Cover Story - Power to the pong

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

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.

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.”