Queen of the Table

By Brianna Kessler published by Fort Worth Weekly

Megan Morris

Megan Morris stands at the end of a long white table. Her opponent faces her at the other end. Eight feet separate these modern gladiators.Money, reputation, pride, and opportunity are on the line. Morris tunes out every distraction and lines up her next shot.

Inside this bustling suburban sports bar in south Arlington, a DJ spins rap, techno, alt-rock, and other music at brain-shaking volume. Wannabe Guidos bang their fists on a punching bag video game nearby. Bar games are everywhere, with their bright, flashing lights and curious bells, rings, and whistles. Girls twerk on the dance floor a few feet away, shaking their butts as if they were buffing an imaginary Buick with their backsides.

Pool sharks sink bank shots, card sharps shuffle cards at poker tables, and dart throwers let ’em fly toward the bull’s-eyes.

The noisy background might be enough to sidetrack even the most focused air-traffic controller. Not Morris. She is in the zone. She’s in training. She is figuring out the best way to bounce a pingpong ball with precision into a 16-ounce cup full of water.

A pastime once confined to frat houses, dorm rooms, and your parents’ basement is now almost as mainstream as Monopoly. Beer pong is being played all over the world in official tournaments with sanctioned hosts offering ever-growing payouts. Beer pong might never rival the NFL for TV ratings, but plenty of pongers think their tournaments could make for thrilling television –– at least as thrilling as bowling, poker, or golf.

Morris is practicing for the Texas Beer Pong Tour’s 2nd annual 3v3 (or three-on-three) championship Friday and Saturday in Austin, where 40 teams from all over Texas and Louisiana will gather to pong with the best of the best to win a place in the World Series of Beer Pong XI in Las Vegas in July, a four-night stay at The Westgate, and $300 in cash.

Past World Series events have attracted more than 1,000 pongers from all over the country and even around the world, offering the largest payout in beer pong history –– $65,000.

Previous World Series winners Kevin Kessler, who works in corporate finance, and Rob Dix, a golf professional, continue to compete in national beer pong games, even though they have full-time careers.

“It’s not just a dumb college drinking game,” Morris said. “It is a real sport that takes time and practice just like every other sport.”

It also requires something of a hollow leg. Contestants play with glasses of water in tournaments, but most players have a personal beverage in hand or nearby. No matter whether a pong ball hits its mark or not, beer will often be consumed shortly after. Lightweights have no long game.

******

Success at the pong table doesn’t require biceps or brawn, just a little hand-eye coordination. As easily as NBA superstar Lebron James can be the king of his sport, Morris –– a 5-foot-tall twentysomething waitress and preschool teacher who weighs no more than 100 pounds –– can be beer-pong champ.

Morris’ brother introduced her to the sport last summer. Before that, she had played only at house parties in high school. Now, she can’t wait to get off work every other Friday night and head to a pong tournament.

On a recent Friday night, she left her restaurant in West Fort Worth off Camp Bowie Boulevard at about 10:30 p.m. and changed into her pong attire of Vans, jeans, and a T-shirt in her car. Then she raced the half-hour drive east on I-30 to the weekly tournament at the The House Sports Bar & Grill in Arlington.

Weaving in and out of traffic, she was so pumped to pong that she had forgotten all about those long daily commutes to Jacksboro to help her dad with his construction business three days a week. She had forgotten about making all those lesson plans and wiping runny noses at the learning center. She had even forgotten about her aching feet from serving steaks and lobsters all evening on weekends. Pong provides a stabilizing balance in her life.

Some people don’t take the game as seriously as Morris and other players. She’s there to have fun, sure. But she wants to take home the gold.

“I practice every day or at least as much as I can,” she said. “Yes, I play for fun, but I want to be good, too,” she said.

Pong, like any hobby, can become addicting.

“I am a very competitive person,” she said. “I like the rush it gives me. I want to win. Plus, there is money at stake.”

Many women players, she said, are more focused on having fun, catching a buzz, and maybe meeting someone special.

“I have had some partners just throw the game because they got too drunk or they just did not care,” she said.

Her first pong partners were her older brother Wayne and various pals from Jacksboro. Wayne bought her a pong table for Christmas a couple of years ago and told her to start practicing. Morris’ first official tournament was in San Antonio with a 6v6 team.

“It is so different playing in an official beer pong tournament than at a house party or at some bar,” she said. “The rules are crazy extreme. I have seen the referee pull out the rule book in the middle of the game.”

Her primary partner these days is Kevin Kerry, her boyfriend and pong mentor. They met at a Texas Beer Pong Tour 6v6 tournament in Austin last July.

Back at the The House bar, Kerry shouted encouragement to Morris, whose palms were sweaty. Her heart was beating fast as she set down her cold can of Bud Light on the dirty bar table behind her to shake hands with her opponents. Competitors shake hands before and after every match.

Kerry, a 30-year-old oil field and construction worker, started playing at house parties for fun 12 years ago. He moved up to the big leagues five years ago.

“There is a lot of money in beer pong,” he said. “I have played at so many bars around the DFW area over the years and have won so much money.”

He estimates his winnings at around $10,000.

Kerry never reached the ultimate prize –– World Series champion –– and probably never will since he’s considering putting away his pong balls to focus more on work and his son from an earlier relationship. Morris, though, still has the eye of the tiger.

“She has a lot to learn,” Kerry said, “but she has become really good really fast. She is better than a lot of the girls, and I think she can win a bid to the World Series.”

Beer pong dates back to the 1950s or so, depending on which historian you want to believe. Beer pong chroniclers are rather scarce, however, so many tend to lean on the mother lode of important minutia –– Wikipedia. Dartmouth College alumni claim to have invented the game but with paddles. Students at Bucknell University argue that they invented the game. Bucknell bills itself as a private liberal arts college, which sounds like the perfect breeding ground for athletic alcoholism.

Either way, some college kids with way too much time (and beer) on their hands invented a game that is still being played. Heck, it’s even taking over Las Vegas. In 2013, former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman declared beer pong Sin City’s official sport.

The internationally recognized governing body of beer pong is BPONG, the standard bearer for both world-class organized competition and the manufacture of high-quality tables and equipment. College athlete-turned-engineer-and-lawyer Billy Gaines founded BPONG in 2001. The motto he still uses on his Twitter page: “Ripping beer pong out of college basements and taking it mainstream.”

Gaines claims to have hosted the first complete online source for the pong population, as well as creating the country’s top tournament, the World Series. The game was and still is rooted in the consumption of booze in a festive atmosphere. The difference is that now you can play in public relying on established rules and standardized cups, balls, and tables.

Almost everyone under the age of 50 has played a game of beer pong. Although some seem to stress the rules of the game, it’s not that complicated. You literally throw a ball into an opponent’s water-filled cup.

Pong is hardly a politically correct sport. Binge drinking among young people has been a growing problem for years. A multinational group whose members advise governments on economic growth released a study last year that shows binge drinking is increasing among young people. The 34-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development characterized youthful binge drinking as a “major public health and social concern.” Earlier this month, 18-year-old Canadian resident Brady Grattan died of alcohol poisoning after playing beer pong using hard liquor.

TABC regulations discourage drinking alcohol out of the cups in official tournaments or at bars hosting games.

******

Official games include 10 cups filled with water, one 8-foot table, four pingpong balls, a referee, and a 20-page World Series of Beer Pong rulebook. Organizations and organizers around the nation must register with BPONG to host official World Series of Beer Pong tournaments, which must include a satellite game. A satellite game allows players to win entry fees to the World Series in Las Vegas and follows the nationally set rules and regulations of BPONG.

Pretty much anyone can become an organizer, but it does take some time to get a following of players to come to your events. Organizers must know the rules and know how to host a good event.

Morris and Kerry often participate in official tournaments to try to get their hands on free tickets to the World Series and win some big money. They frequently travel to tournaments hosted by Rob Bailey, the organizer of the North Texas Beer Pong Tour, because they know the games are legitimate and fun.

Official World Series of Beer Pong tournaments are generally one-day events that last about five to 10 minutes per game, depending on if you win or lose.

Players play in a series of about 15 games if they make it to the end.

The game allows for double elimination, meaning you can lose only twice in the tournament.

Pong gear includes two 40 millimeter 3-Star Tournament Grade BPONG Balls in addition to the cups.

Bailey has played in the World Series all 11 years. The thirtysomething LasVegas native turned Texan has been organizing weekly tournaments in Austin for the past nine years using primarily social media. He knows the sport well and believes Morris would make a great competitor at this year’s World Series.

“I think [Morris] has a great chance at winning,” he said. “Plus, I would love to see someone from Texas win.”

Bailey said he wants to spread the game across Texas and share the positive side of beer pong because he believes it is an excellent social sport, which is great for meeting new people.

There are very few tournaments in North Texas because of many reported swindles and frauds. Local players often travel to Austin, San Antonio, and Oklahoma to play. Bailey is in the process of expanding the tournaments into North Texas. He thinks if he can show that beer pong is a real sport and not just an excuse to binge drink then he can break the stereotype.

“One thing that I can not stress enough is that there is a big misconception about beer pong,” he said. “Too many people do not look at it as a sport. Too many people see it as just a college drinking game.”

All kinds of people from various occupations, ages, and backgrounds play in Bailey’s events, he said. There are some notable people in the beer pong world who are not just drunken frat boys and young girls looking to get wasted. Players involved in the North Texas Beer Tour include pharmacists and high-level executives from big companies like Apple.

Kevin Kessler, a 35-year-old executive from Philadelphia, has been ranked as high as fifth in the nation by BPONG and has won the World Series before. Kessler is not your typical player. He is something of a celebrity, a well-known ponger in the community, although he laughed when asked about his celebrity-like status. Kessler, who is married with a child, has been playing professionally since 2006 and has no plans of stopping anytime soon, he said.

“It is a lot of fun and a great conversation starter,” Kessler said. “A lot of people do not even know about this. But there are not enough people for it to become any bigger than it is and there is just no audience for it.”

Kessler said it is hard to promote the sport due to its negative image. (Don’t count on MADD as a sponsor.)

Morris, though, is a believer. She doesn’t care that some acquaintances tend to judge her for making a sport out of beer pong or that great pongers get no mainstream recognition. Morris has not felt this passionate, this engaged, and this pumped full of adrenaline since playing setter for the varsity volleyball team at Jacksboro High School more than six years ago.

As she stands at the table, Morris notices her partner standing in her peripheral so she makes sure to get her out of the way with a friendly nudge. As she raises her arm up high and looks her male opponent straight in the eyes, she carefully lofts the ball into the middle cup. The young guy across the table from her grumbles while he plucks her ball out of the cup. He then shoots and misses.

Morris cannot help but smile and laugh as she chases his missed ball across the bar. She knows he thought this would be an easy game and maybe even an easy score in the bedroom later because she is just another drunk girl playing beer pong in a bar. But little did he know she is one of the serious players.

Kerry gives Morris a high-five and reminds her to keep her head in the game as she approaches the table.

“Good job,” Kerry says. “Keep it up. Just two more games, and you’ll win that 150 dollars tonight.”

She smirks at her two male opponents as one of them pulls the second-to-last cup off the table. Her partner focuses as she shoots, but then she misses, causing her team to lose.

Morris and Kerry have won thousands of dollars, received free bar tabs at various bars, and have traveled to Oklahoma, Austin, San Antonio, Miami, and other places playing beer pong. The trips are generally inexpensive for Morris and Kerry because they usually win big money during the tournaments. They usually end up paying only for transportation. Not too shabby.

******

The House Bar is just a place to have fun, practice, and win some extra cash, Morris said. The real games are usually out of town, like the one this weekend in Austin, where Morris plans to meet up with Rob Dix, who placed 17th in the nation at last year’s World Series.

Morris wants to partner up with him in hopes of a better shot at winning the championship division in Austin. She said partners change often, and for women there is a better chance of winning if you have a guy partner. She said that guys are typically the ones who win the big events.

“I switch partners often,” she said. “If someone better comes along and asks me, then I’ll switch. It is no big deal. That’s how everyone does it.”

Morris and Dix have been friends for years. They met through Wayne Morris, her brother, when she first started playing professionally.

“She and her brother are great people and good players,” Dix said. “I enjoy playing with them.”

Morris said she loves that Dix has become a part of her beer pong family and that he is a great player with a completely new perspective on life and the game. She said she has learned a lot about the sport from him.

Dix, who used to play for a living, does not like the whole idea of people referring to him as a beer pong player because of the so-called misconception.

“As soon as you tell someone you are going to play beer pong, they think you are going to go get trashed in a basement, which is untrue,” he said. “It’s crazy that beer pong is not televised like pool and other sports. It amazes me how many people do not know about the World Series. There are no big tournaments in the DFW area. It’s one of the only metropolises without one.”

Dix has already won a few bids to Vegas for this year’s series but plans to compete for more because it is so profitable.

“I can sell the bids to other people or give them to my friends,” he said. “Both ways, it is a win. And I get to practice some more and have fun.”

Beer pong allows players the opportunity to travel, have fun, meet new people, make money, and find something they’re good at. Anything that involves drinking can lead to petty behavior and arguments. Some players tend to care only about winning. They can be disrespectful at times.

“I see this more when I travel to the East coast,” Dix said.

Beer pong players in the South, he continued, “are extremely different” and more chill.

The newfound sport of beer pong is attracting attention all around the globe. Along with the United States, Germany and Canada also have world series. Morris is just one of thousands of players on a journey to the American World Series and could not care less what others think about her for it.

“I am in it for the money, but I am also here to have fun and spend time with my friends and family, and that is all that matters to me,” she said. “I hope to win big in Austin this weekend so I can experience the World Series this summer. I really want to go, and I am going to keep playing in the North Texas Beer Pong Tour tournaments until I win.”

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