By: Allan Hough, Design by Diana Martinez, Photos by Joshua Cobos
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
Both my grandpas had tables in their garages when I was little, and I looked forward to playing every visit, even though they always handily trounced me (Pretty soon I got a little sister who I in turn could handily trounce, so it was chill). I got good in middle school, during a unit in P.E. where 20 tables were stuck in our gym for three weeks. After college I got a job at a start-up where I mostly just played ping-pong in the break room. I got much better.
It was around this time that a coworker/competitor and I, doing a google search for "ping-pong in San Francisco," discovered Ping Pong Gallery, a space in the Dogpatch that held happy hour games during the downtime between exhibitions. These early evening gatherings became my favorite thing–ping-pong, tubs of free Trumer Pils, a DJ spinning Ramones and Talking Heads records, and friends old and new.
My new buddy Joey Piziali, one of Ping Pong Gallery’s owners, first told me about Berlin’s version of the game, which he had experienced at a spot called Dr. Pong. “Twenty people around a table in a dark little bar, everybody’s got a paddle in one hand and a beer in the other,” he probably said. “You gotta go, dude,” he said most definitely (Ping Pong Gallery subsequently grew up and changed its name to Romer Young and sold its table on Craigslist. Sad beans).
My first time at Dr. Pong was thrilling. It’s a dimly lit, dusty little room filled with people from all over the world. I arrived early, before the action really got started, and when the time came to play, I was a bundle of nerves and couldn’t control the ball to save my life. But I was hooked for life anyway, because it was about having fun and meeting people and drinking beer–with a sweet little taste of friendly competition right at the end.
A year later, with two additional ping-pong pilgrimages to Berlin under my belt, I was back in San Francisco realizing I had a 30th birthday coming up, and my friends were telling me I needed to plan something big. I was ambivalent–until the idea of throwing a proper Berlin-style party in San Francisco dawned on me. ATA was kind enough to host, my Berlin-loving pal Breezy Nix (and her buddy Bookworms) were kind enough to DJ, and my dad was kind enough to buy six cases of Beck's. I bought a ping-pong table on Craigslist and 30 paddles at Sports Basement, and I invited 150 of my closest friends. We had a fab time, and all I heard all night was, "Why isn't this a thing???"
So I decided to make it a thing. In August my pals at The Secret Alley and I threw the first in a series of Berlin-style ping-pong parties we like to call American Tripps (Named for another favorite Berlin ping-pong bar that had been a travel agency in a previous life; everybody called it “Balkan Tripps” after the signs still in the windows advertising such adventures).
One of the great things about Berlin-style ping-pong is how social it is. You find yourself next to strangers in the circle, and you have this common sports drama to bond over. Somebody makes a wild shot, and you’re all cheering and exchanging critiques together. You recognize players of similar skill levels to your own, and you root for them. Pretty soon you're friends.
That’s how it’s been at American Tripps. It’s a real scene. I’ve made at least two or three real friends there. Even better, I know of at least five romances that took off there. There have probably been countless hookups too, at least one of which happened during the party in the back room.
The Secret Alley has been a major ingredient. You step into the space and it’s like you’re in another world– which is exactly how Berlin feels. What I didn’t anticipate is how spatially perfect the place would be. The skate ramps, the stage, the rolling green hillside–and the tree house–that surround the table on all sides to ensure excellent sight lines for all spectators.
I’m very excited about the enthusiasm San Franciscans have for American Tripps. During the party I sometimes still hear people say, "Why isn't this a thing?" It’s cool that people are taken aback by this concept–but, dude, look around you. It is a thing!
The best way to keep abreast of Berlin-style ping-pong in San Francisco is to like American Tripps on Facebook. We always publicize our own parties there, and if another happens to pop up, we’ll mention that too.
You can have a beer or whiskey in your hand the whole time if you want to. Or you can carry nothing at all. It’s cool. It’s a free country, just like Germany.
Bring your own paddle if you like. You can get pro models–sure to improve your game–for less than $20 at any sporting goods store.
Get into it! Cheer when something good happens. Jeer when something lame happens.
Be cool. If somebody messes up because it’s crowded and somebody was flagrantly in their way, let them stay in. If someone bats it straight into the net on the first serve of the game, and it’s not too crowded yet, let them have another go.
When it gets really crowded and the circle is moving impossibly slow, have a chat with the folks next to you in line. You’ll probably end up BFFs!
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