About thirty heads turn quickly from left to right, focused on a bright orange ball, as the giant group of players faces off, each person with a paddle in one hand and a beer in the other one. They’re at Ye Olde Hut, which is hosting its first “Berlin-style ping-pong party” in Oakland.
The concept of a ping-pong party is still a bit unknown to people from the Bay Area. “In general, no one knows what I mean if I ask them to come and join me in a ping-pong party,” said Noah Cates, a volunteer organizer. The definition, according to Cates, is simple: “It’s a party where people play ping-pong—with as many players at the same time as possible.”
People who want to join the game grab a paddle from the box and squeeze into the line of participants who are gathered around the table. On Thursday night at Ye Olde Hut, that meant at least thirty people were circled around the table. The first player serves and immediately afterwards walks his way over to the other side of the table. In the meantime, the person who is waiting on the other side hits the ball back and then switches sides. Like this, a line of players circles around the table, waiting for their turn to hit the ball back to the other side. If you mess up, you’re out of the game.
Slowly but surely, more and more players have to leave the game. The players who are still in the game start walking faster around the table. The fewer people who are left in the game, the faster they run around the table, trying to get ready to hit back the ball to the other side.
Inside the bar you can hear a knocking sound every once in a while. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Everyone is banging their paddles on the table. The noise confuses the bartender. ‘’Do they need me to bring drinks?’’ she asks. But it’s just a sign to let everyone know a new game is about to begin.
The initiator of “American Tripps”—a Berlin-style ping-pong party in San Francisco—brought the ping-pong party’s to the Mission district about two years ago. Cates visited a lot of those parties in San Francisco and now wants to spread the ping-pong virus to Oakland. ‘’I love to play ping-pong—I started playing as a kid and on a night like this, it’s fun to see how everybody is enjoying themselves,” he said. “Skills are just optional, it’s not about winning. That’s how it’s so different from the sport table tennis.’’
This new way of partying originally started in Berlin and it’s getting popular in other European cities as well. There are some differences between Berlin style ping-pong parties and the way it’s organized here—in Berlin it’s much more of a lifestyle, or more a way to drink and play a game at the same time. Winning or losing is not important; the social interaction is. “When I attended a party in bar named Dr. Pong in Berlin, people were much more relaxed and laid back,” said Cates. “Just talking with a beer in their hand, and they just continue talking even though it’s their turn to play the ball.’’
That’s not yet the case at Ye Olde Hut. Ping-pong parties are still a novelty in Oakland, and participants try very hard to stay in the games, which are much more competitive compared to the parties in Berlin. ‘’In my mind, you never play to lose. I play to win, and winning is fun,’’ said Chris Webb, the most fanatical player of Thursday night’s battle. Webb throws his body into the table whenever it’s his turn and he’s fallen several times when he ran off to the other side of the table.
‘’Of course there is some rivalry going on, but that’s not the main reason I’m here. In this scene there is a diverse mix of people and we all share a foundation of playing ping-pong. It’s so easy to connect to new people while you’re waiting in line for your turn,’’ said player Steve Hutnick. He points at his friend who hasn’t played for several rounds now, “because she’s flirting with the guy who stood in line behind her.”
In the future Cates wants to hold a ping-pong party once a week in different venues in Oakland. The previous two ping-pong parties were held at the Arbor Café. He hopes to bring more business and excitement to venues that already exist. “The Berlin scene—dusty little rooms with hardly any light and hip hop or techno music—will come by itself, as people get more familiar with the concept,” he said.