Ping Pong Rules For Dummies – 5 Basic Rules

The phrase ping pong rules for dummies actually makes it sound like the rules for ping pong are complex when in fact, they’re not complicated at all. In reality, it’s probably the easiest racket sport to learn for any player regardless of age.

The 5 basic ping pong rules for dummies are:
1. The ball must be allowed to bounce before being hit
2. The ball can never bounce twice
3. The serve must bounce on each side of the net
4. Service “lets” are allowed when the ball hits the net and goes over
5. Each player serves twice and games are played to 11

In this article, I will walk you through the game’s basic rules, like the ones above and more, so you can get up to speed quickly and start playing. I’ll also cover some of the terms people use most often so you know the rules and know the lingo. 

Hey, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk to right? Let’s get started.

*My take – Stiga designed an affordable paddle set designed to help newbies improve their control.

My Favorite Paddle Set Designed For Beginners

  • Made by a reputable ping pong brand in Stiga
  • Comes with four paddles with 1.5mm sponges and 5-ply wood
  • The Paddles are designed for better control – perfect for beginners
  • Includes 6 balls
  • Around $30

What Is Ping Pong And Where Did It Come From?

Originating as an after-dinner game played in Victorian England, ping pong it is now popular worldwide, not least because it’s easy to learn and can be played in groups. But it’s not just a silly social game. In fact, ping pong became an Olympic sport in 1988, with single-player and double-player events for both men and women.

It’s actually got a few similarities to tennis too, which is why another name for ping pong is “table tennis.”

The 5 Basic Rules Of Ping Pong

Rule #1: The Ball Must Bounce Before Being Hit

The most unique aspect to ping pong is that it’s one of the only racket or paddle sports that actually eliminates the “volley” completely. This is where you hit the ball out of the air before it bounces.

In ping pong, this is NOT allowed. You must let the ball bounce before hitting it at all times.

This includes the serve, return of serve and any point of contact after that. There are no volleys in ping pong.

What happens if the ball bounces and hits the edge of the table?

Sometimes the ball will hit the very edge of the table, and can even bounce sideways. As long as it still hits the top surface of the table, it’s a legal hit, and you have to return it. Even if the ball goes flying off in a random direction, that’s a legal shot that must be returned.

Editor’s Note: This rule can take new players by surprise so I created this helpful guide on what types of shots to use when you’re letting the ball bounce in ping pong.

Rule #2: The Ball Can Never Bounce Twice

This is probably the most self-explanatory rule of ping pong and one that you’d come to expect if you’ve ever played tennis or pickleball. If the ball ever bounces twice, it is a fault and a point is awarded.

Here are a few examples.

If you serve and the ball bounces twice on your side of the net (whether it goes over or not) it’s your opponent’s point. If you serve and it bounces twice on your opponent’s side of the net, it’s your point.

And finally, if at any point during the rally, a player doesn’t get to the ball and return it over the net in time before it bounces twice, a fault has occurred and a point is awarded to the opposing player or players.

Rule #3: The Serve Must Bounce On Each Side Of The Net

To start a game of ping pong, one person “serves” the ball—that is, tosses it into the air, hits it so that the ball bounces once on their side of the net, and then crosses over the net and onto their opponent’s side of the table.

You cannot toss it up and volley it directly over the net to the other side.

A legal serve in ping pong is one where your serve must bounce on your side, then cross the plane of the net without touching it and land on your opponent’s side.

If the ball hits the net and lands back on your side of the table, you lose a point, but if it brushes the net and lands on your opponent’s side, it must be replayed.

This is called a let and I’ll talk about that in rule #4.

It’s also worth noting that you can serve to any spot on your opponent’s side of the net. You don’t have to serve diagonally in ping pong.

Fun Fact: If the ball happens to hit your paddle hand while playing, that’s fine—as long as it still results in a legal hit, anyway.  

Portrait of happy male athlete playing table tennis on white background

Rule #4: Service “Lets” Are Allowed

In ping pong, when your serve hits the net but still goes over to your opponent’s side, play is stopped and the serve is replayed. This is called a “let” and there is no limit to the number of lets” allowed as long as the serve makes it over the net.

Remember though, if the serve hits the net and lands back on your side of the net without making it over, the point is given to your opponent.

Rule #5: Each Player Serves Twice And Games Are Played To 11

Serving in ping pong is easy because each player gets two serves. After your two serves are up, your opponent serves twice.

Scoring is just as simple because a game of ping pong is over when a score of 11 is reached by one side.

Players take turns serving every two points and they alternate from there until one player reaches 11. But you have to win by at least two points, so things change if the score is tied at 10-10.

During this sudden-death play, the players alternate serves every point, and whoever gets a two-point lead first – wins.

In doubles play though, you and your partner each get one serve before it goes back to your opponents.

Bonus Rule – Doubles Play

If playing two by two, or “doubles” ping pong, the two players on each team have to take turns returning the ball. A team will lose a point if one of them hits the ball two times in a row. 

So, when playing doubles you must alternate who hits it and take turns. If the better player hits it twice, that’s a fault.

Another scenario to be aware of, and one that is very common in recreational tennis is when the ball is hit at the same player twice to force this kind of fault.

For example, say you return the ball over the net and your opponents hit the ball right back at you or to your off-shoulder knowing full well that you’re not allowed to hit the ball.

In this scenario, you must get out of the way for your teammate to come across the table and get to the ball. When playing on a stand sized ping pong table, this can be a challenging shot! But this is what makes doubles ping pong so much fun with family and friends!

The Most Common Ways To Win Points In Ping Pong

Winning a point in ping pong is fairly straightforward however there are a number of ways it can happen. You win a point in ping pong if your opponent:

  • doesn’t let the ball bounce on their side
  • touches the net or table with their non-racket hand
  • doesn’t hit the ball after it bounces on their side of the table 
  • misses the ball and it bounces off the table 
  • hits the ball back at you and it doesn’t hit your side of the table 
  • hits the net and the ball bounces back on their side of the table 

The Ping Pong Ready Position

Professional athletes in most sports use a common “ready stance.” This is usually a wide, low position with your knees bent and your feet placed about shoulder-width apart. Some pro table tennis players stand at an angle.

Right-handed players keep their right foot farther back, and lefties their left foot farther back. This makes your forehand stroke stronger and more accurate. 

Staying balanced and low makes it easier to see how the ball will bounce and helps you get into position more quickly. According to PongFit, a partner of USA Table Tennis, you need to keep your arms “relaxed but not limp.”

Keeping them in front of your body helps with your balance. You should keep your dominant hand in the middle and be prepared for either a backhand or forehand stroke. 

You can move around during the course of each game, but in between each strike, you should reset to that basic position! 

Table tennis player doing a serve, close-up

Common Ping Pong Terminology 

Every sport has its own jargon or slang terms, and the best way to feel like a real player is to know those words. Here are some basic ping pong terms to help you sound like someone who knows what they’re doing. 

  • Ping pong rackets are sometimes called “paddles” or “bats” instead, even though they look pretty different from a baseball bat!  A racket has two parts: the handle, where you grip it, and the blade, which is the round, flat surface you use to hit the ball.
  • A “game” is won by the first player to 11 points, or to have a two-point lead higher than 10 points. A “match” is an odd number of games, won by whoever wins more than half of them. 
  • Most people, right- or left-handed, hold the paddle and hit the ball on the paddle’s inside surface, so their palm and inner arm face the table. This is called a “forehand” shot. “Backhand” strikes are when you reach across your body and hit with the back of the paddle. If a ball goes far off to your non-dominant side and you can’t adjust in time to hit it normally, a backhand can save you the point. 
  • The “server” is the person set to serve the ball at any point in the game, while the “receiver” is the one who—you guessed it—receives the serve and fires it back. 
  • Good players can hit the ball while brushing it a little with their racket, so the ball has “spin” on the return, making it move and bounce unpredictably, so it’s harder to return. You can make your ball spin in different ways depending on how you move your racket. In contrast, “dead balls” have little to no spin. 
  • “Cross-court” shots are hit diagonally across the table. “Down the line” shots go parallel to one long edge of the table as they cross the net from one side to the other. 
  • “Drop shots” or “short” shots land very close to the net on your opponent’s side of the table. It’s a great trick when your opponent is standing too far back. On the other hand, “long” shots land very close to the far edge of the table and can throw off someone who can’t move quickly enough to return them. 
  • “Kill” shots are hit with such force that your opponent doesn’t have time to return them. You’ve got to have good aim to attempt a “kill” shot because it’s a lot easier to overshoot the table when you strike the ball that hard! 
  • In comparison, “lob” shots are hit very high, giving both players a chance to readjust. When one player is trying for lots of aggressive shots, the other can return with a lob to break up their momentum. 

Ping Pong Rules For Dummies – My Key Takeaways

Learning a new sport is always a challenge, but the great thing about ping pong is that nearly anyone can pick up a paddle and learn to play. All you need is a table, a net, two paddles, a ball, and a friend to play with.

And while the game is relatively easy to pick up and play, the rules are even easier.

The 5 most basic rules for ping pong are that the ball must bounce before being hit, the ball can’t bounce twice, the serve must bounce on each side, service “lets” are allowed, each player serve twice and the game is played to 11.

Whether it’s a party game or a fun family activity, ping pong is beloved worldwide for a reason: it’s fun, and the rules are easy.



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