Clad only in a faded T-shirt and green boxers, Delta Kappa Epsilon President Peter Pacelli ’07 looks tired sitting on a couch in his fraternity house. He lets long pauses slip between questions and answers. But when it comes to Tang, the drinking game DKE has sponsored for decades, Pacelli’s enthusiasm shines through.
“This competition is an integral part of Yale’s social scene,” he says. “It’s an exciting time.”
Pacelli and the other members of the storied fraternity have been planning Tang for months, and it is “one of the only things we plan all semester,” DKE member Alex Hetherington ’06 said. This Sunday, Yale’s oldest and biggest drinking game will go forth as it does every year. Now DKE’s biggest party of the year, the competition has come a long way since its origins as a “Gentlemen’s drinking engagement” decades ago.
A staple of every spring reading week, Tang is immensely popular with the student body. Held in DKE’s backyard, it always draws a large crowd. When asked to give an estimate of the body count each year, Pacelli pauses.
“Hey Sprole!” he shouts. “How many people usually come?”
“‘Bout a thousand,” Frank Sprole ’07 answers from another room.
“About 1,000,” Pacelli says, turning back. “We’ve got a big backyard.”
The event’s name is a play on the Tyng Cup, which is awarded every year to the college that wins the intramural competition. The game itself was born out of trying times for Silliman and Timothy Dwight colleges, Tang’s only original participants. Year after year, they could be counted on to finish at the bottom of the Tyng Cup standings. In response, they created a game at which they might excel.
Tang quickly gained a following and a reputation, and soon a tradition was born. Hetherington is continuing a legacy himself: His father was a Tang competitor in 1964.
Although the competition itself has moved off campus, the rules have remained unchanged throughout Tang’s history. It is essentially a relay race. Team members, fielded from every college, line up in front of two eight-ounce glasses of beer each. After the start is declared, they go down the line, chugging one glass down as quick as they can. Once it’s the captain’s turn, he downs both glasses and sends the race back down the line. Whoever finishes first gets a golden keg of beer. But the rules are rigid and elaborate. This year, they go on for almost two pages — “Minor wets: small amount of beer on face, neck or chest (or a light streamer) — 0.5 second penalty.”
In 1958, the News dubbed Tang “A Gentlemen’s Drinking Engagement,” listing it among “the unforgettable and inalienable traditions which have glorified the Yale campus.”
Peter Kennard ’68, who was in TD, said he remembered other forms of training that went on.
“The training did you in,” he said. “It left you pretty wiped out every night from drinking a ton of beer.”
Kennard said students had to compete to even get on the team, and then they would practice heavily at least a week before the event in the TD basement. And while Tang attracted a huge following in the two participating colleges, Kennard said its popularity never extended west of College Street.
Those were glory years for TD. Walt Zorkers ’68 said the team won Tang every year he was at Yale, including the two years he led the team to victory. As for the source of his success, Zorkers said it was simply a matter of skill.
“I’d say faster drinking technique,” he said. “This sport does not require as much dedication as other sports. It’s less dedication and more technique.”
Zorkers said that on average, his players could gulp a glass down in one second.
But the good times had to end sooner or later, and in a year no one seems to quite remember, Tang was banished from the residential colleges. Pacelli speculated that it was because of a crackdown on drinking by the administration. McCarthy said an alum from the Class of 1986 told him Tang was kicked off campus because Connecticut raised the drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1983, leaving the hands of residential college deans tied.
In any case, DKE took up the event and expanded it. Now, all residential colleges field Tang teams to duke it out. They gather in DKE’s backyard, a band plays and the relay starts.
Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said that because the fraternity is off campus, the administration has no oversight of its parties.
One byproduct of the evolution of both the competition and the University has been the addition of women’s teams to the contest. Tang is now split by gender, and among the colleges, Calhoun has consistently fielded a winning team — so much so that there is a Facebook group dedicated to their prowess. Ashley Ponce ’08 said there is a word-of-mouth recruiting process that goes on every year to continue the legacy.
“It’s not really publicized,” she said. “Older girls ask around and people find out. Freshmen have come up to us asking to be on it, and we say we’ll put them on the list.”
Mindful of last year’s noise complaint, Pacelli said the frat has made efforts this year to smooth things over with DKE neighbors, even inviting them to participate.
While its status as a “gentlemen’s” drinking game is long gone, DKE members said Tang has only become better.
Kevin McCarthy ’08, the fraternity’s alumni liaison, said that among the graduates he has heard from, “the general feeling is that it’s the last great college memory for these guys.”
Pacelli said he is confident that this year’s event will exceed expectations. But he said he was nervous about a few things.
“I’m just a little worried about the performance of Silliman College,” he said, suggesting that even the most stable traditions have a way of leaving their founders in the dust.