Power to the pong 

Fanatical, fun and a little nerdy: Inside the Atlanta ping-pong revival

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If you attend on Tuesday night, here's what you can expect: to get beaten. In the past several months, the tournament has been dominated by Charles Bulger, a 52-year-old manager with AT&T, and his 46-year-old playing partner Phil Bradley. Both have experience with competitive table tennis clubs, and drive 40 minutes from their homes in the suburbs every week to show off their pong prowess. And get their meals paid for.

Bulger has developed a reputation as the No. 1 bar ponger to beat. He says he plays not for the fun of the game but for the fun of beating you. As he awaits a serve from an opponent, Bulger looks like he's readying to return tennis great Roger Federer, his feet spread, torso bent at the hips, paddle cocked, an intimidating glare on his face.

"I know that I won't win every week and that eventually someone with a greater skill set will come along and I'll have to fight to win," says Bulger. "That's just the way life is."

If you're "lucky" enough to draw Bulger's friend Bradley instead, you'll find a much friendlier persona and an equally difficult game. Bradley laughs and chats with fellow competitors on tournament nights. But, "when we're on the table, I want to kill you. I want to kill you, I want to kill you," he says.

Your chances at winning are slightly better on Monday night at Church. Regular champion Vasanth Mohan, a 41-year-old engineer from India by way of Illinois and Berkeley, Calif., has also developed a reputation, as in "Shit, I'm playing Mohan." But he doesn't bask in his competitors' defeat. Mohan's as gracious as he is difficult to beat, ready with a genuine "thank you" even after he's demolished an opponent 21-6.

"[Ping-pong] is entertaining, and I love losing a point on a great shot by an opponent just as much as winning a point with a challenging shot," he says. "The Church setting adds excitement to the game. You get to play with everyone, work around the obstacles, the dim lighting ... not to mention the alcohol."

Thirty-eight-year-old real estate investor Bryan Midgette first fell for pong when he was a teen, even winning the gold medal in the 16-and-under category of the State Games of North Carolina. He stopped playing in college and didn't pick up a paddle for 20 years, until he saw an ad promoting the Albert's new ping-pong tournament.

"I was like, 'I'm down there, man.' It was cool to know there was a place to go and relive your childhood memories," Midgette says. "It's not just the competition you enjoy but the camaraderie."

That said, he's determined to defeat Bulger. "He's the only bar pong player I have yet to beat," he says.

While male players tend to dominate the Atlanta ping-pong scene, female players regularly compete in local bar tournaments, although none has won the Albert or Church competitions.

Jones says he's considered starting up a Sunday night ping-pong tournament catering to female patrons. "We'll call it GLOP — that's the Glamorous Ladies of Pong," he says, semi-seriously.

Ping-Pong Glop? Sounds messy.

Midgette is one of several players on the bar pong circuit that has sought to up his game by playing at table tennis clubs and rec centers. At Decatur Table Tennis, one can find guidance from players such as Edwin Quiambao. A 67-year-old Filipino who spent 25 years with the Atlanta Board of Education, Quiambao is an anomaly in the competitive world of table tennis. For one thing, he refuses to play a scored game.

He says he often sees players from the bar pong or the suburban garage circuit wander into a table tennis club and looked surprised, even awed at the level of play.

"That's when they realize they're not quite as good as they thought," he laughs.

But Quiambao is willing to help. He says soothing things like, "Table tennis is one of the most natural sports there is," and "Hey, you've got a pretty good game there."

"I read an article that table tennis is one of top sports for bringing out hostility in people," Quiambao says. "It's on par with chess playing and boxing. ... It has always fascinated me how mild-mannered people can become so emotionally involved. Something about a smash at such close range, nine feet from each other, face to face: You can see every expression; you can see the effects of the things you do.

"For that reason," Quiambao says, "it is a sport where a person can grow emotionally. They can learn to deal with negative emotions. They can learn sportsmanship and patience and good etiquette."

In the recent Church tournament, Henry lost to Carse in the finals. Showing good sportsmanship and etiquette, they bro-hugged after the match.

Henry has yet to win his own tournament, even while claiming on Facebook and in person that he will "kick anyone's ass" in the game. Part of the fun for Henry is, in fact, the trash-talking. But it's also something more than a game for him.

"Jesus God, it's therapy," he says. "I think most avid players are ADD, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive. I can play ping-pong for hours without keeping score, just watching it go back and forth and listening to the sounds of the cadence ... it's addictive."

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