The Greatest Derivative Of Ping Pong. Ever. 

This one time, I was travelling through Texas. I was with my friend, Nick, it was a Friday and we were in Austin. Having just landed, the night was beckoning. We were milling around, people watching, figuring… Who could steer us in an appropriate direction? We introduced ourselves to some good folk and a plan was hatched: The night would start on Rainey Street.

Ill-prepared, we caught an Uber from our hotel. We were to get something to eat on Rainey, appreciate a local beer, head to Easy Tiger in the financial district, play some ping pong, catch a Kurt Vile show at Stubb’s and then retire to The Continental Club. Night sorted.

That was before we met Mike.

Rainey Street is this unassuming, tree-lined stretch of road a minute or two from downtown. These old, 1900s, weatherboard bungalows mimic each other across the tarmac. They were homes for a hundred years but then they found a new calling: To entertain. Kitchens became bars, living rooms restaurants, and gardens now had long tables cluttered with beer and bratwurst. The whole block was brimming with Austinites appreciating the alternative. We ate, we drank, and then we entered an ominous abode called The Blackheart.

It was still early and as our pupils dilated to adjust to the dingy, dark interior, I remembered a feeling I once had when I arrived early to a math class. The teacher and the star student were quietly chatting between themselves when the door closed behind me. Disturbed but not deterred, they turned and peered at me with a watchful calm. A decade later, the teacher was a barmaid. The star student, Mike. We approached the bar, promptly ordered four tequilas (two for us, two for them) and out of nowhere, delved long-form into a conversation centred on ping pong.

It was more than year later that I emailed Mike.

What ensued online was a conversation that could have easily taken place at the bar of The Blackheart. Cc’d and threaded, good friends Mike, Kyle and Zac reminisced, interjected and clarified each other. Their collective voice regaled the full story behind the greatest derivative game of ping pong, ever – The Three.



The Three is one of the greatest games on the planet.


I think it was named about 6 months after Adaptation came out. It started in the house on 32nd, I believe, probably. But y’all played with just one cone on each end and you didn’t play to a score. The evolution came the summer I moved out from Montana.


It was in a house we were living in on the UT campus in the fall of ’98. I’m not sure how or why, maybe just to have a quick game so multiple people could funnel through instead of the usual longer 21 point game. A best out of 3 was not uncommon due to the short nature of the game. Wimbledonia was for the most dedicated.

As we generally did at the time, we went all-in and played a lot. There were 3 or 4 of us that played a whole lot, and they are the 3 or 4 who still play on a not so regular basis, but I imagine would play at any time if a challenge arose.



Oh God, this is amazing.

The Three is a ping pong game where 3 cones (a cone is approximately 1/2 of a standard toilet paper cardboard tube) are placed in a triangle formation on each half of the table in an upright position or vertical cylinder. The triangle formation should point directly at your opponent and the cone closest to the net should be in the middle, halfway between the net and the end of the table.

The cone closest to the net is called a Frontie.

It works well when you mark the table where the cones belong. The object of the game is to knock all three of your opponents cones off the table. A Kill Shot is when a ball knocks the cone off the table and is impossible to return.

Playing the common P-O-N-G to determine who serves first is a good way to start. Do not aim for the cones during this initial rally. If a cone is knocked off it doesn’t count no matter what. Hitting the opponent’s cone during this rally is seen as unsportsmanlike, however there is absolutely no penalty, just start again.

After the serve has been determined the game can begin. The server, delivering a normal legal ping pong serve, takes aim and attempts to knock their opponents cones off the table with their serve – by hitting the cones with the ball. A rally should ensue if and when the ball misses the cones altogether and the winner of the rally earns the serve. Therefore there are no points, only serve or receive. The table will show you who’s winning or losing, based on the remaining cones.


There are not that many “rules” per se, there are more things that are “allowed to happen”.

  • You can knock off 2 cones with the same shot.
  • You can knock off a cone on a serve.
  • You can return the ball after the opponent knocked off your cone or cones.
  • Technically, you could win in one shot off the serve, but you would have to knock the front cone into one of the back cones, with the ball ricocheting into the other cone.
  • You could also knock off every one of the opponent’s cones throughout the rally, but if the opponent returns the ball each time and wins “the point”, all of the cones go back on the table.
  • Winning “the point” does nothing as far as the game goes, but it does determine who serves next.
  • I also believe that, at least most places we’ve played, everything is in bounds – ceiling, walls, poles, etc. Obviously the ground or anything below the height of the table would be out of bounds. Going off the wall is usually not a good shot unless you are desperately trying to save the rally.


When a player strikes an opponent’s cone with a ball – either intentionally or by accident – what happens next is important. There are several scenarios.

If it is a direct shot, the cone likely will fly off of the table and the ball will roll harmlessly away ending the rally. At that point the losing player has lost that cone.

If the ball hits the cone and the cone remains on the table, the cone should be stood back upright where it stopped. That is now where the cone stays until it is moved again during the course of the game. Any cone that ends up closer to the net than halfway shall be moved away from the net until it is halfway between the net and the end of the table. This is to prevent cones from being “protected” by the net.


No man’s land.

And you can’t block a cone with a paddle. If you hit a cone off with your paddle it stays off, unless you win the point. If a cone that’s hit by a paddle doesn’t go off the table, the opposing player gets to decide if it is set where it lays or is returned to its previous position.

Zac (continued):

At the point when ball to cone contact is made, there is always one extra bounce allowed after the collision between ball and cone, so that the receiving player can attempt to return the shot. Extending the play in this manner is known as a Save.

After a save, the rally continues until the point has been won. The winner of the rally earns any progress that has been made towards knocking their opponents cones off, as well as the next serve. Therefore, in the scenario where the player who makes the save loses the point, then any cones lost will remain off the table. However if the player who makes the save wins the point, then they may return their cone to the position it was in before the rally started. This is known as a Reversal.

Once all three of a player’s cones have legally been knocked off the table, that player has lost and the game is over. For reference, a Two Bagger is the act of knocking two cones completely off with one shot, while a Two Fer is the act of knocking two cones off the table during the course of one rally.

If a player knocks his own cones off in any way, those cones will remain off the table and count against them even if it is their last cone.

Oh, and if a ball is ever hit directly into, like inside a cone, the game immediately ends, the player who hit the shot is determined world champion, the table is burnt and no one plays the game ever again.


Serving accuracy is obviously huge. Fastest way to end a game is to have an accurate serve, though sometimes it’s a good strategy to serve hard and away from the cones to catch an opponent off guard and on the defensive.

Being able to focus in on one area of the table is huge, but knowing when to move away from that area is important as well. It’s easier to defend one cone than three, so you’ve got to know when to go away from it if you’re losing momentum.

Reacting to cone hits and winning back pints is by far the most important aspect of the game. Cone strikes can be completely random and lucky, so an unskilled player can always knock a few off. But learning to keep reacting and to know how the ball bounces off the cones is the best way to stay at the table. Most newcomers get so excited to hit a cone off that they forget to keep playing.


It’s a great game because it’s fast moving and a great skill game. Aiming for a cone instead of just the table really forces you to zone in and be precise with your shots.

It can definitely be played on a full sized table but most of the tables we have played on over the years are 4’x8′ particle board tables. They’re cheap, you can fit them in smaller spaces, and a smaller table helps to develop your aiming skills as well.


Shortest game on record was 2 serves. Pretty sure Zac served the 2 shot game. There may have been a few of them.

We usually either played winner stays, or extremely long matches, the Wimbledonias. A Wimbledonia basically treats games the same as in a tennis match. Best of 5 sets, first to 6 games wins the set. Mostly played very late by people who aren’t at all worried whether they make it to work the next day.


Shortest Wimbledonia was 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.


A Wimbledonia is the only way to definitively determine who is the best. Not recommended unless truly dedicated. Can take upwards of two hours or more. Approach with caution.


Oh, and if a ball is ever hit directly into, like inside a cone, the game immediately ends, the player who hit the shot is determined world champion, the table is burnt and no one plays the game ever again.

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