The story of beer pong

By Lindsey Woods

Paying your bills with beer pong seems like a dream, but for Nick Velissaris, the winner of the first World Series of Beer Pong and a Chicago resident, it is a reality.

Velissaris has gone to the World Series—which takes place in Las Vegas—every year since its inaugural season in 2006, where the self-proclaimed underdog and his friend from the University of Michigan, Jason Coben, clinched the top spot and the $10,000 cash prize.

“The bar we worked at, the beer pong tournaments kind of saved them from bankruptcy,” Velissaris said. “They were going to file, and we told them to give us a chance with these tournaments and we ended up saving them. So they sponsored us to go out [to Las Vegas for the World Series].”

The World Series is meant to shift the fundamental image of beer pong from a drinking game played by college students to a competitive sport played by people who really enjoy it, according to Billy Gaines, co-founder of the tournament and

“If you ask people what beer pong is, often times the instinctive reaction is that it’s a drinking game,” Gaines said. “Maybe at one point it was, but it’s something that’s much deeper, much more complex than a

drinking game.”

Gaines said the idea for a national tournament was actually a follow up to a website Gaines and Duncan Carroll started in order to facilitate a beer pong community. Gaines and Carroll were on the competitive swim team together at Carnegie Mellon University when their first notion of organized beer pong bubbled up. According to Gaines, the team would often use their time out of the pool to study and play beer pong.

“It was almost like our own fraternity,” Gaines said. “We had a passion for the game. It’s something where we could compete, but it also had a social aspect where we could get to know each other.”

Gaines said he and Carroll knew there were other people playing competitive beer pong, but there was an absence of community aside from the small factions that played together on college campuses and in small towns. Starting was his way of bringing all those people together.

“The reason we created the tournament is because we were becoming successful with our website [and] getting good traffic,” Gaines said. “But the problem was that people were hiding behind their forum screen names.”

So in 2005, the two college friends came up with the idea of a national tournament.

It started out as a small collection of enthusiasts and grew to become a national haven for competitive players.

“The reason that we’ve grown is mostly word-of-mouth,” Gaines said. “People have a good time at the event, and they tell their friends.”

Chicago’s own pong history starts with Velissaris running satellite tournaments around the area.

“The reason I started running these tournaments [was] because we were underage,” Velissaris said. “Because we were athletes, this one bar used to let us in. We started beer pong. And it sort of just became bigger and bigger and it got to the point where it was between 64 and 80 teams every Monday night at this bar.”

Now, Illinois players account for 2.9 percent of WSOBP players, falling behind California, New York, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Maryland and Florida as states with the most players, according to a press release.

Chicago is hosting two satellite tournaments in November. Uncle Fatty’s Rum Resort, 2833 N. Sheffield Ave., will host one on Nov. 12 and Cork and Kerry, 10614 S. Western Ave., will host a tournament on Nov. 26.

The official rules of the WSOBP differ from the typical college-party format. The setup is the same, with 10 16-ounce cups on both sides arranged in a tight pyramid that points to the other side of the table, according to WSOP’s official rulebook. Everything from the table’s dimensions (8 feet by 2 feet by 27.5 inches) to the ball diameter (40 millimeters) to the cup height and width (top 3-5/8 inches, base 2-1/4 inches, height 4-5/8 inches) is regulated and must be adhered to in all satellite tournaments, as well as the big one.

Andy Decaluwe, who placed third in the WSOBP last year and is a sophomore at Kendall College in Chicago, said the most notable rule is the “leaning” rule. He said when he plays informally, there is usually a rule that forbids one’s elbow to cross the invisible vertical plane at the end of the table. The WSOBP does not have a rule against this.

“When there are 100, [or] 150 games going on at one time, it’s impossible to regulate an elbow,” Decaluwe said. “When everyone sees us leaning, they think it’s cheating or whatever, but it’s really not.”

Another notable rule difference is when players can rearrange the cups. Often called a “re-rack,” these cup shifts happen automatically when there are six cups, three cups and one cup left on one side of the table. They are rearranged into a centered, tight pyramid while the last cup is moved to the back-middle of the original formation, according to the official rulebook.

The tournament also has fundamental differences from the stereotypical frat-party drinking game. For the competitive players, it’s not a drinking game at all. In fact, many of the players opt out of drinking beer altogether during competitions.

“There are some people who drink heavily throughout the day, but I think most people want to focus more on the game than just getting drunk,” said Kurt Heizmann, a local pong player.

John Hamm, who played Heizmann in this year’s tournament, said that for some, it is a matter of hygiene.

“I mean, I usually am drinking when I’m playing, but I rarely ever play with beer in the cups anymore,” Hamm said. “A lot of that just comes down to it being gross.”

The official rules of the tournament also stipulate that only the front six cups be filled with beer, with the back row containing water. If teams choose to use beer, they are given 24 ounces per game, equaling approximately one beer per player.

Hundreds of tables, more than 1,000 players, partying and competition are all contained in a giant ballroom at The Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas during the World Series of Beer Pong, according to Hamm.

The WSOBP is always held in the days following the New Year. It runs from Jan. 1–5, with games being played on days two through four. The preliminary rounds fall on day two and three, according to Heizmann, and each team is guaranteed 12 games during the prelims.

Afterward, teams are seeded based on their performance during the first two days. They play double elimination games until the winner prevails.

“It’s intense,” Decaluwe said. “It’s 500 teams, it’s in a huge ballroom [and] there are camera crews everywhere. A lot of late nights, barely any sleep. [But] even if you’re not very good, even if you just go out there and play, it’s an awesome time.”

The tournament has grown in size and in prize money every year for all seven years, according to Gaines. He recollects that the first WSOBP had 83 teams, while the 2011 tournament had 507 teams. The prize pool has also grown, from $10,000 the first year, to $65,000 in prizes in 2011, according to Gaines.

There are also smaller satellite tournaments, which feed into the larger WSOBP. Gaines said approximately half the people at the World Series come from satellite tournaments. The other half of the teams pay their own way into the tournament.

Hamm points out that the biggest difference between the satellites and the World Series is size and diversity.

“With the satellites, you’ll get some people to travel sometimes, but not all the time,” Hamm said. “But with the big tournaments, you get people from everywhere.”

Overall, players agree that both types of tournaments are about friendly competition and meeting new people—as well as a little bit of partying.

“It’s one of those things that a lot of these people take way too seriously,” Velissaris said. “Most people just like to f–k around and have a good time. I think me, Andy, Kurt–we take it in between. It’s one of those things where it was our release. Some people work out, some people play in recreational sports leagues, and this was our way of staying competitive.”

For more information on the sport and its events, check out or watch the documentary “Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong.” Early bird deals for the 2012 World Series of Beer Pong end on Oct. 31.