The Santa Rosa System

- for running a table tennis club -
by Scott Gordon

I have long claimed that winner stays is a poor way to run a table tennis club. Yet most clubs in the U.S. are run this way, and people often defend it by saying that it's "easy" and that it "runs itself". This webpage describes another system that also is easy, runs itself, and corrects the problems that winner stays can cause.

First off, what's wrong with "winner stays"? Well, here are some of my complaints:

It is almost impossible in a "winner stays" club for two specific people who want to play each other, to do so. It requires one person to win on a table, then fend off challenges until his partner gets a turn to challenge him. Imagine the difficulty if two very weak players wanted to play against each other (as they surely would want to)? I consider that a grossly unacceptable feature of a club.

Others have pointed out other shortcomings. For clubs in the United States to grow, newcomers must be retained and encouraged to improve, not discouraged, humiliated, and made to feel like they sit around waiting and wasting their time in an atmosphere of nose-in-the-air people who think they're pros. And whether that is an accurate description or not, that's exactly the atmosphere that most of the clubs in the U.S. exhude! We need a system where the winner does not stay.

SO... what do we do about it? Well, there are several systems that can be employed that I believe are better. One is to use organized round robins. In fact, that is my favorite system! HOWEVER, not every club has the luxury of someone willing to run round robins week after week. This webpage describes a system that doesn't require nearly as much effort as round robins, and is also very good.

NOTE - This system is intended primarily for clubs in small-to-medium-sized cities. I'm not sure it would work in a large metropolitan area like New York City or Los Angeles. I'm also not sure it would work in a club that has several rooms. Finally, it's not intended for clubs that want to be "elite" or serving primarily very high level players.

I am calling this the "Santa Rosa" system because it is the system I used to run the Santa Rosa Table Tennis Club for 6 years. I have since left Santa Rosa, and so I cannot say whether they are still using the same system. I do know that the club is still big and healthy.

Starting a Successful Club

I formed a table tennis club in Santa Rosa (California) in 1996, with one table in a small room in a church. I was the only member. For the first month, our meetings had between 1 and 4 attendees, but I didn't give up. Within 3 years, we had expanded to 12 tables and were drawing 50-70 players each meeting, two days a week with round robins one day each week and open play on the other day. This was in a medium-sized city that did not previously have a table tennis club. Over half of our players were novices (less than 1000 USATT rating), and they came week after week. How did we do it?


  1. affiliated with the USATT
  2. created a webpage
  3. one of our members got USATT CLUB COACHING certification
  4. invented a system for running the meetings (described below).
    This is very important. For a nominal fee, affiliation will do most of the advertising you will need. These days, people find table tennis clubs by browsing the internet. Most will stumble onto the USATT webpage. Affiliating provides them a link to your phone number, and your club's website (which you have also created). I never advertised any other way. Affiliation also gives you access to FREE $1M liability insurance, through the USATT, which many facilities require before they'll let you rent space.

    Even a simple webpage is fine. At least it should have your schedule, location, and a phone number for people with questions. We also put our weekly club standings on it (trivial to maintain if used in conjunction with the system described below). People love to see their name in print, and love to be able to brag to their friends, "I'm the #4 player in Santa Rosa!". And, as will be shown later, the webpage not only encourages people to come, it also encourages them to keep coming. In a way, it's part of the system!

    None of our players were interested in giving lessons. However, having a certified USATT coach in attendance allowed us to mention that on our webpage, which gave us credibility. It also gave us credibility when we went to the city looking for a bigger facility - it made us look a lot more serious than average people expect from a "ping pong" club. In fact, I was later able to start a table tennis class at the local University... they weren't interested until I told them that I was a certified USATT coach. They were shocked and impressed that there was such a thing!

    All of the above effort is for nothing if people come and have a lousy experience. We table tennis players sometimes pride ourselves as having been lousy at first, but kept trying despite being humiliated, until we got good. This doesn't work for most people. Most beginners come to clubs, get shelacked, and leave, curiosity satiated. A good system is more likely to make them want to come back because they had a good time, rather than being humiliated. We need a system where the winner does not stay. So now I will describe a system that can do all those things.


  • STEP 1 - Make a Challenge Board This is easy. I recommend getting a 1'x2' piece of wood, such as a replacement shelf from a hardware store like OSH. Put about 50 nails in it, in 3 or 4 columns, something like 15 or 20 per column. Number each nail (peg) 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. up to 50 (or whatever). You now have something that looks like this:

    Next, buy a box of blank pegboard disks. You can buy these in any office supply store. For each player in the club, write their name (nicely) on a disc with a felt-tipped pen. Put the discs on the nails in approximate order of playing strength. Your challenge board now looks like this:

  • STEP 2 - Bring an 8x11 pad of paper, and a working pen. You will need them to keep a list of the players who want to play. Whenever a player is idle and wants to play, they add their name to the bottom of the list. when their name comes up, they cross their name off the list and go play.

  • STEP 3 - Post the Club Rules. I printed them up on an 8x11 sheet of paper, and glued it to a stiff cardboard backing. Each week I put the challenge board and the rules next to each other on a display stand, next to the pad of paper. The club then runs itself! Well, Ok - you need to know THE RULES. here they are:


    Notice the following:
  • If you don't show up, you'll gradually creep down - because people below you will challenge people above you.
  • Players will need to attend regularly if they want to hold their rank.
  • Everyone plays equally - winning and losing have no effect on when you play... it's first come, first served.
  • People can play anyone they want - they are not restricted to playing a "winner".
  • People really can play anyone they want. Players quickly learn that if they really want to play a particular person, they simply wait their turn... then, if the person they want to play is busy, they delay until that person is available. Thus, you can play anyone you want as soon as you both are available and it's one person's turn.

    Here is the sheet of RULES that I posted next to the Challenge Board:

    There are a few more minor things that I suggest for helping newcomers (and everyone for that matter) experience a positive, friendly atmosphere:

    Once a month we would run a "fun" tournament, just to break things up. Some of the events we did were: doubles tournaments, "King of the Hill", "Brazilian Doubles", handicap, "Canadian Singles", "wrong hand", etc. The players would often groan when I'd call the event (they tend to rebel against change), but within 10 minutes were happily into it.

    Advantages of using a challenge board, rather than ratings

    Another comment about the challenge board system... a modest first-timer may prefer to start at the bottom and work their way up. However, some of the basement hotshots might think they are better than that, so I let them challenge anyone they want to get on the board. However, I tell them if they do that, then they don't actually get placed onto the board until they beat someone. They'll probably then start scanning the room looking for someone they think they can beat, and challenging that person. If they lose, and/or if they look frustrated or dejected, I set their disk on the lowest peg, and suggest them someone I think they can beat. (usually by then one of the weak players will have already asked to play them).


    p.s. - On round-robin night, we used the rankings on the challenge board rather than ratings. If anyone is curious how we did that, I could post that later as well.

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