Table tennis rules are not that complicated. The basic rules boil down to this:
Matches are any odd number of games – 3, 5 or 7. Most tournaments play up to 5 games (best 3 out of 5), but even at those tournaments some matches like finals are played to 7 games. Players change sides after every game and in the last game after any player scored 5 points.
Games are played to 11 points. If there is a tie at 10:10 you need to win by two points e.g. 13:11.
Servers change every 2 points. If 10:10 is reached servers change after each point.
For the serve to be legal you need to:
- show the ball in the palm of your open hand. The ball rests in the palm not on the fingers.
- toss the ball at least 6 inches off your palm (6 inches is the height of the net)
- strike the ball as it is coming down so that it first bounces on your side of the table and then on your opponent’s.
- when striking the ball, the point of contact of the racket with the ball must be beyond the end of the table and above table surface.
In singles you can serve from anywhere to anywhere. In doubles you must serve so that the ball bounces first on your right half of the table and it lands on your opponent’s right half of the table. The halves are indicated by the dividing line marked in the middle of the table.
If during the serve the ball touches the net and goes over and lands on the table the serve is repeated. There is no limit on the number of repeats. In doubles, if the ball touches the net AND lands on the right half of your opponent’s side it is repeated. If it lands on the left side your doubles team loses a point. When the serve needs to be repeated it is declared a LET.
Here are the umpire hand signals used to show what was wrong with the serve introduced in 2016,
Scoring the point:
You score the point if:
- your opponent’s serve lands in the net (doesn’t clear it) or it misses the table on your side. In doubles if it doesn’t meet criteria described above.
- your opponent misses the ball or his return misses your side of the table.
If you want to know more, the official USATT (USA Table Tennis) rules are published here. The rules are 10 pages long but you can skip the sections describing what is a legal racket and the types of advertising allowed on clothing.
Becoming a Scorekeeper
There is no official training for score keepers. The difference between the score keeper is that the score keeper can’t make calls regarding conduct of the match – e.g. if the server was legal. He/she is limited to updating the score on the score board and recording the match results on the paper score sheet (match slip). However you still need to know the rules so the players are awarded the points per table tennis rules.
Becoming an Umpire
To become an officially certified umpire in USA you need to take a test administered by USATT. There are 4 levels of umpires: Club, Regional, National and International. There are also Blue Badge International Umpires for very experienced umpires. There is no official training for umpires in USA either.
You must be a member of USATT to become an umpire. If you are 17 or younger you will need to pay $25 for annual membership. 18 and older pay $75 for membership. There is no minimum age for becoming umpire. If you know how to write and know the rules you can become and umpire.
The test itself costs $10, but it includes a free umpire kit (see below). To start the process you need to contact Andrew Horn at USATT – 719-866-4583 x 4 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew is responsible for ratings too. Pay over the phone with a credit card and he will e-mail you the test shortly. You can take as much time as you need to answer the questions. The test for club umpire consist of 50 true or false and multiple choice questions. It is an OPEN BOOK test. It is best to print USATT rules and the test and take your time to answer the questions. The questions can be tricky, and the rules are written in a very concise language so take your time to understand them and answer the questions correctly. Then transfer your answers back in the word document so you can e-mail the test to Mr. Wendell Dillon who grades the tests. You need to answer 75% of questions correctly to pass the test. Mr. Dillon will write back to you with a critique of your test explaining questions you got wrong. If you passed, you will be immediately entered into the database of certified umpires and you can start your umpiring carrier.
To advance to the next level you need to umpire 26 matches – 5 of which must be doubles matches. You can only umpire 6 matches per USATT sanctioned tournament. Non sanctioned tournaments don’t count. You record the matches you umpired in the little yellow book (Match Record Card) that you got with your umpire kit and have them singed by a tournament referee to confirm them.
After you reached your 26 matches and 1 year has passed since you took the exam, you can take a Regional Umpire evaluation which is administered at a major 4 star tournament like US Open.
The official USATT clothes for umpires are: navy blue jacket, light blue shirt, red tie, khaki pants, black shoes, black socks and black belt.
During our sanctioned tournaments we use this scoreboard made by Killerspin.
- net gauge for checking net height
- match record card (book)
- umpire badge
- yellow warning card
- time out card
- red card
- coin for deciding who will serve first or choose side of table to play on
The ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) rules from which USATT rules derive are published here.
There is a very good manual for tournament officials (referees and umpires) published by ITTF. It is titled ITTF Match Officials Handbook. It has useful tips for umpires on hand signals, how to use score board, how to determine if the serve is legal, dress code etc. Especially useful is the ‘Appendix A – Recommended Procedure for Match Officials’ starting on page 23, which describes how to run a match from start to end.
This article explaining how to enforce legal serve rules appeared in November/December 2011 USA Table Tennis magazine.
Here is a video of an actual table tennis match so you can see how the points are awarded. This match is between Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus (black shirt) and Xu Xin (red shirt) of China at the 2013 World Cup.
WARNING: There are a few points that are not shown and the score is updated by 2 points. Perhaps the serve went into the net or the receiver missed the table on the return making it a very short and not very interesting point. This video is also not showing the breaks between the points (1 minute) and warmup (2 minute). The pauses between the points are cut down to minimum. The video is only 9 minutes long but the whole match with breaks might have lasted 30- 40 minutes.