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How to Play the Game

Table tennis is an exciting game that can be played by two or four players. Even recreational players can relatively quickly become highly skilled; table tennis at the professional level is truly a sight to behold. This document presents the basics of how to play the game of table tennis.












Playing the Game



Find someone to play with. You probably want to begin by playing someone who is at about your skill level or a little better, and preferably someone who isn't aggressively competitive. This way, you can have fun learning how to play. You can play one-on-one, or you can play with two teams of two, which is known as doubles. And you want someone who has regulation ping pong balls, paddles, and a table if you don't have access to any!


  • If your hand-eye coordination is more on par with a three-legged, blind dog, you might want to start practicing against a wall and getting familiar with how the ball and paddle work together. It's best on a table against the wall, for the record.

  • You want to play or practice with balls that are orange or white and 40 mm in size. The table should be 2.74 meters (9.0 ft) long, 1.525 meters (5.0 ft) wide, and 0.76 meters (2.5 ft) high.[1] Ping pong paddles don't have a regulation size, actually. Small paddles are hard to use successfully and bigger paddles weigh too much and are cumbersome. But they must be made of wood and rubber and competition paddles must have two colors.



Know how to grip the paddle. There are two commonly-used styles of gripping the paddle: the pen grip (penhold) and the shakehand grip. Regardless of how you grip the paddle, it's important to hold it loosely to allow your wrist to move freely. If your fist is clenched around the handle, most of your force for returns will come from your arm, not your wrist, and you won't be as accurate. Neither grip is rocket science:


  • With the pen grip, you essentially hold your paddle just as you would hold a pen. With the shakehand grip, you place your hand on the paddle's handle as though you are shaking hands with it, and then wrap your fingers loosely around it. The main thing here is to do what feels most natural for you.



Decide who serves first. According to the official International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) rules, the right to choose whether to serve first is determined "by lot" (i.e. flipping a coin or drawing straws, etc.), with the winner choosing either whether to serve first or which side he or she wants. If the winner chooses whether to serve or to receive, the opposing player or team gets to choose which side of the table they will play on, and vice versa.


  • In most recreational ping-pong games, however, the serve is determined by a quick rally, typically with each player spelling out one letter of the word P-I-N-G for each hit they make. After the word P-I-N-G is spelled out, the person to win the rally serves first or chooses which side of the table they wish to play on.



Serve the ball. The ball should be tossed out of your free hand vertically a minimum of 16 cm (6 in), and then hit with the paddle so that it first hits your side of the table once and then goes over the net and hits your opponent's side.


  • If you're playing singles, the server can serve to any point on the opponent's side of the table, and the opponent should then return it. If playing doubles, the serve is rotated between you and your partner, starting with the person on the right, and the ball must bounce first in the right half of your side of the table and then must be delivered cross-court to your opponent's side.

  • The serve switches sides every two points. After two points have been awarded, your opponent -- or in doubles, the person on the opposing team who is cross-court from the server -- then gets to serve. After two more points are awarded, the original server (or in doubles, his partner) then serves.

  • If the ball hits the net on an otherwise a legal serve, the serve is a "let," and the serve is repeated with no points scored. After 2 consecutive lets the player opposite of the server receives the point. On game point the person that is losing shall be the server.



Return the ball. After a serve or return, the ball may be returned over or around the net to any point on the opponent's side of the table. The ball must be returned after it bounces once on your side, but before it bounces twice or hits the floor or any object off the table.


  • If the ball hits the net on a return, but proceeds to go over the net and hit your opponent's side, the ball is still in play, and your opponent must return it.



Score points. A point is awarded for each rally that is not a let, and either opponent can score a point regardless of who served. Here's the gist of it:

  • If your serve goes into the net, goes off the table without hitting the opponent's side, or (in doubles) hits the wrong half of the opponent's side, the receiving opponent or team scores a point

  • If you do not make a legal return (as described above -- the ball goes into the net or doesn't hit your opponent's side of the table) a point is awarded to your opponent.

  • If you receive a legal serve or return and hit the ball more than once with your paddle or touch the ball with your body, a point is awarded to your opponent. Note that if your opponent's serve or return doesn't hit your side of the table, you still get the point even if the ball hits you or you catch it after it passes the end of the table.

  • If you touch the table with your free hand or move the table, your opponent scores a point.



Win the game. Many people like to play to 21 or 15 (alternating server every 5 points), which is fine for recreational play. The official rules, however, state play is to 11 points (alternating server every 2 points). In order to win, one must be ahead by two points. If the players or teams are tied at 10-10 or 20-20, for example, the normal order of service proceeds, but the serve alternates sides after every points instead of after every two points.



Play again. In sanctioned competition, matches are won by the player or team who wins two out of three games. The players switch sides after each game, and they also switch sides in the third game (if a third game is necessary) when one player or team scores five points.


  • The team or player serving first also changes each game. Generally, things stay as even as possible. No player should have an advantage over the other.



Developing the Skills



Practice consistently. You can become a pretty good ping-pong player quickly with consistent practice. The most important things to practice initially are keeping your eye on the ball, getting a feel for the correct timing, and keeping the ball low.


  • From the very first time you pick up a paddle, you should consciously make an effort to follow the ball with your eyes, from the moment it is served to when it hits your paddle, and so on.

  • Your timing will become better with practice -- you just need to get used to it -- but it helps if you listen to the ball as well as watch it closely.

  • Keeping the ball low -- without hitting it into the net -- is probably the hardest skill for beginners to master. It's also one of the most essential, because a high ball can easily be smashed down by your opponent. Try to keep your paddle as horizontal as possible and use your wrist to impart energy to the ball and to aim it. Generally, the faster the ball is moving, the easier it is to keep it low.



Develop a strong backhand and forehand. You must be able to hit the ball from either side of your body if you want to become good at table tennis, and it's generally not practical to switch hands, so get comfortable with both your forehand and backhand shots.



Learn to put spin on the ball. This is done by flicking the wrist side-to-side or up-and-down right as the ball is hit. To counter-spin, put spin of your own on the ball. If you have some downtime, practice this against a wall, experimenting with what works for you.


  • Think of chopping the ball -- undercutting the bottom side as it comes to you on its descent. This will spin the ball, slow it down, and throw it on a new trajectory. Experiment doing this with your forehand and backhand strike.



Smash balls that your opponent hits high. Smashing (also called slamming or spiking) the ball entails hitting it with force so that it goes fast enough to, hopefully, be unreturnable. A slam is a powerful weapon, but it can be difficult at first to use it accurately, and you may find that your slams initially go into the net or well off the other side of the table. Don't be afraid to keep trying them, though. You'll eventually get it.


  • This is similar to volleyball. Once you slam, smash, or spike the ball, it's virtually impossible for your opponent to keep the ball in play. This will be one of your most used skills when you cultivate it -- and the most frustrating for your opponent.



Develop a killer serve. A fast serve or a serve with plenty of spin on it can become the key to your game as you face better players. If you give your opponent an easy serve, you'll be lucky to get a paddle on his return. An easy serve gives him time to wind up and blast you with a slam that you won't even see coming.


  • Speed is definitely important as you move up the ranks, but you have to maintain aim and precision. As you get better and better, you'll be able to predict where the ball will go and how it will behave with each strike.



Outmaneuver your opponent. As you face better competition, you can't just expect your opponent to make mistakes, even if you're hitting the ball hard. You've got to force errors by taking control of the game and making your opponent move around the table a lot. If you can hit one shot off the right side and then quickly hit another shot to the left side you might be able to prevent your opponent from getting the ball. Tricks, such as giving the appearance of a slam and then dunking the ball, or getting into a right-left pattern and then hitting two or three consecutive shots to the right, can also put your opponent off-balance and in position for a slam.

Getting Serious


Do it like the pros do. Professional players generally stand a little farther back from the table, and as you begin to get into faster rallies, you may find this is a good technique as well. The ball is coming so fast and so hard, standing farther back is the only way to continue the rally. And if your opponent favors a side, you should favor the same side as well.


  • In addition to stance, they have different equipment sometimes, too. There are a wide variety of ping-pong paddles available, and while the cheap ones at your local sporting discount store are just fine for beginners, as you get more advanced you may want to get your own custom paddle.



Pick your strategy. Once you've been playing for a bit, you'll automatically notice what your strengths and weaknesses are. Then, you'll pick a strategy that plays up your strengths and plays down your weaknesses. Here's the four common styles of players:


  • Control players. Just like their name says, they like to have control at all times and thus rarely take risks. They don't smash all too often and keep it traditional.

  • Defensive players. This type of player tries to make their opponent make mistakes as opposed to focusing on their own game.

  • Offensive players. This player is generally pretty aggressive, focusing on topspin and consistency. They can place the ball very well and clearly understand spin.

  • Power players. No fooling here, power players rely mainly on speed to trip their opponents up.



Know who you're playing. As you play your opponent, you'll be able to get a read on what kind of player they are. They'll generally prefer a certain type of stroke and always come back to a default way of play. Here are some things to look for:


  • The counter driver stroke is when solid contact is made with the ball (little to no spin) at the top of the bounce. A player who favors this is best defeated by a mid-table shot -- where they have to quick decide between their forehand and their backhand.

  • The chop stroke is when the underside of the ball is cut during its descent. The amount of spin can vary. To combat this, work the middle and above all, be patient. Alternating your shots will keep them from becoming comfortable.

  • Blockers are defensive players. They don't like attacking, so force them to. Vary between short and long shots, and switch up your style. Don't use all your power so they have to.

  • The "loop" is a shot that starts in your legs with your shoulders dropped, ending up in a strike that forces the ball slightly upward and giving it underspin. If you run into this player, be aggressive. Get them playing defense, which is generally not their forte.

  • Players who grip the paddle in the penholding position generally have very strong forehand strokes and weaker backhand strokes. However, knowing this, they usually have very good footwork. You'll have to force their backhand out quite wide and keep it varied so they don't know to stay on the edge of the table.



Have a few varied tactics under your belt. Regardless of who you're playing, it's a good idea to have a few ideas brewing in that cranium of yours. The element of surprise is incredibly important in this game. Latch onto it and a win will be yours.


  • Be sure to vary your spin and strokes. Good players will be able to read you like a book and know exactly what you're going to do next. They see how you like to hit the ball, where you like to hit the ball, and how you handle different set-ups. To avoid this, vary up your style. Vary your spin, the height you give the ball, and the speed you use in your strokes. Keep 'em on their toes.

  • Be able to place the ball outside of your opponent's "power zone." If you're facing an opponent with a "shakehand" grip, their power zone is within arm's reach of their forehand and near their body on their backhand. Playing in the middle and out wide (purposefully) can zero in on your opponent's weaknesses. But don't take this guide's word for it -- look for weak spots yourself!



Do some background work. Table Tennis is taken very seriously in some circles. If you're looking for a bit of inspiration, look to online videos -- tutorials, tournaments, or otherwise. Maybe your next stop will be the Olympics!

  • Table Tennis is a game that requires hours of practice. Look for clubs or leagues in your area, or find a group of interested friends that are looking to get competitive. Since it requires very little initial skill, it's usually not hard to find people willing to play.

  • If you do take this seriously, you'll play your best when you're energized and alert. Because of this, always get plenty of sleep and eat well! You need all your senses to be at 100%.

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