A descent into Breckenridge’s ping-pong lair | SummitDaily.com

A descent into Breckenridge’s ping-pong lair

Stu Dearnley
Special to the Daily

It's a matter of public knowledge that Colorado is the least-obese state in the Union. And Summit County, as the "Playground of the West," is home to the least obese of this un-obese demographic. Summit's where the rest of the state comes to take a break from their everyday exercising by exercising considerably harder.

To outsiders like myself, these outings often look foolhardy, if not suicidal. Where else would someone stand at the bottom of a sheer rock cliff of Zion-ic proportions and think, "I am going up that." Perhaps Utah — where Zion State Park is found — but Utah is lousy on numerous levels, including (but not limited to) the impossibility of finding a passable margarita with which to celebrate the scaling of a 10,000-foot sheer rock wall.

Summit is home to four resorts featuring nearly 10,000 total skiable acres. Though the whole county is only 619 square miles, it miraculously hosts half-a-bazillion miles of hiking and biking trails — a fact that's so undeniable there's no point in checking it. Plus, there's a giant lake that no one's allowed to swim in, which only pumps them up to explore the options that are permitted, which is why the average Summit 8-year-old kicks 2.5 times more booty than the average New Yorker.

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And it's no wonder we're so lean and outdoorsy, given that so many of us have ping-pong to keep us in shape. No doubt the recreation centers removed their table tennis tables to ease congestion and bring traffic back to the elliptical machines.

What's a sportsman to do? Glad you asked: Every Tuesday evening at the stroke of sometime after 7:30 p.m., Summit's most elite athletes convene in The Mine — Breckenridge's local-est underground bar — to compete for the coveted 24-carat-paper prize known only as "the $20 bar tab."

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Despite these high stakes, one feels the atmospheric camaraderie immediately upon walking through The Mine's subterranean door. Everyone in the bar knows each other, which means it's only a matter of moments before everyone in the bar knows its newcomers. Manager/bartender Ryan Bernal says, "We're like the welcome center of bars. We pride ourselves on giving tourists the local perspective, offering advice on trails, ski runs, or restaurants."

Ryan's wife and bar co-manager, Jessie, says, "We're very open here. There is no discrimination. Someone once posted a comment online that we were a gay bar, presumptively to hurt our business, but it didn't bother us a bit. It ended up being great for business because we're the only connection on Google between gay bar and Breckenridge, so it brought us a lot of traffic, and we were happy to have them. They're courteous, get the dance floor going and tip well."

Since moving to Summit County, I've noticed that claims of being "local" are hard to authenticate. Word on the street is that you've got to live here for a decade before you qualify as a resident, and it's easy to see why. The county is stratified between scenic-overlook vacation homes that sit vacant 360 days of the year, and single-bathroom townhomes that lack covered parking, if not couch-surfing roommates to de-ice the January windshields.

The local-ness of this local bar was made apparent in the half-hour before the tournament's slated start-time and its first actual match. Ryan's phone was a flurry of activity:

— Anton called with regrets owing to the fact that his car had broken down.

— DJ Billy would not be in attendance because "he took off on a whim to some flower-power thing."

— Levanie Kechkhuashvili was expected not to attend, owing to the occupational hazard of having an occupation, yet showed up anyway.

Yet new talent would fill in these gaps, and when Beef showed up slightly after the bracket was made, the bracket was quickly extended to accommodate him.

Every day The Mine features both a $2 beer and a $3 beer. On this particular Tuesday, Guinness tallboy cans were $2 and Dale's Pale Ale was $3. These were far and away the evening's most popular drinks. The first Tuesday of every month is sponsored by Coors Light, which is served for free. Unsurprisingly, this is their week's most popular event. Twizzlers and pretzels were out on the bar, and Ryan says, "Sometimes we give out pizza when (Extreme Pizza, which is upstairs) mess up an order." The ping-pong table rests atop a pool table, with one side too close to a wall and the other too close to a column that supports the weight of Extreme Pizza. Though the pole is unremarkable excepting its location, the wall has ridged tin running around its base. When jumping back to create space for a kill shot, one often kicks the tin to create a most-satisfying sound effect a la Bruce Lee movies of yore.

While other sports offer sissified indulgences like matching rackets and ample room to compete, The Mine's athletes forego warm-ups and equitable table sides and get right to what matters — namely, scoring 21 points faster than their opponents. From the player's perspective, small backswings are crucial, and deep shots with topspin are almost always winners.

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Anyone in The Mine would quickly tell you that Breckenridge transplant Julien Lindsey is the court's reigning champ. Julien learned the game on the mean tables of Mannheim, Germany, where ping-pong was a part of his elementary school's curriculum. "Here they play four-square, there we played rundlauf," which translates to "round-run" — a grueling game of elimination in which youngsters must run to the opposite side of the table between each shot.

When I first met him, Julien was the only bar patron rooting against the United States in the women's World Cup soccer semifinals. He was also the only patron sporting an American flag fanny pack. Our ladies trounced Germany 2-0, thus dashing the hopes of his friends, family and forefathers, and Julien was quick to harness his discontentment and take it out on his wholly witting opponents. The tournament is double-elimination, yet Julien did not lose a single game, marching his way toward victory with sneaky serves and a surgeon's control of the limited space with which he had to operate.

The players who know enough to know the rules abided by them unfailingly. For example, as per Hoyle, the ball must drop 6 inches prior to the serve. This prevents players from using their hands to force dirty spin into the ball. The layman may not know this rule, but then the layman doesn't know how to create dirty spin, either — so no one complains when novices T-ball their serves.

The one exception to Hoyle is that the loser-to-be is given the "sucker-serve" at game point. Though this is an aberration of Forrest Gump league rules, it's made slightly more palatable by the concession that they can lose the point on their serve. (If that distinction went over your head, don't sweat it. Just believe that I am a rule purist, and even I think this to be acceptable.)

Indeed, good sportsmanship is the norm. After Levonie lost five points in a row, Julien, who wasn't playing, called a time out.

"Levonie — stop. Have some beer. You need some aim juice."

Play resumed after both competitors had rehydrated. All disparaging comments were directed at one's own play, every game ended in handshakes, hugs and high-fives. Players often complimented their opponents' nice shots, and in the few instances where scores were contested, players were correcting the score to the benefit of their opponents.

The disparity of talent was large. Anyone who'd not drank through his/her faculties could have guessed who'd be the last two competing for the $20 bar tab. After a few fun-filled, round robin hours, even the bartenders came from behind the bar to see the final match. When the dust settled and the tin stopped reverberating, the town-favorite German had reconfirmed the dominance that has become his signature.

The Mine is cash-only, though there's an ATM machine in the building. If you're among the local majority who is aggravated by ATM fees, plan ahead and arrive flush with cash. Alternatively, bring enough money to leave a tip, beat Julien in back-to-back games, and be certain not to drink more than 10 beers at $2 a pop.