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Whatever happened to Pong? 

Well, I suppose it's now official. At least, it's being advertised on the radio.

            Beer pong --- the sport that melds the heart-pounding thrill of Ping-Pong with the gut-wrenching taste of warm beer chugged from a plastic cup --- has arrived.

            It's crawled out of suburban basements, stumbled out of frat parties reeking of smoke and cologne, and can now be played in public, at places like Snuffy Magee's, a dart bar on the corner of Meigs and Clinton.

            (In fairness to "Toasted Head" owner John Rebis, Snuffy Magee's sounds dumber than any bar name he's come up with so far, to my knowledge. Who is that, anyway? Snuffleupagus's Scottish uncle? An old, tusk-less wooly mammoth who drinks whiskey and chews tobacco?)

            Beer pong's comeuppance took me by surprise. I was hanging out at Snuffy's the other Saturday night, just drinking a few beers (researching this column), when young marketeers from The Zone showed up, again.

            This has happened to me before, in college bars on Monroe Avenue. Without warning (at least to people like me, outside The Zone), a team of dour-faced flunkies arrives, bearing plastic banners and reels of raffle tickets. They play the same stuff that's on rotation at the station, mainstream alt rock (an oxymoronic format, like "jammin' oldies," or "smooth jazz," which soon gets grating), and foist stickers and ski trips on the patrons.

            This time, to my surprise, the white T-shirted team put plywood over the pool tables and held a beer pong doubles tournament for six bucks a head.

            There was no corporate radio hoopla, no hawking of brand-emblazoned bottle openers and CDs. The bar's sound system stayed on, blaring classic and mainstream alt rock via satellite, as before. A voice I vaguely recognized desultorily announced it was time to sign up.

            And, to my amazement, most everyone not throwing darts at a wall flocked to compete.

            Now, playing beer pong with your buddies in the basement is one thing. You more or less know where they've been.

            But playing against a hundred young strangers, who may or may not wash their hands when they finish their paperwork, adds another dimension to the game.

            It's exciting. The Ping-Pong ball, which you can either bounce or try to toss directly into one of four cups across the table, often careens off a lip and onto the barroom floor. In this season, the floor is smeared with a salty sludge of slush, cigarette ash, and the mysterious bacterial grime festering between the treads of your shoes.

            Spectators inevitably get into the action, handling the errant ball and returning it to a player who may or may not briefly half-dip it a plastic cup of water --- for what that's worth --- before sinking it in an opponent's cup. The shot of beer at the bottom must be imbibed immediately, while the ball bounces against your nose and people watch you.

            If you contract botulism, salmonella, leprosy, or plague this way, don't blame me. You've been warned.

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