The Skunk Rule in Table Tennis

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One of the most colorful "rules" in table tennis is called the skunk rule. Sometimes called the "mercy rule," this regulation actually isn't an official rule at all.

The Official Rules of Table Tennis

The sport of table tennis, sometimes called ping pong, is governed by the International Table Tennis Federation, which publishes an official rule book and updates it on a regular basis. These regulations apply to nearly every aspect of the game, from the dimensions of the table to the many different ways a point can be scored.

However, nowhere in the rulebook will you find "skunk rule" or "mercy rule." All the ITTF has to say on the subject of how a game ends is this: "A game shall be won by the player or pair first scoring 11 points unless both players or pairs score 10 points, when the game shall be won by the first player or pair subsequently gaining a lead of 2 points."

The only other instances when a game may be called are when a player is injured during play or is ejected from the game by officials, usually for gross rules violations or inappropriate behavior. In other words, there is no such thing as the skunk rule in the official rules of table tennis. 

The Informal Skunk Rule

There's no official history of how the skunk rule came into being. The word "skunking" is a somewhat outdated slang term that athletes in many sports use to describe the act of humiliating an opponent by running up the score. It's considered poor manners by pros.

The mercy rule in table tennis is strictly a byproduct of amateur play that is based on scoring. USA Table Tennis, the organization governing official play in the U.S., publishes basement rules for home play that includes a skunk rule. USATT defines the skunk rule like this: "Scores of 7-0, 11-1, 15-2, and 21-3 are game-winning 'skunks.' As if being 'skunked' isn't bad enough, the skunkee may also be required to perform push-ups or drink two beers."

These are not official tournament rules by any stretch, as the tongue-in-cheek tone suggests. But the idea of a mercy rule is common in many sports in an unofficial capacity, promoting the concept of fair play and good sportsmanship. You'll find mercy rules in intramural leagues and amateur competitions, all of which follow the same general scoring guidelines as the USATT describes.