By Rob Greenamyer
"Don't cheat, or we'll kick you in the face."
Thus sayeth the rules page of pongrock.com. Well, can't say you weren't warned.
Make no mistake -- this isn't "table tennis." Drink-you-under-the-table tennis might be more accurate. But to Dustin Maxey and Richard Panter, founders of Pong Rock, it's just "ping pong."
What's the difference, anyway?
"If you call it 'table tennis,'" Maxey explains as he munches spinach dip on a pita, "you should probably join the ATTA [Austin Table Tennis Association] because we'll get mad at you for beating us."
It's the day after a match, and Maxey's and Panter's appetizers and beers share the table with a styrofoam cup full of ping pong balls from last night. The genial duo fished them out of the hedges at the Belmont, a swank happy-hour joint on West 6th that plays unlikely host to what Maxey describes as a "beer-drinking league." They do this partially to be respectful and clean up after their event, and partially because they don't want to have to spend perfectly good beer money on new balls
By day, Maxey is a marketing coordinator. Panter is in media sales for a tech recruiter. Both are musicians, Maxey formerly the vocalist of Naked Empire, while Panter plays drums for John-Michael Hamman and other projects.
But at the table, paddle in hand, Maxey becomes "Pong Master D." Panter goes by the handle "Tricky Dick."
Sitting at the Belmont, Maxey and Panter ruefully recall the inspiration for this $50-to-register tournament -- getting shellacked at a charity event by members of the ATTA.
"Richard and I met randomly in Spain while studying abround," 27-year-old Maxey recalls. "They had a table in the dorm we stayed in. We came back and GirlStart [an Austin-based charity promoting girls' excellence in math and science] was having a tournament. They actually had some table tennis professionals from ATTA come out. We had a table at home; we thought we were pretty good. We were wrong. They destroyed us. We couldn't even score on them and we were really angry."
The hard feelings didn't last, though. "We love those guys, they're great," Panter, 26, says with an easy smile. "There just at a different level than us."
One of the Belmont co-owners, Ron, stops at their table to say hi. "They're crazy, man," he warns of Maxey and Panter. "Don't turn your back on them."
It's a different level of festivity, that's for sure. Beer flows freely at special prices for attendees, while sponsoring booze companies dole out shots. Live bands like Strangelove provide entertainment to a rowdy crowd of players and lookey-loos.
The wacky and whimsical nicknames help the raucous atmosphere prevail.
"My all-time favorite," grins Panter, "is [Strangelove guitarist] Zack Arington, aka Sgt. Paddles!"
Close to fifty players and accompanying spectators now converge on the Belmont every Wednesday at 7pm to smack featherweight plastic balls when Pong Rock is in season. And if you're expecting a sausage fest, contain your disappointment.
"There are lots of girl players," Maxey says. "I was surprised. I thought it would be mostly guys."
It is Friday, September 10 -- the final round of Pong Rock's second six-week season (the third kicks off Friday, October 22). The upstairs patio of the Belmont, dominated by three tables, thrums with activity and excitement. Maxey and Panter irrepresibly flirt, schmooze, and glad-hand their way through a crowd lubed up by free booze.
Tonight's winner on the Expert table is a tall, unassuming IT employee named Justin -- aka "Funk Ambassador." By coincidence, his opponent in the final heat, a jovial rake with Scots-Irish complexion named Ben, goes by the moniker "Vanilla Funk." Their final funk-off kicks off in V-Funk's favor, as he exploits favorable gusts of wind and deftly puts away one match in the two-out-of-three heat. But then the Funk Ambassador gets brutal. He finds a sweet spot on the table from which V-Funk cannot seem to return a serve, and he smacks down the next two games with no-prisoners efficiency.
"Ben played tough," the victor lauds. In a few minutes, he will square off in a three-way drawing with the winners of the Beginner and Intermediate tables for the grand prize -- a brand-new ping-pong table -- and consolation prizes -- Best Buy gift certificates. "It was like he had been spending a week and a half practicing."
Funk Ambassador played the game about "four beers in." He speculates that his opponent had "a few more."
At the drawing, Funk Ambassador wins the prize table. Maxey, who lost the original drawing tickets, writes the contenders' names on bar napkins and draws them out of a hat. His responsibility discharged, Pong Master D queus up another beer. The season is over, the prizes discharged, but no one is done yet. People line up to hit ping pong balls back and forth for the sheer fun of it. Watching the fans of their brainchild talk boozey trash, Maxey and Panter ponder with excitement the October season. "Rain is no match for Pong Rock!" Maxey declares.
For more info, go to www.pongrock.com