Ping pong is a racket game/sport in which players hit a small ball back and forth over a net with paddles to try to score points.
In a lot of ways, ping pong mimics regular tennis (the kind played on a court), which is how it gets its formal name, table tennis.
The point of ping pong is to return your opponent’s shots, while trying to prevent your opponent from returning your shots.
This is how you score points and win the game.
Ping Pong Gameplay
Gameplay in ping pong follows this pattern:
- Player 1 serves the ball.
- Player 2 returns the ball if possible.
- Player 1 returns the ball if possible.
- Players rally (strike the ball back and forth) until one player cannot return the ball or cannot return the ball in a rule-abiding fashion.
- The opponent of the player who could not return the ball is awarded a point.
- Player 1 serves the ball again.
- Players strike the ball back and forth until one player cannot return the ball in a rule-abiding way.
- The opponent of the player who could not return the ball is awarded a point.
- Player 2 serves the ball.
- Play continues like this, with players alternating serves every two points, until one player reaches 11 points. (Or more points, if necessary. A player must win by two points.)
As you can see, gameplay in ping pong is incredibly straightforward.
It’s really the rules that matter.
Ping Pong Singles Rules
The rules of table tennis are divided into three basic categories: serving, returning, and general.
Serving rules apply to when a player is serving the ball, returning rules apply to when a player is receiving the ball and attempting to hit it back, and general rules cover everything else.
(Note: These are singles, or one-on-one, ping pong rules.
Doubles, or two-on-two, ping pong rules are slightly different.)
Ping Pong Serving Rules
When serving in ping pong, the following rules apply:
- You must hold your hand flat open with the ball resting on your palm. (You cannot conceal the ball with your hand or fingers.)
- You must toss the ball straight up into the air.
- The ball must rise at least 6” off of your palm.
- You must strike the ball on its way back down (not on the way up).
- The ball must bounce on your side of the table first, over the net, and then onto your opponent’s side of the table to be a fair serve.
- Your ball can bounce anywhere on your opponent’s side of the table in singles play.
- If you fail to strike the ball when trying to serve, it is considered a miss and your opponent is awarded a point.
- If you fail to serve properly (the ball doesn’t bounce on both sides of the table), it is considered a mis-hit and your opponent is awarded a point.
- If the ball bounces on your side of the table, hits the net, and fall to your opponent’s side of the table, it’s considered a let and you get to serve again with no points awarded, as this is considered a fair, but impeded serve.
Other serving rules:
- Players alternate serves every two points until someone scores enough points to win the game.
- If the game ends up tied 10-10, players begin alternating serves every point.
- If you miss or mis-hit on game point, the rules of scoring still apply (you can lose on a failed serve).
Ping Pong Returning Rules
When you are returning the ball in ping pong (whether from a serve or from your opponent’s strike), the following rules apply:
- You must allow the ball to bounce one time on your side of the table before hitting it. (You cannot hit the ball before it hits your side of the table.)
- You must not allow the ball to bounce more than one time on your side of the table before hitting it. If the ball bounces more than one time on your side, your opponent gets a point.
- The ball cannot bounce off anything else, like the wall or floor, after hitting your side. You must return it after the first bounce off the table.
- A ball that misses your opponent’s side of the table is a missed return and your opponent is awarded a point. (It doesn’t matter if the ball hits your opponent or your opponent’s paddle. If you miss your opponent’s side of the table, your opponent gets a point.)
- A ball that hits the net, but falls over it to your opponent’s side is a fair ball. Your opponent must return it or you get a point.
- A ball that hits the net and falls back onto your side is a missed return. When this happens, your opponent is awarded a point.
- The ball may be returned around the side of the net. It does not have to pass directly over the net to be a fair ball. (This typically occurs when striking a ball that bounced sideways off the table or when hitting from a low angle, such as right before the ball hits the floor.)
- Your paddle hand is considered an extension of your paddle. If the ball hits your fingers or any part of your paddle hand as you return the ball, it’s considered fair.
- If the ball hits you on the wrist, forearm, or anywhere other than your paddle hand as you return it, it’s a foul and a point is awarded to your opponent.
General Rules of Table Tennis
Other general rules of ping pong include:
- The entire horizontal surface of the table is a fair play area. As long as the ball bounces off the tabletop, it’s considered fair. This includes the edges of the table, where the tabletop meets the sides, which may result in the ball bouncing sideways.
- The side edge of the table is not a fair play area. If the ball hits the side of the table, it’s not considered a fair ball and your opponent is awarded a point. (This may happen when you are returning a low ball from the side or from below the tabletop.)
- A ball that returns over the net by itself is considered fair. If you get enough spin on a ball, you can actually cause the ball to bounce on your opponent’s side of the table and then bounce back over the net onto your side of the table. If this happens without your opponent touching the ball, you get a point.
- You may NOT touch the table with your non-paddle hand.
- You may touch the table during a game with everything BUT your non-paddle hand. When leaning in to return a shot, your paddle-hand, arm, hip, or another part of your body may graze the table. This is perfectly legal. But –
- You may NOT move the table during a game. If the table moves due to your enthusiastic dive for the ball, it’s considered a foul and your opponent is awarded a point.
- In competition, ping pong games are to 11 points with 5 or 7 games making up a match.
- In casual play, ping pong games may go to 11, 15, 21, or whatever score you choose. You can play multiple games per match or a single game.
- When playing multiple games per match, players switch sides between games.
- When playing multiple games per match, players alternate who serves first.
Any agreed upon rules are fine for casual ping pong.
As long as all players agree, you can alter rules to make the game easier or more fun.
Many people, for example, find a proper serve in ping pong difficult (especially for beginners), so you may alter the rule about tossing the ball six inches into the air and allow players to serve straight out of their hand or by bouncing the ball off the table first.
It doesn’t matter what rules you change in casual ping pong, as long as all players are happy and in agreement.
Ping Pong Rules FAQs
While we’ve tried to cover everything we think you’ll need to know to start playing ping pong, there are a lot of potential questions that might arise during play.
These Q&As should cover any potential disputes that might arise.
What is a let in table tennis?
A let in table tennis is when the ball hits the net during a serve, but continues over it to the opponent’s side of the table.
When this happens, it is considered a mis-hit and must be served again.
It is called a let, because no points are awarded. The point is simply played again.
When the ball hits the net and falls to the opponent’s side of the table during a rally (while hitting the ball back and forth), this is not considered a let.
It is a fair ball and the opponent must return it or the person who struck the ball gets a point.
Any other instance of the ball hitting the net in ping pong – if it doesn’t go over, if it doesn’t touch the opponent’s side of the table, etc. – is a fault and the opponent gets a point.
To be a true let, the ball must hit the net AND touch the opponent’s side of the table.
What happens if the ball hits your body in ping pong?
It depends on when and where the ball hits your body.
If the ball hits your paddle hand or fingers while striking, but returns properly (hits your opponent’s side of the table), it’s a fair hit and gameplay continues.
If the ball hits anywhere other than your paddle hand while striking (like your forearm), it’s a foul and your opponent gets a point.
If the ball fails to touch your side of the table, though, if your opponent sends it sailing over the edge without touching the table and it hits you (or your paddle), it’s a miss for your opponent and you get the point.
Who gets to go first in ping pong?
In official competition, ping pong matches begin with a coin-toss.
The player who wins the coin-toss chooses whether they will serve or receive first OR which side of the table they prefer to play on.
Whichever they choose (whether to serve or receive first or which side of the table to play on), their opponent gets to choose the other. (If the player who wins the coin-toss chooses to serve first, their opponent gets to pick a side of the table. If they player who wins the coin-toss picks a side of the table, their opponent gets to choose whether to serve or receive first.)
Getting Your Ping Pong On
Ping pong can get wild at times, and anything might happen.
Ball getting stuck in the chandelier, anyone?
But this guide should cover the vast majority of instances that might arise during a game.
Armed with the rules, you can play ping pong anywhere you might happen upon a table.
It doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at it, but at least you’ll be playing fair.