Just because an idiom like “the more, the merrier” exists, doesn’t mean that we should constantly get our entire tribe involved in every single activity.

It’d be chaos.

I mean, the idiom “too many cooks spoil the broth” exists for an equally valid reason, doesn’t it?

I guess what these two sayings are trying to tell us is that we should strive to find the ideal number of people for each activity we enjoy.

But how much is enough? And how much is too much? Can we even answer these riddles, or will they frustrate us forever?

Thankfully, for certain activities, we don’t have to ponder and speculate too much, the answer has already been figured out and, in the case of ping pong, etched into stone as RULES!

So let’s get official: for table tennis, two is the minimum number of participants and four is the maximum.

Look, I don’t wanna be a narc over here.

I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to live their dreams and experiment with other numbers of players in their ping pong adventure.

Why not try three for a change? Or maybe 11! Just don’t expect to find an ITTF-sanctioned tournament that shares your freewheelin’ enthusiasm.

The Benefit of Playing Ping Pong Doubles

Let’s get serious though, playing doubles is a great way to boost the social aspect of ping pong.

The unique rules (we’ll get to these) also mean that players get to change things up a little – a new challenge to enjoy once they get a little tired of playing the exact same format for years on end.

While I totally admit that I prefer playing a game of singles, there’s no denying that adding another two players adds a whole bunch of layers to the excitement, competitiveness, and fun of table tennis.

It also takes care of the irritation of waiting for your turn to play. As much as I enjoy watching two table tennis players of equal skill battling it out, I’d prefer if it wasn’t at my expense. I’m a busy person and I’d much rather be playing, thank you very much.

Another advantage of getting good at doubles is that it offers another avenue into tournaments. If you’ve got a partner you like playing ping pong with, and the two of you start tearing it up, you’ve doubled(!) your chances of grabbing some silverware at the next competition you enter.

Ping Pong Doubles Rules

Good news! You don’t have to relearn everything there is to learn about table tennis if you want to get into doubles. Spacial and sequencing constraints aside, it doesn’t differ that much from singles.

If you want to brush up on your knowledge of singles ping pong rules, head on over to our detailed breakdown of this topic.

The Serve and Return

Doubles table tennis strives to keep things as balanced as possible. The game does everything it can to ensure that single player vs player matchups don’t dominate the match and that each of the four people at the table plays as big a role in the result as possible.

In terms of serving and returning the serve, this balance is enforced quite strictly.

First things first, in doubles table tennis you still serve the ball the same way you would in singles, with one major exception. You have to serve diagonally across the table and land the ball in the designated receiver’s quadrant.

That’s right, no serving to the quadrant that’s directly opposite from you.

Furthermore, the quadrant that the service is taken from is always the one that’s to the server’s right-hand side. This means they will always serve to the opposing quadrant that’s on their left-hand side.

This never changes throughout the match. Always serve from your right-hand side of the table to your left-hand side of the table.

As with singles ping pong, the serving player gets two serves in their turn before service is passed on to the opponents. Both of these serves are to the same opposing player – no switching the receiver in the middle of a service turn, with one exception we’ll cover later.

As the game gets underway, the player who was the receiver in the previous service always becomes the server in the next service turn.

This can get quite complicated so it’s best to simplify the sequence switching rules as follows:

  • If you’re uncertain whose turn it is to serve, just remember who the previous player to receive the service was. It’s THEIR turn to serve now.
  • If you’re uncertain whose turn it is to receive, just remember that it must be the partner of the previous player who served.

If these rules are followed, each player will serve to the same opponent throughout a game.

At the start of a new game, the team who received first in the previous game will serve first. The player who received first in the previous game will automatically be the server and they will serve to the player who served first in the previous game.

Court Switching

To make the match-up even more balanced (and confusing), the rules of ping pong stipulate that teams must swap table ends at predetermined intervals.

Teams switch ends at the start of every new game and again once one of the two teams scores five points. The opposing team’s score isn’t taken into consideration when the mid-game switch happens. It’s as simple as switching ends as soon as one team reaches five points.

On top of this, in the final game of a match (the third game if the teams are playing “best of three” or the fifth if they’re playing “best of five”) the players won’t only switch ends when one of the teams reaches five points, the receiving player will also be switched.

So, in the final game of a match, when the five-point-change-of-ends happens, each player’s “designated receiver” for that game switches also.

Fixing Serve-Sequence and Court-Switching Mistakes

As you can imagine, remembering to apply all of these serve-sequence and court-switching rules can be quite a challenge. Even having a dedicated umpire doesn’t protect a match from the likelihood that one of these rules will be overlooked.

Fortunately, the ITTF was pretty chilled about this eventuality when they wrote the official rules of ping pong. Maybe they were having a good day. Maybe they were just so exhausted of fielding complaints from players and umpires about these insanely complex rules.

Regardless, the official ITTF handbook states that, should an umpire or the players become aware of a mistake in the sequence in which the ball is served and received, or the ends at which the teams are playing, they should simply correct it without any impact on the score.

That’s right. The error is simply fixed as if it never happened. Carry on. Nothing to see here. Just some human beings failing to remember a really complex set of rules. Mistakes happen, let’s carry on with our lives.

Important note: This rather zen approach to overlooking errors ONLY applies to serve sequences and court switching. No other errors are overlooked.

Gameplay Sequence and Scoring Points

More than any other rule, THIS is the one that makes ping pong doubles so much fun.

During a point, the two team-mates must alternate between striking the ball. If one player serves, and the ball is returned, the server cannot play the ball again – they must leave it for their partner.

To keep it simple, once you hit the ball, step back and let your partner hit the next shot. If you fail to do this, your opponents score a point.

Aside from the “gameplay sequence error” mentioned above, there’s no difference between singles and doubles when it comes to winning and losing a point.

The Coin Toss

A the start of a doubles match, the players choose the serving team by tossing a coin. When luck has appointed the serving team, they can choose which one of the two players will serve first.

At the same time, the receiving team decides who will be receiving. This is the only time when the serving/receiving sequence is not determined by the current state of the game or match.

Ping Pong Doubles Equipment

The ITTF only has requirements for the table surface markings used in a doubles match. The rules governing every other piece of equipment, including the net, paddles, and ball, are the exact same for doubles as for singles.

The table marking stipulations state that a doubles match must be played on a table with a 3 mm-wide line running down the center of the table, parallel to the table’s side-lines.

If the ball is served and it touches the center-line, the serve is deemed legal. This is the only time that the center-line affects gameplay; after the serve, players can hit the ball to any part of the table.

Just to reiterate this point, because it’s often misunderstood. As with singles ping pong, the entire playing surface of the table is fair game once the service is over. The ball only has to be struck diagonally across the table when it is served.

Some Final Thoughts

Doubles ping pong is a lot of fun. Yeah, the rules can be a bit of a headache to apply, but once you “get” them, they’re actually pretty easy to remember. Plus there are four of you to share this load. One of you is bound to spot and mention an error.

One of the main reasons I try to play doubles as often as possible is because I’ve found that it reinvigorates my enjoyment of the game. Especially if I’ve been playing a lot of singles against the same player.

So try not to be overwhelmed by the rules. Get some friends together and enjoy a brand new way of playing our beloved game.

Have fun!