If Jose Mora is lithe, lanky, elegant Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki, then Pedro Otero is power hitter Hideki Matsui. All honed their skills playing professionally abroad, then emerged as dominant “rookies” on the international scene. Unbelievably, Otero competed in only four world championships, finishing second in 1998, 1999, and 2000, and finishing fifth in 2001. It is a masterfully short career, and Pedro has probably the highest average finish-per-event in air hockey history. Known for his rock-solid defense, and uniquely powerful (and difficult to defend) right-wall-over, Pedro lived in the competitive shadow of his friend and fellow countryman Jose Mora, who edged him out in three successive tournaments.
We traveled to Madrid to speak with Pedro back in the summer of 2004. The footage was never used in the film, but we wanted to publish a short excerpt of the interview and wish him well.
WOTP: Can you tell me how you got started?
PEDRO: I began playing in the city of Caracas in Venezuela in 1994. I was seventeen years old, and I began playing with some friends. We played our games at Arcade City, which is where we played for many years. Over time, more people joined us. My normal practice partner was Jose Mora. We spent a lot of time practicing together. I can say that our levels were equal because of our consistent practice. We practiced very often, practically every day, and that helped us reach a level that allowed us to travel in 1998.
WOTP: How did that all come about?
PEDRO: In 1998 Jose and I decided to travel to the international tournament in Santa Cruz, California. Tim Weissman helped us in our adventure –- to find some manner to travel to the United States. He made a collection of money amongst the players over there. And he facilitated ticketing information and things like that. I can say that if it were not for him, I believe that we would never have been able to go.
But we still had to embark on a 79-hour one-way bus trip once we arrived in the United States, without knowing, really, what expectations we had for winning, nor having been able to compare or contrast or playing level with the players there. I realize it was a stupid thing to do, an odyssey based more than anything on youth. But in reality, I’m sure neither Jose nor I regret it. And the fruits of this [Jose and Pedro finished first and second place] demonstrate that it was worth the effort.
WOTP: Were there style differences that allowed you succeed against the US players?
PEDRO: I believe that our style is different because in Venezuela we had many more players to compete against – the player base in Caracas was larger than any other city in America, except maybe Houston. There was more of a variety of rivals, which is why I think our style had to be much more complete. We could not just mold ourselves to the characteristics of one player. We had to have a game that was more compact and as complete as possible.
When I beat Tim Weissman in the semi-finals, I can say that is the biggest moment that I have lived inside of air hockey. And one of the best moments of my life, without a doubt. I can still remember that moment, everything that surrounded it, how I got to that moment. I can say that although I was beginning my career in air hockey, it was the culminating moment as well.
WOTP: How did you end up in Spain?
PEDRO: In the year 2001 I was trying to go live in the United States, because the situation in Venezuela wasn’t adequate. Andy Yevish helped me a lot. He was very helpful. Lamentably, in the end, things could not be. But I am still very grateful to him.
My family members and I decided to come to Madrid, but there is really only air hockey in one city in Spain, which is Barcelona. Generally, this isn’t very good for me because it is about 600 kilometers away. In all sincerity, it was very hard to stop practicing air hockey so much after eight years of uninterrupted play, but there came a moment when I had to recognize that life has other priorities.
WOTP: Do you miss it?
PEDRO: Truthfully, air hockey has given me many good moments, some of the best moments in my life. It has helped me feel that I can attain what I set out to do. In some ways I feel empty having left air hockey. But if were up to me –- under ideal circumstances –- I would have continued playing for the rest of my life.
Air hockey is a sport that teaches you the skills to better yourself in life. And for me, it has helped me realize myself as a person. Others I have played with have made the same comment –- that it’s extremely fun and competitive, and you enrich yourself as a person while playing it.
But one of the best things about air hockey is that you become like a small family, and always maintain contact. We always know about each other. And wherever you go, other air hockey players will know you are there and seek you out. It is something like a chemical between us, between all of us who have played. And that is something special.
By Barbara DeGrande
Director Eric D. Anderson has documented a fast-paced, quirky sport; the unique individuals who are passionate about the sport; and its questionable future.
Eric D. Anderson, himself a one-time nationally rated air hockey player, puts his experience behind the camera to use in documenting the intense, little-lauded sport of air hockey in this, his first feature film. Like the sport itself, Anderson’s film is intense and offbeat, using antique stills and videos interspersed with stills and videos of the players in their younger days, some history of the sport including its NASA origins, and scenes of video arcades filled with aging mid-lifers pursuing their youthful dreams of success in a sport of their passion.
As arcades themselves begin disappearing, losing out to the burgeoning of computer and video games, these anachronistic advocates of a dying sport look at what is possible for the future of air hockey. Anderson’s film is always respectful of the sincerity of the air hockey advocates and the sport itself, yet spares none of the troubling aspects of the sport and its future.
Those who are invested in air hockey and its tournaments are a unique group of people, many with nicknames like The Wolf, The Juggernaut, and Egyptian Magician. There appears to be a small group of dedicated international players that love something of the incredibly quick reaction time of the sport, estimated at 1/600th of a second. Many have to buck negativity from spouses; others have full support and encouragement. One man reflects of the totality of his life against the fleeting victories of the sport he loves, trying to convince himself he has the better of the deal with his family behind him. Is air hockey a child’s game or a world-class sport?
Who is to decide? There are men in the inner circle of air hockey advocates that have spent their life promoting the sport, including guru Mark Robbins, who holds much of the history of the sport. When one young enthusiast is tossed aside by his girlfriend, he is told, “Air hockey still loves you.” For some, the diversion is a welcome relief from the difficulties of everyday life. There is no misery on the table: “Praise the table!” is the refrain. The profiles of the personalities involved in the sport is part of the delicious bits of this film that need to be savored.
One air hockey tournament offers a $14,000 prize, an all-time high for the sport. As men are seen taping their fingers for the next tournament, they reflect on their attitude towards the game. Two Venezuelans attend a tournament and are later discovered to have been using an upside down kitchen table to learn to play the game. Suddenly, the minority that is the air hockey corps reels from learning they are actually the privileged group in comparison with these enthusiasts.
The film flies us from their NASA origins to gaming in Japan to an air hockey expo on The Tennis Channel. One enthusiast discusses the need for a professional promoter to save the game; another is seen traveling from one tournament to another, investing everything in keeping the dream alive — even leasing the molds from a former distributor that has long since quit making pucks for the game. Perhaps Anderson’s film will do what others have failed to do and help regenerate interest and profitabililty in this short-lived sport. In any case, it is a fast-paced look at a piece of the culture of Americana grown global. Worth a look.
By Tom Hoeler
If you grew up in America between 1970 and probably the turn of the century, chances are you’ve played air hockey at least once. A staple at arcades around the country, air hockey was also once a very popular addition for any family basement or entertainment room. That familiarity is the basis for Way of the Puck a documentary by director Eric D. Anderson that chronicles the growth, decline and near decimation of the sport, and the story behind those that play it competitively. Yes, there is competitive air hockey.
Watching the film certainly evokes memories of The King of Kong, another documentary that focused on the zeal and passion of a group of competitors devoted to another so-called fringe hobby, video games. While there are some similarities, The Way of the Puck seems far more tragic. For the players in The King of Kong video games are merely part of who they are. They have families, jobs and are relatively successful outside of the arcade. Additionally, the video game industry is booming, even if arcades themselves are dying out; so the pursuit of gaming records doesn’t seem as fleeting.
In contrast, for the players in The Way of the Puck this is their life…. (click link for rest of article)
HOLLYWOOD, California: Way of the Puck, the just-released documentary about professional air hockey, was feted Thursday night at Barney’s Beanery’s landmark West Hollywood location. Air Hockey World Champion Davis Lee Huynh and second-ranked California player Joe Cain journeyed from the Bay Area to celebrate and to mentor guests about the finer points of air hockey tactics and technique.
Michael Rosen, Commissioner of Major League Air Hockey, traveled from New York City to meet the extended creative team behind Way of the Puck and to encourage more competitive air hockey play in the Los Angeles region. Rosen is one of four central characters followed around by director Eric D. Anderson in the feature-length documentary. “It was a perfect way to kick off our DVD release,” said Anderson. “We had guests fly in from all over the country, including a large contingent from Seattle. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised, since fans of air hockey tend to be passionate people!”
Anderson and guests tried their luck against the three professional players on a new Dynamo Fire Storm air hockey table, purchased by Barney’s Beanery for the event. “It was important to me that we choose a venue where people could play a little… and hopefully re-experience the singular, inexplicable pleasure of hitting a lexan puck across a floaty blue surface.” Pucks and mallets were provided for the occasion by Mark Robbins, air hockey guru and CEO of Shelti, a Michigan-based table games manufacturer. Way of the Puck is the only feature film that digs into the curious subculture of competitive air hockey. It is currently available for sale at the film’s website: http://wayofthepuck.com