During the day, Braza Dancante Brazilian Steakhouse is a pleasant enough place. It's in the middle of a massive outdoor shopping center right off the highway in Allen, Texas, one of the sprawling suburbs north of Dallas. Nice suburban couples, families celebrating birthdays, and business travelers out on expense accounts can all come in without a reservation, consume copious amounts of meat from a variety of animals, load up at the extravagant salad bar, and drink wines from all over the world. There are flickering candles, silky tablecloths, rich desserts, and a genteel, attentive wait staff.
But that all changes at 9:30 p.m.
Tablecloths come off and the tables go up against the walls. The lights go down. The relaxing music goes off - replaced with thumping rap played at three times the volume. Most of the staff goes home. A go-go dancer appears on a platform near the door. Multi-colored lasers start bouncing off the walls and floor. Outside on the patio, there are a handful of fire pits and a dozen or so ambient torches that burn bright into the night. Soon they're surrounded by young people smoking cigarettes (and pulling from vaporizers), downing $2 domestics and $3 Crown and Cokes.
The crowd is overwhelmingly white, mostly male, and almost completely under the age of 26. There are flip-flops, tank tops, and ballcaps askew in different directions - "a full-on Brodeo," as one regular attendee described it, equal parts bacchant revelry and sardonic disdain. There are some women here too, mostly in shorts and T-shirts, though a few don proper clubbing attire. Most of the people here are relatively recent college grads - the most common question around the fires outside is "Where'd you go to school?" Most have moved back to the suburbs, trying to figure out how to navigate the strange, complicated world of adulthood. (Around 1 a.m. on this particular night, there will be an impromptu ass-shaking contest over by the DJ booth - won by a lesbian wearing designer glasses and a pair of cut-off jean shorts.) At a glance, this could look like some suburban den of iniquity: young people smoking, drinking, women twerking by the flickering fires. But it's mostly just people reliving some of the more mildly debauched moments from their college years. There's even a beer pong tournament every Wednesday with a $350 cash prize.
That's why Tim Carey and Jim Jewison are here tonight. Known to most regulars by their beer pong team name, The Antagonists, Tim and Jim have been coming every Wednesday for months. They've won this tournament - and the winner-take-all cash prize - five times, including a streak of three weeks in a row at one point. That $350 may not seem like a lot of money, but for guys in their early 20s in a slow-to-recover economy, it's a nice payday. They've both got day jobs, but recently they've been able to pay their bills with their beer pong winnings. They share a house with several guys in Plano, the next suburb over, so rent is pretty cheap, but managing to make even that kind of remittance from skills honed playing a college drinking game is the kind of thing you can brag about at parties.
"Technically speaking," Tim says, "since we have paid rent with the money we won here, we are professional beer pong players." The absurdity of the premise isn't lost on him, but at the same time he grimaces when he's reminded that he hasn't won in three weeks. Mimicking the kind of dismissive attitude coaches and golfers take in press conferences, he calls it a "temporary setback," and notes that he "wouldn't even call it a slump, really."
Tim does most of the talking. He has a runner's build and looks like an adult Boy Scout. Tonight he's wearing blue khaki shorts and a Zac Brown Band T-shirt. He grew up in suburban Austin, went to Texas Tech, and moved up here after school to work as a nurse in a nearby hospital. Jim is quieter, with the arcing shoulders of a middle linebacker (he plays rugby) and a carefully groomed dash of facial hair on his chin. He grew up around here and went to Sam Houston State before moving back to work as a tech in a physical therapist's office.
Like most of the people who enter the tournament, Tim and Jim logged countless hours over beer pong tables in college. Now they look forward to this night all week long: the people, the drinks, the flashing lights, those intense moments of competition when pure joy or pure devastation can turn on the bounce of a ping pong ball.
"Win or lose, this is the best night of the week," Tim says.
Their main rivals in the weekly tournament are the guys known as Team Jordan. Every week, Chuck Hardwick and Shane King both wear Air Jordan high tops, and often a Jordan-related T-shirt or tank top. They're both tall, and Chuck, in particular, is quite brawny. They've won the tournament five times too, including a three-week streak of their own, and they recently announced they'd be driving to Las Vegas for the Masters of Beer Pong tournament the first week of July to compete for the $50,000 first prize. Coming into tonight, the two teams have a heads-up record of 2-2.
After both teams have signed up and everyone has had a drink or two, it's time to practice. The restaurant has set up four long folding tables (similar to the painted "official" beer pong tables sold just about everywhere) where people were dining just a few hours earlier and put out dozens of plastic red cups and packs of brand new ping pong balls. Soon there are teams at every table, and more gathered around waiting, watching. There are balls bouncing in every direction, and grown men on their hands and knees crawling through the crowd, and puddles all over the floor. By the time registration is closed, around 11:15 p.m., there are 40 teams signed up. The list of team names include: "Guys with Balls," "The Motherfucking Motherfuckers," "The Black Cocks," "Our Couches Pull Out but We Don't," "Titties in My Face," and "Bert and Ernie."
There have been variations of beer pong played in dorms and frat houses since the 1950s, but the game didn't really take hold nationwide until the last 10 years. The rules vary slightly in every venue, but the idea is simple. Two teams play at a time, each setting up 10 plastic cups filled with beer (or in this case, water) in the shape of a triangle, like bowling pins. Both teams take turns trying to lob the ping-pong balls into the other team's cups. Every time a ball goes into a cup, that cup comes off the table. The first team to eliminate all of an opponent's cups wins.
Most places that hold beer pong competitions don't use actual beer in the cups anymore. When someone knocks out a cup, people will drink from their own drink, but not from the shared cups. The reason for the switch? Explains one regular: "Everybody was like, getting mono." When played in these slightly more sanitary circumstances, the game is all about acuity, the kind of skill that can be refined over time.
And there are at least as many strategies for beer pong as there are for negotiating life itself. On offense, nearly every shot falls into one of three categories: the arc, or floater; the dart or snipe; or the bounce shot. Most people use variations of the arc: Some elevate with their knees and release at the highest point. Some actually leave the ground like a jump shot. Some try to take advantage of long, lanky arms by stretching over the table. Some shoot underhanded. Some flick with their wrists, trying to get more spin. Some people wear boots for the extra inch and a half, hoping it might improve their angle of attack, even if it's only by a degree or two. Some people try to stay sober. ("More focused.") Some people try to get drunk. ("More relaxed.") Some people focus on defense. You can only swat away an opponent's shot if it bounces (which is why most serious competitors don't try many bounce shots), but you can do just about anything to distract your opponents while they shoot. So some people flail around, trying to throw off a field of vision. Some women try to flirt their way into an opponent's head. Some guys try belittling or inflammatory shit-talk: "You're fucking terrible, bro. You should probably kill yourself. Why don't you put down the ball and go kill yourself, bro."
Nobody here is as good as the people making 10 cups in a row in YouTube videos, but sometimes the Antagonists will go on runs where they sink four or five straight. Tim knows it's not the same as the pro sports they watch - all the TVs in the bar are tuned to ESPN - but in the most intense moments, when his blood is racing, that's how it feels.
"Sometimes we just get in the zone," Tim says. "I can pick ‘em off early, one after another. Then Jim is like an eagle-eye sniper specialist and he can finish them off." He says something about San Antonio Spurs playoff standout Danny Green, and with the calm bravado of a man on his third drink, adds, "When we're both at our best, we are unstoppable."
The brackets are set. The first game of the night for The Antagonists is against ... Team Jordan. The two men who organize the tournament, unimpeachable looking young men in T-shirts, shorts, and shell necklaces, insist they try to randomize the match-ups, but it feels like the pairing may have been intentional. Both teams know that, because this is the first round, whoever loses isn't necessarily out. In this tournament, there are rebuys after the first round, for twice the price of the initial entry fee. (That initial entry fee is $5 per person, so the rebuy is $10 - all of which goes into the pot for the winner.)
The rebuy idea comes from poker. In fact, a decade ago, a lot of people this age were playing poker. Young men owned special tables built for poker, cases of poker chips, special casino-style cards. If a bar wanted to attract this crowd, they would have hosted a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament. Now, it's beer pong. Many grocery stores sell colorful ping-pong balls next to the beer. There's even a beer called Pong Beer, company motto: "Let's Play."
The Antagonists take on Team Jordan
As expected, the game begins fast. With really good players, the first four or five cups tend to go pretty quickly. In no time, both The Antagonists and Team Jordan have only four cups left in front of them. Then it's only three each. When Chuck's shot floats slowly through the air and disappears cleanly into one of the red cups, he taunts his rivals.
"Where'd it go?" he says, grinning, pretending to look around for the ball. "Where'd it go?"
When Tim and Jim both miss and Shane sinks his, it's 3-1, Team Jordan leading. Then Tim sinks one and both Team Jordan shots miss: 2-1. Then Jim sinks one and it's tied again. After a round of all misses, Tim hits his shot in the last Team Jordan cup. But, per the rules, before the game is over, the Team Jordan players each get one chance to sink a shot - known as the "rebuttal" - and send the game into overtime.
There are at least a dozen spectators watching now, gasping with every shot. Jim looks up from the table. He rubs his hands together and shakes his head. "It's gets tense, right?" he says, and takes a sip of his bourbon and Coke. Chuck's shot bounces off the rim of the cup, but Shane's goes in. As the Team Jordan guys high five, The Antagonists grimace and swear.
Overtime is essentially a mini-game with only three cups on each side. Jim's first shot of overtime sails by the end of the table and bounces to the wall with the stained glass fireplace. Tim's shot looks good when he lets it go, and it finds a cup, but it bounces out. Shane takes the first shot for Team Jordan and makes it. Then Chuck shoots and makes his, too. Jim sinks one, but then Chuck knocks out The Antagonists' last cup. Unless Jim and Tim make both of their shots, the game is over.
Tim squints, lobs the ball, and nails it. Then Jim does the same thing. Double overtime! Before the guys can even set up the cups, word gets around and there are even more people watching.
In the second overtime though, Team Jordan dominates. We've seen it so many times: a team exhausting itself getting to the double-OT, running out of steam and getting rolled in the end. Team Jordan goes three-for-three and, just like that, this epic first-round game is over.
Shane looks relieved. "That was just a preview," he says.
Jim already has a $20 bill in his hand.
"We're buying back in," Tim says. "Obviously."
In the massive commercial development around the restaurant, there are several furniture stores, pet stores, clothing stores, toy stores, and at least five different spas or beauty supply stores. There are electronic stores, bakeries, two places to buy nutritional supplements, and restaurants to suit any person or persuasion, from fast food to fine dining. But by 10 p.m., just about everything is closed and the giant landscaped parking lots are eerily empty.
That's part of life in the suburbs. Tim grew up in a place that looked a lot like this, and Jim grew up a few miles away. Fifteen years ago, much of this county was pastureland and barbed wire fences. But between 2000 and 2010, Collin County saw more than 150-percent growth. Now it's mile after mile of plotted subdivisions and planned communities named for the farms and ranches they replaced. There are tall fences, unnaturally green lawns, golf courses galore. At the end of every exit there are chain restaurants and big-box stores. Even during the recession, there was money coming in here. Just last year, Allen finished a high school football stadium that cost more than $60 million. (And the team rewarded the taxpayers with a state championship.) It's clean. It's safe. It's where families move when they want good schools. And, of course, to someone under the age of 30, that means it's also boring. It's where they start to become their parents, which they try to put off for as long as possible. Young people need an outlet.
So they come here. They listen to Lil Wayne and Kanye West and Rick Ross blasting through the sound system. Songs about good Kush and waking up in a new Bugatti and living like John Gotti, and starting from the bottom and all gold everything. They come here, and for a few minutes, as they drink and play, it feels like old times, that time before insurance premiums and cell phone bills and social security tax - if you're lucky.
Looking around, you can't help but think about what a strange time in life this is, those years right after college. It used to be that once you got done with 8th grade you were put behind a plow, and that was that. Now there are so many different stages of development. You're a kid, then a teenager, then a college student with funds and freedom and no responsibilities. Then: something else. The rules change. What's important changes. There's a lot to figure out. Soon it'll be time to get serious about a career, marriage, kids, Facebook photos of vacations to Disney. But that seems so far away when you've just moved back home and you're eating at your parents' table, trying to get them to cover a few bills. One minute you're with your friends, young and unencumbered, the real world just waiting for you as an abstract concept in the nebulous future. The next you're sitting at home on a Friday night, alone, counting down the hours to Wednesday.
Before most of the second-round games, the go-go dancer buys the bar two trays full of shots. And as quickly as they come out, they disappear. Tim and Jim both manage to grab a few shots each. Several happy customers thank the go-go dancer by stuffing cash into her clothing.
Next up for The Antagonists is a duo going by Seal Team Six. They're a couple, a guy in jeans and tennis shoes and a woman in a lacy dress. She gets the first cup of the game. Then the second. She proves much better than her partner. It's down to 3-3 quickly.
On the next table over, Team Jordan makes short work of their opponents, finishing the game with six cups left in front of them. Chuck and Shane come over to watch their rivals. When they see how close the game is, they start rooting for Seal Team Six.
The Antagonists sink two shots to take the lead, but the woman in the lacy dress can hardly miss, and hits her next two shots to tie it up, 1-1. Tim and Jim both miss their next shots and the woman has a ball bounce in and out before Jim finally finishes the game.
"Deadeye Jim," Tim says. "Always gets the last one."
They look at the table, at the one cup they had left. They certainly didn't expect the game to be that close.
"We're too sober," Jim says.
Before the next round, most of the players left in the tournament are sipping drinks outside by the fires. Tim and Jim are talking about how good it feels to wake up with a fat wad of cash in your pocket.
"One time I woke up and I wasn't even sure what happened the night before," says Jim, who opens up a bit the more he drinks. "I just looked down and saw all this money, and I was like, man, that must've been a good night."
The alternative, Tim points out, is terrible. "There is nothing worse than waking up with a hangover and knowing you lost," he says. He has to be at work at 7 a.m. on Thursdays, which means getting up at what seems now like an unthinkable hour. He sighs. "We've got to win this."
After last week's tournament, an elimination in the semifinals at the hands of Team Jordan, Tim and Jim had what Tim calls a "heart-to-heart."
"We were getting cocky," he says, aping the sounds of other professional athletes. "We won a lot for a while, and our heads got too big. We decided to go back to our roots, to get humble again."
They made a conscious effort not to taunt their opponents the way they had been, to take a few practice throws before each game, and to shake hands afterward. This, they agree, is sure to work.
Tim gets another drink. By the bar, there's a pretty young woman who's seen him play. (The best players are minor celebrities on Wednesday nights.) Tim and the woman make small talk for a minute before he comes back outside. Jim gives him one of those encouraging nods, a go, talk more kind of look. Jim smiles. "You may not be going to sleep tonight," he says.
In their third game of the night, The Antagonists play the OGs, two guys who gave Tim and Jim a close game a week or two earlier. Within a few seconds, it's down to 6-6, then 5-5, then 4-4. Then The Antagonists go on a run and take it down to 3-1. The OGs have two shots rim out and Jim finishes the game again. They shake hands.
Outside, a booty-dancing contest erupts to the sounds of Tupac's "California Love," a song that came out when most of the women dancing were in elementary school. The bouncers toss a guy who was getting rowdy. Tim is looking for the woman he was talking to earlier. She's not by the bar, not by the beer pong tables, not by the go-go station. When he finally spots her, he sees that she's talking to the guys from Team Jordan, laughing harder than she had been earlier with him. He shrugs and takes a big sip from his drink.
In the next game, Tim and Jim take on a team called Guys with Balls, two guys with backwards ballcaps and shaggy hair. The Antagonists start slow this time, knocking out only one cup before their opponents get to five. On the next table over, Team Jordan is playing 2 Guys 10 Cups. Shane and Chuck get off to a bad start, too.
Twice in a row Tim has a ball bounce out of a cup. And twice their opponents have a ball bounce up and back into the cup. Jim tries to imagine there's only one cup across the table, a single target. But that doesn't help either. Soon The Antagonists have five cups left to hit and their opponents only have one.
It goes the same way for Team Jordan. Shots that have been dropping all night just aren't going in now. And balls that were bouncing their way earlier are going the other way now. Before long, they're down to their last two chances. Then those are gone, too, and it's over. They're out in the quarterfinals.
Seeing their rivals eliminated doesn't do much to inspire Tim and Jim, and within a minute or two, they're out too. That fast. Another Wednesday gone, another week without a win. Guys with Balls will go on to win the tournament this week, though it's of little consolation.
As Tim leans on the bar waiting for his tab, a tall glass of ice water in front of him, he looks dejected. The woman he was flirting with earlier is gone. He apologizes to Jim for a poor performance in their final game. Jim tells him not to worry about it.
"Losing just sucks," Tim says.
"It isn't supposed to be this way," Jim says. "We just kept rimming out." He shakes his head. "We fucked up."
This means they'll probably have to pay rent with their regular jobs this month. It means they are no longer technically professional beer pong players. Of course, they were never really professional beer pong players. They were still young men with jobs, with responsibilities and obligations.
"Next week," Tim says.
In a week, they will make it back to the semifinals, but lose again. In two weeks they'll finally win again - and they'll learn that the prize will be going up to $500 soon. Sometimes you wake up a winner. Sometimes you just wake up.
Now though, they have to get going. It's late and they both have to work in the morning.
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