Winnipeg, minus the beer. The Pegcitypongers meet at the St. Boniface Hotel every Sunday to play; there are even tournaments. Photo Store

Fans of the roaring game won't be amused but a common excuse used by people lobbying to see beer pong at the Olympics is, "They have curling, don't they?"

At last count, a Facebook site devoted to making beer pong as legit an Olympic sport as field hockey, handball or shot put had close to 1,000 likes -- a number sure to rise if Justin Swain and Derek Boone have anything to say about it.

Swain and Boone are the brains behind Peg City Pongers -- a governing body that has been promoting beer pong tournaments in Winnipeg bars and lounges since last May. Swain and Boone grew up playing beer pong in Swain's basement on his family's "ratty, old pool table." They came up with the notion of Peg City Pongers after competing at the World Series of Beer Pong - an annual event held in Las Vegas that draws participants from as far away as Germany and Japan.

The long-time high school buddies from St. Vital finished a respectable 198th out of 490 teams. As soon as they returned home, Swain and Boone began looking around for other beer pong tournaments. To their chagrin, most of the get-togethers sanctioned by the World Pong Tour -- yes, there is a PGA-style circuit for people who play beer pong -- were in such faraway locales as Queens, N.Y. and Montreal. So the duo figured instead of traveling across the continent and blowing thousands of dollars on hotel rooms and meals, why not hone their craft right here in Winnipeg?

Before we continue, a brief explanation might be in order for any teetotallers in the audience: Beer pong is an activity played individually or by teams of two. Two sets of plastic drinking cups -- 10 for each team -- are racked in tight, triangular fashion at opposite ends of a 2.4-metre-long table. Players take turns tossing ping pong balls at the opposing team's cups. Sink a ball and the vessel it landed in is removed. The first team to eliminate all of the other side's cups wins.

As for the beer part of things, when beer pong first reared its head at American university campuses in the early 1970s, rules stipulated all cups on the table contain grog of one sort or another. It followed that when a ball landed in a cup, its "owner" had to down the contents. Predictably, beer pong gained a reputation -- deservedly so -- as a binge-drinking game. "Beer-in-cup" is still the norm at most home matches. But beer has become a smaller part of the goings-on at set-tos like the World Series of Beer Pong, where players have the option to play sans alcohol, and doesn't factor in at all at tournaments run by Swain and Boone.

"It's all flavoured water," Swain says when he is asked what's in the cups at a recent co-ed contest at the St. Boniface Hotel. "The MLCC told us they didn't want beer involved whatsoever; for the first six months they came to every one of our events to check up on us and make sure we were abiding by their rules."

Even bar owners were skeptical at first, Boone says.

"Every week we get e-mails from places that originally denied us. We went from being the guys nobody wanted to touch to 'Hey, any time you want to c'mon down, let us know'," Boone says with a laugh.

Swain admits some people are puzzled when they're told Peg City Pongers is a suds-free zone. But there are certain benefits to the proviso, he points out.

"I was at a party once where they were playing beer pong in the garage, using beer. During the first 10 minutes I saw balls rolling around on this dirty, cement floor. Guys would pick them up without cleaning them off and then throw them in somebody's cup, which that person would then have to drink. I was like, 'Uh, no thanks'."

"I know a lot of guys who only played beer-in-cup. But after coming to one of our tournaments, they've never played with beer again -- mostly because they like the competitive aspect of what we have to offer," Boone says, adding the absence of booze has also made their brand of beer pong more palatable to those who don't imbibe period. "And let's face it, if your goal for the night is get drunk, you're going to do that -- beer pong or no beer pong."

Swain and Boone haven't exactly quit their day jobs yet. To date, the two have invested in the neighbourhood of $2,500 in a slew of officially-licensed tables, balls, cups and racks. They charge a nominal fee to enter tournaments, usually $5, but since that money gets paid out to winners, they are still roughly $1,000 away from breaking even.

"We'd love to turn this into a thriving business and make money off of it one day but for now we're content doing what we're doing," Swain says.

Billy Gaines is the founder of the World Series of Beer Pong. "A lot of people look at beer pong as strictly a drinking game but I've always loved it for its positive characteristics -- it's fun to play, it's competitive and it's a very social game," Gaines says when reached at his office in Las Vegas.

A lawyer by trade, Gaines turned his back on that career13 years ago to establish bpong.com - a website that markets the custom equipment used by the likes of Swain and Boone.

Gaines says it was his entrepreneurial spirit that drove him and a few buddies to develop a multi-million dollar enterprise that now sells everything from glow-in-the-dark tables to hoodies to key chains to equipment bags -- all of which carry the company's copyrighted insignia.

"Obviously I didn't invent the game," says Gaines, 32, who was introduced to beer pong during his years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "But while a lot of people back then were going around saying 'Beer pong is so awesome, I'm going to turn it into a business,' when we said it, we meant it."

In January, Gaines dished out over $50,000 in prize money at the ninth annual World Series of Beer Pong, during which he patrolled the floor of the Flamingo Hotel sipping from a bottle of water. "If I'm drinking, I'm wasting time," he notes.

The average age of participants at this year's affair was 25 to 30, he says, but there were a few sexagenarians in the mix, too.

"There are days when I wake up and ask myself, 'What the heck am I doing running a beer pong company?'" says Gaines, a competitive swimmer who clocks 52 seconds in the 100-meter fly. "But mostly I get out of bed thinking it's pretty cool that a community has formed over this type of activity. Because in a way we're not just selling beer pong; we're selling something that brings people together."

 

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 D11

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