Visit Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room and Ping-Pong Emporium on a Monday night, and the usual sounds of bar-dom — jukebox tunes, friendly chatter, the cracking open of a fresh PBR — mix with the hollow smack of a ping-pong ball, gasping "oohs" and "aahs" from spectators, and the angry "Yah!" of a lost point.
A competitive ping-pong match is underway, and Church owner Grant Henry is facing off in the finals of his bar's weekly tournament against Steven Carse, aka King of Pops. Along with being popular business owners in town, both men are adept pong players with idiosyncratic styles. Henry plays with a sandpaper paddle (illegal, by official table tennis rules) and a black glove; he sometimes smacks his paddle against his hand after points and hollers like someone driving cattle. Carse, meanwhile, uses his lanky arms to loop odd underhanded forehands, calmly smacking the shit out of ball after ball at Henry.
Though ping-pong by its very nerdy nature is not considered a serious game by most who witness it, it should be noted that this game between Carse and Henry is very, very serious. Both want to win badly. And though the opponents like each other, they don't want to lose to each other. Especially in a bar. With people watching.
Every week in Atlanta, in bars from Inman Park to the Old Fourth Ward, dozens of dramas play out over ping-pong tables. For reasons attached as much to trendiness as to local efforts by pong enthusiasts to revive the sport, ping-pong suddenly has become a bar pursuit of choice in Atlanta.
The local ping-pong revival has coincided with the opening of a series of new bars over the last year, namely Church, Victory Sandwich Bar and the Music Room. Church hosts a popular Monday night tournament that has featured as many as 32 competitors. Victory Sandwich Bar and the Music Room entertain customers with tunes, drinks and the game that is, believe it or not, the second most popular participatory sport in the world behind soccer. Inman Park staple the Albert switches from pool to pong pub on Tuesday nights for its house-cash tournament. The Westside has latched onto the trend, too, at Red Brick Brewery. Even upscale men's clothing boutique Sid Mashburn offers pong play to customers.
In some ways it's peculiar that the nexus of Atlanta's ping-pong scene is a series of neighborhood watering holes where folks go to, uh, slow their brain functions. Ping-pong requires cat-like reflexes, sharp hand-eye coordination and the strategic prowess of an engineer. Like driving, it's not exactly the kind of thing you want to do while drunk.
Ian Jones, co-owner of Victory Sandwich, says he and co-owner Caleb Wheelus decided to put a ping-pong table at the back of their bar not because the sport was trending, but because "we're not good at any other bar games."
"It's more fun to be terrible at ping-pong than to be terrible at pool. That is the legitimate reason," he says. "It's got a rewarding sound. And you can hit something as hard as you can without breaking anything, and no one's going to lose an eye, hopefully. For me, all the pleasures are very juvenile."
"Ping-pong in Atlanta is so popular because it rhymes with ding dong," says the hardly serious (unless he's playing ping-pong) Henry. "Perhaps it's because it's inside, it's easy, no sweat, it can be played rain or shine and it's free."
Carse has different take on the subject: "It feels like it's athletic," he says. "You have to be moving and have fast reflexes. Most other bar games are slow."
Atlanta isn't the only big city experiencing a resurgence in pong's popularity. New York City's SPiN is the epicenter of pong in the Big Apple. Opened by actress Susan Sarandon in 2009, SPiN holds 17 tables in its 13,000-square-foot Manhattan location. In San Francisco, writers David Bennett and Eli Horowitz celebrated the November 2010 release of their book Everything You Know Is Pong: How Mighty Table Tennis Shapes Our World with a benefit party that included a "pong master" who defeated every challenger, including literary star Dave Eggers, while using a copy of the book as a paddle. Even President Obama engaged in a game of pong recently.
Jake Naish, a copywriter and left-handed tournament champ on Atlanta's bar pong circuit, says ping-pong is popular because it's "a magnetic game."
"I don't think I've ever heard an entire bar roar over a pool shot," he says. "Or, maybe this is just an attempt [for bars] to replace smoking. This way, the bar can still be a place where addicts go to do something they can't do elsewhere."
The Albert's Tuesday night ping-pong tournament gets credit for hosting the city's first regular bar pong night — and arguably its most competitive.
It started in the spring of 2010. Cliff Losee, a waiter at the Albert, was fresh from a Georgia State summer study-abroad tour of China, where he played a lot of ping-pong. The trip "rejuvenated my love for the sport," he says. "I also learned that I was not the greatest ping-pong player in the world, as I had previously thought. A 10-year-old destroyed me. Seeing how good people could really get at the game sparked my interest to see if there might be some ringers hiding out in Atlanta."
Back in the States, Losee played in a pong tournament at the now-defunct Shaun's in Inman Park.
"I [thought] that we could totally pull off something like that at the Albert," he says.
Albert owner Tia Landau agreed. Offering a $30 cash prize for first place, $20 for second, and $10 for third, the Albert tournament now attracts some of ATL's best bar pongers.
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