Who doesn’t love a game of table tennis? We can’t get enough of this glorious game. One of the reasons it’s so great is that it’s not very taxing on the body so anyone can give it a go. And also, ping pong rules are really easy to understand.
For serves, you must the ball must bounce once on your side and then your opponent’s side of the table, after which, just on your opponent’s side. Each player gets two serves and must reach 11 points first to win a game (with 2 points of clearance). And to win the match, you have to reach 3 games first.
Yet these are just the most basic ping pong rules. Read on as I dumb down all of the official rules so that they are easy to understand.
Ping Pong Rules for Scoring
The principle of table tennis is very simple. Win points by striking the ball back onto your opponent’s half. To keep the rally alive, you must only let the ball bounce once on your side and hit it anywhere on your opponent’s half. If your opponent fails to make a legal return, you win the point!
And for those of you who are curious, no, the side of the table does not count!
You also can’t volley the ball like in tennis — this would be far too easy! What’s more, you cannot lean on the table, touch the ball with your hands, or indeed any other part of your body as soon as a point has commenced. This excludes shots that hit your playing hand (these are legal).
All table tennis games are first to 11 points with 2 points of clearance. Formerly, games used to be up to 21, but the rules were changed over two decades ago. As for the number of games, almost all are best of 5. However, on some occasions, table tennis matches will be either best of 7 or best of 3.
Read More: How to Play Table Tennis Like a Pro
Table Tennis Serve Rules
Serving in table tennis is important business, as an effective serve can win you lots of points. However, many people consistently break ping pong serving rules. Most are oblivious, but some players abuse the fact that umpires rarely scrutinize illegal serves. Don’t be one of these people! Play the game fairly.
Unlike for open play, you do not hit the ball straight to your opponent’s side of the table, it first has to bounce in your half. The ping pong rules for singles allow you to hit the ball wherever you like provided it bounces on each side, this differs from doubles where you have specific serving zones.
Each player serves twice in a row and then the opponent gets the same. This only ever changes when the score reaches 10-10. From this point, each player has one service only. And remember, there are no second serves in table tennis, so you need to prioritize consistency above everything else.
How to Serve in Ping Pong
As mentioned above, lots of players break the ping pong serve rules which can be a real nuisance if you are on the receiving end. To serve legally, you only need to remember five serving rules of ping pong for singles.
- Throw the ball vertically at least 16 cm from the open palm
- Strike the ball as it is falling
- Do not throw the ball from below the table surface
- Do not hide your serve from your opponent’s view
- The ball must not pass the end line of the table until you make contact
Not so hard to follow is it?
The only other general rule for ping pong that you need to remember is in relation to lets. Lets occur when your service is legal but the ball hits the net on the way over to your opponent’s side of the table. These points need replaying. If the ball touches the net but doesn’t land on your opponent’s side, it is not a let and you lose the point.
Deciding the Server and Switching Ends
The official rules state that you determine the first server through random means. The professional method is usually a coin toss. However, for amateur play, almost everybody hides the ball in one hand under the table and gets the opponent to guess.
Once a winner emerges, that player gets to choose whether they would like to serve or not. What a lot of people don’t know is that you can choose which end you would like to play first as well. But it’s either one or the other, you don’t get to choose both.
The opponent then has the option to choose what the opponent didn’t, i.e. which end to start at if the first serve is already taken.
An end switch occurs after each game. The server also switches relative to the preceding game. So if player one served first in the prior game, player 2 serves first in the next game.
Beyond this, there’s also one other end switch that you should be aware of. It occurs only when at least one player reaches 5 points in the 5th game. Of course, many games conclude in less than five games so most of the time it doesn’t happen.
Another point to note is that this additional end switch is slightly different for doubles play. The team receiving the serve must both swap ends and swap receiver.
How to Play Ping Pong Doubles
Contrary to popular belief, whoever is closest to the ball can’t hit it. Doubles follow an alternate hitting pattern, and if for whatever reason either you or your partner strike the ball out of sequence, you lose the point.
The only other rule adaptations you need to know for doubles relate to serving:
- You must serve diagonally from your right-half court to the opponent’s right-half court
- After serving twice, you swap positions with your partner and receive twice
- After the first game, you serve to the player who was serving to you in the prior game
- At each change of ends, the serving team gets to decide which of them will serve first
Read More: How to Play Doubles — Rules and Strategies
The Scoring of Points Broken Down
While all of these official table tennis rules are easy to comprehend by themselves, we understand that things can get a little confusing when you try to take them all on board at once. As such, we’ve put together a little list of every scenario that will award a point in table tennis to help you on your way.
*These official rules of ping pong relate to when the ball is live.
- Failing to serve correctly
- Failing to receive a ball correctly
- Touching the ball with anything other than your racket or playing hand
- Obstructing the ball
- Deliberate double hits
- Moving the table
- Touching the net
- Hitting out of sequence in doubles
When Lets Occur
As mentioned earlier, lets primarily occur when a serve is legal but the ball hits the net before bouncing on the opponent’s side of the table. However, broadly speaking, lets are a means to temporarily cease play, and you, another player, or the umpire, can call them for several reasons.
Other than let serves, the main time they occur is when play becomes interrupted. This is usually in the form of a rogue ball from another table that interferes with play. However, one can also call a let when a player wasn’t ready for the point to commence.
The only other time people call lets is when somebody spots a mistake. For instance, if the wrong player is serving. The mistake is corrected, and play continues. If a mistake is spotted after several points have taken place, all points scored stand.
Ping Pong Tables
You play table tennis on a table tennis table. They come in various sizes from mini tables up to full-size. However, in an official competitive setting, tables will always be full-size.
Full-size tables measure 9 ft long by 5 ft wide by 2.5 ft high.
Table tennis paddles consist of a blade with accompanying rubbers. Every racket must have at least one black rubber, and the other side must be an easily identifiable color. Formerly, only red was legal, but the ITTF changed this rule to spice the game up a bit.
According to ITTF rules, ping pong balls must have a diameter of 40 mm. In reality, they are a little larger than this as all balls are now marketed as 40 mm+.
Similarly, the ping pong game rules state that celluloid is still legal, but nobody uses this material anymore. Plastic has since replaced it. Table tennis balls may be orange or red and should weigh 2.7 g.
A table tennis net is made up of a net and two posts which suspend it across the width of the table. Nets must measure 15.25 cm high along their entire length including the posts, and the bottom of the net should be as close to the playing surface as possible.
The whole table tennis net system counts as part of the net, so if the ball strikes a post and goes in the shot is legal.
Ping pong rules are super easy to understand. It’s just some beginners aren’t aware of a few rules, most of which relate to serving. Remember, you have to throw the ball up near-vertical by at least 16 cm from behind the table and in full view of your opponent. It’s easy. We promise.
Beyond that, it’s just a matter of remembering how the rules change when it comes to doubles. And with practice, you’ll get them down in no time.
We’ve done our best to make the official table tennis rules simple and easy to digest, but some of you may be interested to read them directly for yourself. If that is the case, you can read the ITTF rules here. Below we’ve also provided a video that goes over the main rules to help you remember.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Ping Pong Played to 11 or 21?
Ping pong games are played first to 11 points. If the score reaches 10-10, the winner is the player who achieves a 2-point lead first. Games used to be first to 21 but the ITTF modified the rule back in 2001 to make games more exciting.
Can You Hit a Ping Pong Ball Before It Bounces?
Official ping pong rules state that you cannot hit the ball before it bounces in table tennis. This would be obstructing the ball which constitutes a fault.
Do You Get Two Serves in Ping Pong?
Each player has two consecutive serves in a game of ping pong. This only changes if the score reaches 10-10. At this time, each player only has one service before their opponent serves, and this continues until the game concludes.
What Are the Rules of Ping Pong for Volleying Balls That Are Going Out?
We recommend not volleying balls that have crossed over the end of the table. While it won’t cost you the point, it will do if you hit it too early. If you contact the ball while it is over the table you will lose the point even if it is heading out.
Can You Lose on a Serve in Ping Pong?
You can lose on a serve in ping pong. We’ve heard this question many times as it is a common rumor, but it is entirely false.