Table Tennis Rules – Learning The Essentials

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If you’re a beginner or a casual player, then this guide on table tennis rules will go over the basics of the game, while also discussing some of the most common made-up rules of the game that many people surprisingly follow. Table tennis is a game that can provide hours of entertainment for the whole family, but if you want to start playing this game competitively, then learning the rules of the game is one of the best places to start. You’ll be surprised to learn about some of these rules. In many cases, adults have played the game as children but followed many made-up rules, mistakenly believing that these are the real rules of the game. If you’re not sure what rules are followed in a competition, or how the traditional game of table tennis is played, then you came to the right place.

Common Misconceptions

When you first start playing the game, you may hear a variety of conflicting rules, which can make learning how to play competitively a struggle. There are so many made-up rules that a beginner may feel overwhelmed when faced with a new player.

One of the most common misconceptions involves the diagonal serve. Many people mistakenly believe that you always have to serve diagonally in ping pong, just like with badminton and squash, but you don’t if you’re playing singles. If you’re playing doubles, then you will have to serve diagonally, from your right-hand half to the opposing player’s right-hand half.

If a serve hits the opposing player, the other player does not get a point. This is a common misconception among kids in school. If you serve the ball and it hits the other player, it doesn’t count as a point if it didn’t touch the table. You’ll simply need to reserve the ball.

A match is scored up to eleven points now, not twenty-one. Many older players are used to a round being played up to twenty-one points, but changes in the scoring system occurred back in 2001. Now, when you play a round in a competition, the game will go up to eleven points.

Tired of getting called out for hitting the ball around the net? So are a lot of people. While some players will call you out if your ball goes around the net, this is actually a legal move, although it can be a difficult shot to return. If you put a ball out wide, an opponent can return the ball around the net. In some cases, the ball may just roll on your side of the table and won’t even bounce. While rare, it can happen.

Here’s another rule that you’ll hear: a ball must cross the net a total of four times before you begin playing for serve. This is one rule that’s debated a lot. This is a made-up rule. When you’re playing in a competition, the server is determined by a coin toss, or it can be determined based on which hand you think the ball is in. If you want to play for serve then make sure you agree before you begin. However, a coin toss is a much easier way to go.

Learning the Basics


Below, you’ll find the basic rules put in place by the ITTF, although you don’t have to follow these for a game with the family. But if you’re considering playing competitively, then learning and following these rules can help you prepare for an upcoming match.


A serve must begin with the ball placed in an open hand. This will prevent the player from throwing it up with some spin on it. The ball should be thrown at least sixteen centimeters, vertically. This will prevent the player from serving it straight out of their hand and surprising their opponent.

The ball must be behind and above the table throughout the serve. This will prevent the player from getting any crazy angles while giving the opponent a decent chance of returning the ball.

After the ball has been thrown, the server must keep their other arm and hand out of the way to allow the receiver to clearly view the ball.

Rules for Doubles

The server must hit the ball diagonally, from their right hand to the opposing player’s right-hand-side. This will prevent the server from getting the opposing team scrambling for the shot.

A pair of doubles must hit the ball alternately, which will make the game more of a challenge. You won’t see any of the same front court hits that occur in regular tennis.

At the change of serve the previous receiver will become the new server and the partner of the old server will become the new receiver. This ensures that every player gets to hit and receive. After eight points have been reached then the cycle will begin all over again.

General Play

You’ll have a couple of serves before it’s the opposing player’s turn to serve the ball twice. In the past, it used to be five serves each. However, this changed back when the match points went from twenty-one points a match to eleven.

For tie-breaking matches, each player will get one serve each and must win two clear points.

If you’re playing the best of three, five, or seven, instead of just one set, then you’ll need to change ends after each round. This will ensure that each player has to experience the conditions on each side of the table. Players will also need to change ends when one player reaches five points in the last game of a match.

A let will be called if:

  • A good serve touches the net. This will ensure that the opposing player gets a chance to make a return.
  • The receiver isn’t ready for the serve and makes no attempt to hit the ball.
  • If the game is disturbed by something that’s outside of the control of the players. This will allow a person to replay the point if there is interference.

A point will be lost if:

  • The serve is missed
  • The serve is not returned
  • The ball hits the net
  • The ball goes off the table without making contact with the net

A player touches the table with their free hand during a game, they touch the net, or they move the table


Double teams, or a single player who first reaches eleven points in a match will win the match. However, you must win by a total of two points. A match is often determined by the best out of two to three games. When playing in an international championship, it will often be the best out of three to five games. Basically, if a player loses the first match it’s not a big deal.


Who makes the first serve of the game will be determined by a coin toss. If a player wins the coin flip they can choose to receive or serve from whichever end they like. After each match, they will alternate the ends. If there’s a tie and each player has one a game, then the players will change ends after one player has reached ten points in the final game.

Surprising Rules of the Game

The following rules tend to surprise even seasoned players:

  • You can legally double hit a ball
  • You will lose a point if you strike the ball twice in succession deliberately
  • At a competition, you’re allowed a total of two advertisements on the back of your shirt
  • A table’s playing surface can be made out of any type of material. However, the table must provide a uniform bounce of approximately twenty-three centimeters when a ball is dropped from a height of thirty centimeters. This rule is in place because indoor and outdoor ping pong tables consist of different types of materials since an outdoor table is made out of materials that are designed to handle the elements.
  • A table tennis paddle can be any weight, shape, or size. The paddle you use will solely be based on your personal preferences, so you can choose a uniquely designed paddle, and go with a heavier or lighter model, based on how you serve and which type can improve your performance. To learn more, click here to check out my ultimate ping pong paddle guide.
  • If one player is in a wheelchair and is playing against an able-bodied opponent, then the opposition must play by wheelchair rules. With wheelchair rules, the wheelchair receiver or server rules must apply.

Earning a Point and Legal Shots

You will earn a point if:

  • The opposing player is not able to return a shot
  • Your shot hits the boundary lines on the opponent’s side or the edge of the table
  • Should your ball go off the table, yet it lands on the opposing player’s paddle before it makes contact with the wall or floor, you’ll earn a point. While this rule may seem off, this rule is designed to prevent any volley play.

You’ll lose a point if:

  • You try to return the ball or you serve and you miss the ball
  • You hit the ball into the net and it comes back to you
  • You hit the ball too far or wide so that the first bounce hits the wall or floor
  • If you hit the ball before it has a chance to bounce on your side of the table
  • If the ball bounces a couple of times on your side of the table before you hit it
  • If you make contact with the net or touch or move the table.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know all about table tennis rules, how to earn a point, what will cause you to lose a point, and the common misconceptions many players have concerning the rules in a tournament, you’re ready to start training for your first competition. These rules should be memorized and practiced at each training session, so you can become familiar with what type of gameplay is acceptable, and how you can lose a point. I hope this guide has helped to clear up many of the common misconceptions you may have had about how the game should be played and helps to guide your future training sessions so you feel fully prepared come game day.