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From The Morning Call -- March 26, 2004

Bethlehem bar taps into popularity of college students' drinking game
Beirut has legion of fans, but Tuesday night matches might violate state liquor laws.


Of The Morning Call

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Beirut at the Tally-Ho Tavern
Beirut at the Tally-Ho Tavern (Michael Kubel/TMC)
Mar 26, 2004
Beirut at the Tally-Ho
Beirut at the Tally-Ho (Michael Kubel/TMC)
Mar 26, 2004
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Long after the lights have gone dark at most south Bethlehem businesses, the bright beer signs at the Tally-Ho Tavern shine like a beacon beckoning Lehigh University.

As if on cue, shortly before 10 p.m., clusters of students begin traveling down the Bethlehem hill the university calls home. They head toward the bar, toward the signs, but that's not what's drawing them.


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The lure is what happens inside the bar when the clock strikes 10: a drinking game called Beirut that's been offered up on Tuesday nights in the past month like a dinner or beverage special.

More than 30 years after the game supposedly originated in Bethlehem, Beirut remains an immensely popular college pastime, according to students, some of whom admit to playing it daily.

The game, which involves throwing ping-pong balls into beer cups, has elicited national tournaments in its honor, captivated students and rejuvenated business at the Tally-Ho.

But it's not all in good fun, according to state officials who say that when it comes to bars, Beirut is illegal.

''It sounds as if they are in variance with the code,'' Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board spokesman William Epstein said of businesses that host Beirut games.

According to the Pennsylvania

liquor code, ''there may not be an event, contest or tournament which involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages by … contest participant'' at a bar.

Penalties could consist of fines or an order to stop, Epstein said. He had never heard of the game, and said the board hasn't received complaints about any bar in the state, including the Tally-Ho, hosting Beirut.

''With licensees, there is a standard of serving to which they are expected to adhere … Those standards preclude most drinking games,'' Epstein said.

But Tally-Ho owner Ken Spalding said he researched liquor laws before starting the game three weeks ago at the suggestion of students and alumni he employs. He doesn't believe he's in violation.

''It's a sketchy area, it really is,'' Spalding said, adding that if the state orders him to stop the game, he will. ''We're following the code to the letter of the law, and it may be a fine letter.''

Spalding said he believes the bar is acting legally because it doesn't set rules for Beirut or offer prizes. Additionally, the $2 beer pitcher specials on ''Beirut nights'' are available to all patrons, regardless of whether they're using the beer to play the game.

Billy Cornish, owner of Mothers Bar and Grill in Easton, which has hosted Beirut in the past, agreed. He said the bar doesn't force patrons to drink and gives them the option of playing with water or soda.

''It's not a contest. It's the same as shooting billiards,'' Spalding said, adding that the bar ''simply has the supplies.'' Students choose to make it a drinking game, he said.

Epstein disagreed, saying that if a bar provides billiard supplies and patrons play pool as a drinking game, the bar would be in violation.

''Our interest is in people drinking responsibly, and our experience is that drinking games don't encourage people to go in that direction,'' he said.

Legal or not, the game — offered only on Tuesdays — has boosted Spalding's mid-week business.

This week, more than 60 patrons — mostly Lehigh and DeSales University students — crammed a smoky room lined with Beirut tables, and more students, many of whom were waiting to play, packed the adjoining room. On the other end of the bar, the billiard room remained nearly empty.

Beirut has proved far more successful at filling bar stools than previous Tuesday specials such as ribs or disc jockeys, Spalding said.

''You can't continuously have DJs and live music because it's expensive and kids get tired of that,'' he said.

Beirut — a variation of the drinking games Libya and beer pong without paddles — is played by teams standing behind opposite ends of a long, rectangular table.

Plastic cups filled with a few ounces of beer are lined in a triangular formation at the table's ends, and players take turns trying to throw ping-pong balls into the cups of the opposing team. When a player lands a ball in a cup, a member of the opposing team must drink the beer in that cup. The team left with the most full cups wins.

Those are the general rules. After that it gets complicated.

''Every fraternity house has their own culture, their own rules,'' said Sam Bruce-Wallace, a Lehigh senior from Pittsburgh.

Meticulous rules detailing variations of the game can be found on Web sites with names such as ''Beirut Players,'' ''Beirut-Guide,'' and ''National Beirut League of America.''

The sites painstakingly describe minute points including the amount of beer to be poured in the cups, the size of the cups, the number of cups used, when to remove empty cups, when to ''rack'' the formation, and penalties for ''overshooting'' or bouncing. Some sites even give tips on how to hold the ball.

Many of the Web pages credit Lehigh or Moravian College students with starting Beirut in the 1960s or '70s, and there appear to be as many people claiming to be the game's founder as there are variations of the game. Reportedly, the game was named after the bombing that occurred in the Middle Eastern city during the Lebanese Civil War.

Jason Spencer, who runs the Web site Playbeirut.com and participates in Beirut tournaments in Boston, said he believes reports that the game originated in the Christmas City.

''Judging from the sheer volume of e-mail we receive from people saying it started at Lehigh, I would say that's probably true,'' said Spencer, who learned to play the game while visiting a friend at Lehigh in the 1990s.

''For Beirut to be popular, you need space to play the game and you need people who like to drink beer,'' he said, adding that he believes Lehigh's sprawling frat houses and active Greek life provide both.

University spokesman Andrew Stanten declined to comment about Beirut nights at the Tally-Ho, but said Lehigh doesn't ''condone or encourage the use of alcoholic beverages by students.''

Students, however, say Beirut has become a way of life at Lehigh.

''The fraternities play every night,'' said Lehigh senior Ariella Willoughby, adding that her off-campus apartment includes three Beirut tables.

''The first thing you look for when you look for a house is how big the basement is and how many tables it can hold,'' said senior Lauren Weinstein while waiting her turn at a Tally-Ho Beirut table.

Fellow senior Margret Anderson, whose Bethlehem apartment came with three Beirut tables, said her friends have taken to making tables out of crates, saw horses and plywood.

''People go all out. They put their own designs on the tables,'' she said.

In the past decade, the Beirut craze has erupted on college campuses outside Lehigh, said Spencer, adding he receives e-mails from college students across the country.

A September 2000 edition of the Johns Hopkins Newsletter included a spoof about what the Olympics would be like if they included Beirut, and in May 1998, Swarthmore College's online newspaper noted the advent of Beirut on its campus and offered recommendations on campuses to visit for other variations of the game.

The Swarthmore article, which described Beirut as a form of beer pong, suggested that ''For complete and utter chaos, one could try 100-cup beer pong at Lehigh.''

christina.gostomski@mcall.com

610-820-6585

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