Two weeks ago two-time World Champion Wil Upchurch described a pivotal moment in his development when he was confronted by 90s pop sensation Seal and air hockey wunderkind Tim Weissman in the parking lot of a Houston gameroom in 1991. Only one person has won more air hockey World Championships than Tim Weissman—the mercurial Jesse Douty, who won eleven titles back in the air hockey Stone Age (the late 70s and early 80s). But few can dispute that Weissman took air hockey to a whole new level after dispatching Douty permanently. Weissman pioneered radical offensive and defensive playing styles that dominated competitive play from the late 80s to the mid-90s.
Many say that the best air hockey ever played was played by Tim Weissman back in the early 90s. Like many things in air hockey, of course, this claim is in dispute. But no one can argue that Weissman wasn’t the most revolutionary air hockey player of all time, when one looks at the level of play before and after his reign.
Previously, my cousin’s 11-year-old son, Henry, conducted an interview with current World Champion Davis Lee Huynh. We were delighted to hear that Henry’s interest in air hockey continues, and that he expressed a desire to ask some questions to 10-time World Champion Tim Weissman.
As before, I corrected some grammar and spelling but the questions are his. Here they are.
HENRY: Do you like Texas?
TIM: I love Texas! I’ve traveled around the country quite a bit as an adult and honestly, I have not found any other state with as much to offer. We have mountains, forests, rivers, ocean, desert, plains, large cities, small towns… It is over 700 miles from the east tip to the west tip. Plus, the American spirit is still alive and well down here. We don’t have an income tax, and the government is still friendly to business. But, above all that, we have the best air hockey players in the World. Sure, we have seen a few “decent” players come from other places, but nothing close to the amount of talent which has spawned from the Lone Star state!
HENRY: Are you the best air hockey player in history? The movie says you are.
TIM: Well, if a movie says it, it must be true. In all seriousness though, I think I am one of the best, but I can’t claim to be the best. I don’t think anyone has ever held a tighter grip during their reign than I did back in the early 1990’s. I won 9 consecutive World Championships and 28 major championships in a row over 5 years. But, I was pushing the envelope and folks had never seen many of the techniques I was using, such as the Circle Drift, quick release and the true “out” defense. Once those became part of the culture of the sport, people caught up and we have seen some phenomenal players since that time. Danny Hynes and Wil Upchurch, at their primes, were pure freaks of nature on the Table, unleashing offensive onslaughts never seen before!
HENRY: Tell me your SECRET. And don’t say “practice”.
TIM: Obsession. When I was on my 5-year winning streak, I ate, drank, slept, dreamed, imagined, thought, felt, inhaled and lived air hockey. I maintained the killer instinct in each and every tournament. When I was ahead in a game 6-1, and only needed a single point to win, I had the thought in the back of my head that I was in imminent danger of losing and had to push hard to finish my opponent off. I constantly felt that I was on the edge and could lose at any moment. It was when I started losing that edge, that hunger,the streak came to a close. I would go so far as to say that this is a good secret for any aspect of one’s life where you want to succeed or be the best. Certainly, you don’t want to lose yourself in your endeavors, but without a pure and real fire in your belly, it is hard to be great.
HENRY: Who has the craziest playing style in history?
TIM: Randy Lind, hands down. Oh, you said craziest style, not craziest person. Just kidding Randy! His style is very off-the-wall. He plays with a mallet attached to each hand, and he switches between them as he executes his attack. It can be very deceptive to newer players, but ultimately, I think when you have too much going on, you confuse yourself on a certain level. I am a big believer in keeping it simple. That’s part of what makes the Circle Drift so effective. It is very basic and simple on the surface, but from it, there derives infinite possibilities.
HENRY: Did you ever lose and feel really bad? When was that?
TIM: Every time I lose, I feel really really bad. Losing sucks. Even in my life today, I experience losses of various kinds. But, I learned some amazing life lessons from my experiences of loss in Air Hockey. First, and foremost, I learned that I hate to lose! And, that winning feels just so much better! But, more importantly, I learned that I never really understood how great it is to win until I really knew what it was like to have lost. It gave me a richer appreciation for winning, and it helped me stay humble. I also learned that losing is just a step toward winning.
When we lose, we look at what happened and analyze. We find out what contributed to that loss and how we can overcome that obstacle in the future.
HENRY: Do you make your children play air hockey? How old are they?
I have a 14-year-old boy, 10-year-old girl, 5-year-old boy and a 1-year-old boy. My children are required to play 5 hours of air hockey each and every day! Actually, the older ones play because they enjoy it. They are always begging me to practice with them. Most of the time, I am too tired from a long work day. Jacob, my oldest, won his age division at this last World Junior Championships. He is much better than I was at 14, but then again, I didn’t have a Table in my garage or a World Champion to teach me. My daughter is getting pretty good too and has a mean right-wall.
I’m glad you asked about children and air hockey though, because I do want to say that the only way I see air hockey ever growing beyond where it has been in the last 30 years is by involving children. Arcades and game rooms are pretty much a thing of the past, so where do we get our new players now? This question must be resolved for air hockey to make a leap forward. I have an answer, and I plan to try some pilot programs with the support of Mark Robbins and his new air hockey manufacturing company, Shelti, in days to come.
HENRY: How long can you hold your breath?
TIM: Funny you should ask…I actually have pretty decent lungs. I can stay underwater for around 1 min 30 seconds, give or take. One of my other interests is swimming. There is nothing more peaceful than swimming underwater across an Olympic size pool. It’s a great warm-up before a championship air hockey match!
Tim has a large rambunctious family and a large rambunctious array of interests. In addition to earning a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, Tim has been the owner of a special events company since 1996 and the owner of a Fish Window Cleaning franchise since 2008. His website is: http://www.fishwindowcleaning.com/619/
One of the great pleasures of making Way of the Puck has been discovering air hockey’s unexpected—but far-reaching—influence in the arts, sciences, and popular culture. Air hockey won’t really go away; it’s connected to math and music and robotics and a hundred other disciplines.
In honor of Comic-Con we decided to publish an interview with Thien Pham, a minicomics artist we met at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. Thien is the author of Air, a one-off comic book (graphic novella?) about “life, love, and air hockey.”
WOTP: Why did you decide to make Air?
THIEN: At first I was thinking about doing a foosball comic. There are many similarities to playing foosball and doing cartooning… the small communities are really passionate. But I thought a more fast-paced and one-on-one-type sport would be better, so I decided to try an air hockey comic. And I assumed that because there’s pro foosball and darts, there had to be professional air hockey. Lo and behold, they’ve held tournaments at this place in San Jose by my house this whole time! So I went to one and I was totally blown away by it. I just thought it was so amazing, so I said, “Okay, I gotta do this!”
WOTP: What’s it about?
THIEN: I always describe it as an 80s movie. One of the inspirations for this was the arm wrestling movie, Over the Top. Air is about a guy whose dad was a pro air hockey player and got injured playing. So this guy, his son, was really good himself, but he kind of quit playing for various reasons—work and girlfriend being two of them. At the end he decides that doing what you love is the most important thing, so he decides to pursue air hockey again and actually plays his rival, the guy who injured his father.
WOTP: So there’s a love interest?
THIEN: Well, there’s an implied love interest. He plays with air hockey with another girl, and at that point they connect because they have this thing in common, but I think I just left it up in the air whether or not he’s actually in love. The love part is actually about air hockey itself, doing what you love. Not so much as falling in love with somebody.
In the story one of the reasons why the guy quits air hockey is because his girlfriend thinks it’s a waste of time and that he should be out there making more money. It’s not a relationship that I’ve ever experienced but basically I was trying to play off the experience I’ve had with my parents—how they feel about comics and foosball… that it’s just child’s play and not a worthy activity.
It’s also represents the perception people have about our little communities. I always imagine that people who are on the outside doing jobs, climbing up in business or whatever, would look at a community of air hockey players or minicomic artists and kind of say they are just wasting their time.
But I think if you love doing it you shouldn’t stop. It’s the thing you should do. So that’s what the girl represents.
WOTP: What are some other similarities between minicomics and air hockey?
THIEN: When I told my friends who I play foos with about minicomics they were all like: “That’s weird… a bunch of people that get together and draw comics and photocopy them?” And then when I told my comic friends about air hockey people, they said: “Whooooa. There’s actually people that get together and play pro air hockey?”
That was so funny to me because all these little groups—these small communities—are really family oriented and think other groups (who are exactly the same) are weird. Just because it’s not an activity that they are used to!
And I notice it’s not just air hockey or foosball or minicomics, but any type of mini- or small community has these same parallels, whether it’s racecars or bikes or skateboarding. It’s all about the same kinds of things.
WOTP: So what is it that draws you to these activities?
THIEN: I like the fact that it’s a small group of people doing something really specific and something that they really love. And the parallels are perfect. There are guys that are good and guys that aren’t so good but talk like they’re good. Just like in comics there are artists you respect, artists you hate, guys that do comics you can’t stand, in air hockey there are guys who have shots you don’t really like, or they just have an annoying playing style, or whatever.
WOTP: Has there been any response from the air hockey community?
THIEN: My favorite things ever have been the emails I got from air hockey players. It’s my favorite fan mail, by far. I never thought for a million years that any people who played pro air hockey would read this comic. But then I was also kind of worried that real air hockey players would be like, “Dude, you didn’t get that right. Or that’s not right.” But they’ve been really really nice and supportive of the book.
I was planning on doing another one, a follow-up, because a lot of people have been asking me. So if I ever do that I’ll get all of the air hockey details dead on!
Here are some awesome Thien Pham links, if you are interested!
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Previously on My Most Memorable Moment, iconoclastic Dallas native Wil Upchurch descended into the Wolf’s den—Green’s Gameroom in Houston, Texas—to take on the cool kids, led by air hockey wunderkind Tim Weissman. If you missed the first half of Wil’s coming-of-age narrative, please click back to the PREVIOUS POST in order to get up to speed!
Tim emerged from that car with the confidence of the rich kid on a field trip. You know the one: The guy who buys all the stuff you want to buy even though you only have five bucks, and that’s for lunch? He stretched as Seal went into the final chorus, then reached into the back seat and pulled out his bag (much cooler than mine) as the sound diminished toward the end of the song. Then he shut the door, reached into the open window, and finally removed the keys. Who shuts the door and then turns the car off? Tim Weissman, that’s who, because the universe loves him.
In a heaven of people there’s only some want to fly… Ain’t that crazy?… Oh babe… Oh darlin…
The tournament came and went that weekend. Tim won… duh. I finished a disappointing 15th, and made my way back to Dallas to regroup, get better, and look forward to the next time. But a funny thing happened when I got back into town. Seal came on the radio, and I didn’t hate that song anymore. In fact, I could kinda see why people liked it. Seal’s voice was great, the lyrics were interesting…
Wait a minute! I thought to myself. What’s happening here?
And that was when I realized—when I was hearing that song, I was seeing Tim in my mind’s eye, emerging from his car and stretching languorously in the hot Houston sun, sure that whatever waited for him inside Green’s was going to turn out for the best.
In that moment I realized a fundamental truth about being a winner, a champion. Winners weren’t outside the circle or inside the circle, winners drew the circle. Tim could love that song for the same reason he could shut the car door before he took out the keys—because he was in control. Tastemakers and trendsetters don’t work hard to pick the next big thing…they wear it, they use it, they live it. And people get that, and they admire them for being in control, for loving what they love and doing what they do. That’s what makes it a hit.
Seal didn’t write his song to please his market or to conform to some imagined standard of popularity. No, he did the best he could do, and knew it was good, and walked through the world knowing that until even I had to admit that it wasn’t just “that damn song,” but a damn good song. Tim, with his unique diamond drift and out defense, wasn’t trying to please the Old Guard by mastering their techniques… he was doing the best he could do and knowing it was good.
As a young upstart air hockey player who had never seen Tim lose a tournament, I couldn’t help but always be gunning for him. I knew if I could take him down, I could take down anyone. You don’t get to be pack leader by picking off the whelps, after all. But seeing Tim enjoy that song taught me a new perspective. Before I saw him only as a villain, as someone I had to defeat. But now I felt like Zeus, raging against the mighty titan Kronos, mixing in feelings of admiration with the drive to destroy.
In that moment, my most memorable moment, I learned that it was ok to admire my opponents for who they were—for their skills, their successes, and the things they had that I didn’t—because that freed me to do the best I could, and to know that it was good. It freed me to draw my own circle. And that was the first step to becoming a champion.
Editor’s note: Wil won his world championships in 1997 and 2007. At this rate he will have to wait seven more years to win his third. That will make him the oldest player to ever win a final, by far.
Wil Upchurch is happily married and teaches public speaking in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
In many ways, two-time World Champion Wil Upchurch is the perfect embodiment of all things that make air hockey players…well… air hockey players. Outsize in both personality and proportion, Wil is cheerful, raucous, intelligent, powerful, and opinionated—part gamer, part athlete, part non-conformist, and all animal when he steps up to the Table. Wil is nicknamed the Juggernaut for good reason; when he gets up to speed he is not unlike that humongous spheroid rock at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark that crushes everything in its path—except he’s hairier. And sweatier.
We asked Wil to talk about his favorite air hockey moment in his long and storied career. This is what he said.
The year was 1991 and I was just a young upstart air hockey player, though one that had already achieved a fair amount of success. I lived in Dallas, Texas, where I practiced with my friends and occasionally got to test my skills against two of my air hockey heroes—Paul Marshall and Mark Robbins—the two men who had introduced me to the sport.
Being from Dallas, I lived outside the air hockey Mecca of Houston, and could only imagine going to Colorado or Philadelphia to play against the greats that resided in those places. I was on the outside, looking in. Being a teenage boy with somewhat… esoteric… tastes in hobbies and interests, I felt on the outside of pretty much everything else as well.
There was a song on the radio that summer by a new artist named Seal. It was called “Crazy,” and I didn’t care for it at all. It played over and over again on the radio as I drove down to Houston for Vince Schappell’s Houston City Classic. What I wouldn’t have given for an iPod. But I endured it, and arrived at Green’s Gameroom in Memorial City Mall ready to live up to the high expectations I had set by placing third in the Texas State Championship earlier that year. The same doubts that plague me even now crept into my mind, those that said, “they all know you’re not that good” and “they all know each other, you’re here alone.”
Crazy yellow people walking through my head… One of them’s got a gun, to shoot the other one.
Though the Old Guard had welcomed me into the sport with open arms, the young players had not been so kind. It wasn’t so much that they were cocky—boy were they cocky—but that they were close to my age, and they were better than me. And they knew it. “Green’s Wolverines,” their shirts said. Shirts that marked them as together. As something special. Their de facto leader was Tim Weissman, air hockey wunderkind, who by that time was on a winning streak of a dozen tournaments or more. He seemed untouchable, unapproachable… especially to an outsider like me.
So it was that I arrived at Green’s on Saturday morning, ready to get inside and start warming up before the tournament began. As I pulled my air hockey bag out of the car, I heard that damn song echoing across the parking lot.
No we’re never gonna survive, unless… we get a little crazy…
I turned to see who was blasting it out their open windows, and it was a little red sportscar pulling into a space right in front of the arcade. I’d had to park several rows away. The person inside the car had the gall to just sit there jamming to the song while those of us on the outside suffered. As the door started to open, I thought to myself, Oh good, it’s stopping. But in fact it kept playing, even as the driver of that sportscar, none other than Tim Weissman, emerged.
Of course, I thought. He drives a sportscar, has a hot girlfriend, wins twelve tournaments in a row, has a great group of friends that whip me on the table every time I step up, and he likes that damn song. I never felt more like Ralph Macchio than I did at that moment. At least air hockey didn’t involve getting my leg swept…
…to be continued: Can Wil defeat the Cobra Kai, or will he scurry back to Reseda? (Dallas, I mean.) And what about Elisabeth Shue?
Wil Upchurch is happily married and teaches public speaking in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
There is plenty of weirdness going on in this picture. Discuss.
(Amazing stock photography courtesy of Fotosearch.com)
Six years ago I interviewed Davis Lee Huynh for an article in Giant Robot magazine. He was ranked #10 at the time, and he practiced two hours a day, six days a week–studying game tapes 20 minutes a day. “That’s probably more than anyone else is doing at this point,” he had said. “I just gotta outwork them and hope they slack off.”
Three years later, Davis won his first championship. “Against a weakened field,” many naysayers remarked. Yesterday, Davis won his second championship– against the third-largest field of all time. He is not the most physically gifted or innately talented player, so his success story is a narrative of hard work. There will always be haters, but here’s a guy who set a goal and outworked everyone else to reach it and you can’t begrudge him that. It just so happens that his goal was to be the air hockey champion of the world.
Henry, the 11-year old son of my cousin, was able to watch the Finals yesterday online, and showed great interest in air hockey played at this level. He had many questions, so I asked if he would like to pose them to one of the more qualified people at this point, the newly crowned champion.
He said yes.
I corrected some grammar and spelling but the questions are his.
HENRY: I see that you have a smaller mallet. How come nobody else uses it? Is it legal?
DAVIS: I play with a low or flat top mallet, as they are called. Since it is the same basic size and shape as a regular mallet, except that the round knob has been removed, it is a legal mallet. I like playing with it because I feel it allows me to be faster on the table. The regular mallets don’t let me play as freely as I would like to. 90% of the top players feel it is not as stable for defense, and so they advise most players not to use the low top mallet.
HENRY: Are the best players in California?
DAVIS: Historically, the best players have all hailed from Houston, Texas. 7 of the 12 champions live in Houston. California has been considered to have one of the weakest player bases among the active states. If Air Hockey were Star Wars, Californians would be considered the Rebel Alliance, and Houston would be the evil Galactic Empire. We are going to try to change that though, right Henry?
HENRY: What kind of foods do air hockey players eat?
DAVIS: I don’t really keep track of what other air hockey players are eating, but since most of us are on the “plus” side of average, I would say we eat what the average person eats, but a little more of it. When I am competing in tournaments, I try not to eat anything that even has a chance of making me sick. There are only 1-2 competitions per year, and you don’t want to have one ruined by food sickness, which has happened to me in the past. I stick to steak, carbs and fruit.
HENRY: Now that you are champion please tell us your SECRET. And don’t say “practice.”
DAVIS: My secret is that I’m air hockey’s version of Batman. Batman didn’t have any superhuman powers, he would just figure out his enemies’ weaknesses and stay 3 steps ahead of them. Batman also could take a beating and come back and rally to win. I’m not the strongest or the fastest player, but I can figure out most of my opponents’ weaknesses and devise a plan to defeat them. I am also calm when down in a match, and sometimes able to overcome large deficits.
HENRY: Why do some players hit the puck in a boring circle? Everybody knows the way to win is to smash the puck in.
DAVIS: Henry, it’s funny that you and I think alike. I am not a fan of anything that looks boring, and some of those circle drifts are boring to watch. I like to put the puck on the table and score as fast as possible. I think some players do it hoping that they will put the other player to sleep, but instead they are putting the audience to sleep.
HENRY: Who will beat you first?
DAVIS: The first player that has challenged me for my #1 World Ranking is Brian Accrocco. We will see if he makes the trip out here to play me and try to get the top rank. Mark Nizzi of Colorado has offered to pay for me to come out and play against him. If I wasn’t the current #1 player, the players that I look forward to defeating are Anthony Marino and Wil Upchurch. These two have given me the most difficulty over the years. If it weren’t for them, I may have won another 2-3 championships.
HENRY: Would you rather fight a shark or a polar bear? Why?
DAVIS: I’m not sure how I would even go about fighting against a shark, so I would choose to fight a polar bear. Even though a polar bear is pretty large and quick, I think I could elude it and buy some time to try to figure a way out. Maybe polar bears have a “sensitive groin area” that I could go for.
It’s been a long hard slog, but we are near the end of it. Way of the Puck, the finest feature film about professional air hockey ever made, will be released on DVD in October of this year.
Features will include:
- Way of the Puck (TRT: 81 minutes)
- 5.1 Surround mix
- Commentary track featuring director Eric D. Anderson and air hockey guru Mark Robbins
- Deleted scenes
- Original trailer
- letterboxed 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio
Pre-orders will begin in earnest in August. Stay tuned…
Praise the Table!
You have stumbled upon the maiden post for the Way of the Puck Blog. We are quite happy to be out of the editing room and here in the relative civility of the blogosphere! Can you tell? For those skimming, here is the most important takeaway of this initial post:
***WAY OF THE PUCK (the finest feature film about professional air hockey ever made) WILL BE RELEASED ON DVD IN OCTOBER OF THIS YEAR.***
Sorry to use all caps there, but In order to celebrate this release, we are SCREAMING as loud as our keyboards can SCREAM. (Sounds of pounding of table). And so, 3 months early, we are launching the Way of the Puck Blog to ramp up to this release and to try to dig even deeper into the secrets of air hockey. Hopefully many of you will come along for the ride. I urge everybody to subscribe to the WOTP Blog RSS feed for maximum efficiency!
Here is a basic outline of what the blog will feature, in no particular order:
- Way of the Puck related news
- Air hockey related articles, essays, interviews, and other bits
- Discussion of other independent and sports-related documentaries
- Random non-air-hockey-related items we think our audience will appreciate
- Everything else
Thanks again for stopping by. We believe quite strongly in our little film–it’s been a real labor of love–and we encourage everybody to support the cause and to spread the word about Way of the Puck. Word of mouth will be key to the movie’s survival, so anybody you can bring into the fold is a big deal, since we are a tiny movie and we can’t afford to rent billboards on Sunset Boulevard!
Please check out our Facebook page, Twitter feed, and trailer on Youtube. The website will be active in a few days. Links are available in the rightmost column of the blog. And leave a comment if you are so inclined…. we’d love to hear from you!
Air hockey lives forever!