Every time Elon Musk’s dazzling transportation system of the future, the Hyperloop, gets a mention in the press, so does air hockey. Musk described the Hyperloop back in 2013 as “a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table” and that innocent description seems to make it into every article about the new technology. Lately that has been often, since two competing ventures recently filed for permits to make Hyperloop test tracks a reality.
So air hockey has been on my brain a little lately because of this and I wonder if it has been on others’ as well.
Twelve years ago I set out to make a film about air hockey and a small but passionate group of people that competed seriously at it. Although Way of the Puck was eventually released in 2010, the lion’s share of the photography was done between 2004 and 2006. In fact, a very early temp version of the documentary played at the Houston International Film Festival in 2006.
This was the year of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback.” The year of Dreamgirls and The Departed. The West Wing was still on the air. “SPARTA!”
A lifetime ago.
Thanks to the Hyperloop, however, I’ve gotten curious again about air hockey. What happened to all of those guys in Way of the Puck? Were they able to grow the sport at all? Or did they abandon their love air hockey for more practical things? It’s not the early 1970s anymore; it’s 2016! Is anything happening at all? Perhaps I should reengage with the strange universe of air hockey to see if anything interesting is still going on there…
Here at the Way of the Puck website we intend to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of that initial festival run by rolling out a limited series of air hockey-related articles, interviews, and posts over the coming year. We’ll publish an interview with the current world champion, a 16-year-old high school junior from Beaumont, Texas. We’ll put out a first-person account of a California player brought in to battle test an air hockey robot. We’ll see what’s happening on the manufacturing side of air hockey, if anything. We’ll look up our friends in Spain and Venezuela and explore whether air hockey interest has continued to spread internationally. And we’ll check in with some of the main characters from the movie to see where they are now: the Promoter, the Guru, the Ex-Champ, and the Entrepreneur.
And what’s up with this upstart AHPA? Is this a rival air hockey league or just another promotional body? Are they trying to secede from the air hockey Union? Never forget: Nobody respected the AFL in the beginning either.
Then again, people disrespected the USFL as well—and rightfully so.
Stay tuned. Air hockey still loves you.
Two-time runner-up Andy Yevish was first discovered on the boardwalk of the Jersey shore, where as a lanky teen he beat former World Champion Robert Hernandez in an air hockey exhibition. Andy already had a reputation as an aggressive offensive player, and this shocking unofficial victory brought him into the fold of competitive play, where he immediately began finishing in the top five, including a 2nd place finish to air hockey wunderkind Tim Weissman in 1993.
Andy organized a couple of east coast tournaments in the early 90s, and took over the promotion of the World Championships in Las Vegas in the early 00s. As a player and as a promoter, he has been no stranger to controversy… but it is difficult to deny his formidable offensive attack, which remains one of the best in the game. Even so, Andy has been unable to translate his brilliant and powerful offense into a World Championship. At the age of 42 he is much older than the oldest air hockey champion in history and the question lingers: “Will he ever win one?”
Incredibly, my cousin’s 11-year-son, Henry, is still maintaining his high level of interest in the sport of air hockey. He asked if he could do one final interview, so I let him fire away on the self-proclaimed Beast From the East, Andy Yevish.
HENRY: The movie says that you have one of the best offenses of all time. Is that true? But Eric says that you play “all offense and no defense.”
ANDY: Hi Henry, Yes… I would say that the consensus is that I have one of the best offenses ever in air hockey. I have more shots, more variety, and more styles of play than most players. I can play both fast and slow, and can be deliberate, or fancy… But Eric is wrong if he says I play all offense and no defense. I think most players who play me will tell you I also have one of the best defenses. I vary my defense to the player’s strengths. I change my weaknesses. However, what Eric may be referring to is that one of the ways I play defense is what I call a “scoring defense” where the defense becomes offensive. I use my opponent’s taking themselves out of position by taking their own shot as an opportunity to hit a quick transition shot. It is a gambling strategy, as it is high risk, but high reward. I do not play that strategy all the time though.
HENRY: What is your best craziest shot that other people don’t do? I want to crush my friends at air hockey!
ANDY: Well interestingly, the crazy shots usually aren’t the best shots. A well-aimed, well set-up shot is the best way to beat all your friends. Stop the puck every time you get possession, then set up your own well-aimed shot. Taking your time, and hitting from your power area will help you beat all your friends.
HENRY: In the future is air hockey going to die?
ANDY: Well, I don’t know the future, but I hope not. There are plenty of people working hard to keep it alive. My best guess it that it should a least be able to maintain itself, but in order to get big, some major changes will need to be made. I think a television show designed to showcase ai hockey competition in a 30-minute format would be a good vehicle to get it noticed. From there, air hockey related equipment and clothing could be the thing that gives air-hockey eternal life.
HENRY: The movie says you were a boxer. Is it fun to punch people in the face but not get in trouble?
ANDY: Heh-heh… One might think of it as being fun… and boxing to me was fun, but I don’t think of it as hitting people in the face. I think of it as an art form. Much like I think of air-hockey as an art form. When you are boxing, you often forget it’s a fight and think of it as a sport… Sometimes, you have to suck it up and dig down to primal instincts… usually late in a fight, or when you’re tired or hurt, and that’s when you remember you’re in a fight, and you realize you’re hitting each other. At that point, no… it’s not fun.
HENRY: Do you train like Rocky the boxer before a big tournament? What are the exercises to prepare the air hockey muscles?
ANDY: It used to be well known that I used to physically train before tournaments, and not drink, smoke, and abstained from women. That was before I got married, and older and I was only in good shape if you consider “round” a good shape. Recently I have gotten in better shape than I have been in 10 years (not how I look in the movie). I never trained for air hockey in particular, but I had back problems, so I trained in order to have the endurance to play my best without pain. My workout regimen now (which I do all year) is I bike 10 miles a day, do a 20 minute ab routine (which keeps the weight off and strengthens the muscles to keep my back from hurting), I do about 120 pushups a day (4 sets averaging 30 each set with vared arm placement… but more reps in the earlier sets). Then I hit weights 3 times a week (about every 2-3 days.. I do 4 sets of 15 reps with 25lb dumbbells of each of the following exercises- bicep curl, tricep press, military press, and chest flys. When I do get a chance to get to the gym, I do some other exercises, like bench pressing and butterflies but with my lifestyle it’s hard for me to get there. I will soon be adding squats to the routine on off-days.
HENRY: Do you have a secret grip?
ANDY: I don’t have any grip that is a secret. I actually vary my grips on the mallet, depending on the action I want to get on the puck. As a general rule, a tighter grip will get you more arm power, and a quicker release. A looser grip will let the mallet do more of the work (especially when you hit it with follow-through) and get more action (like slice) on the puck.
HENRY: My dad wants me to ask is the Jersey shore really like on that TV show?
ANDY: Unfortunately… yes.
Andy Yevish is a portrait artist and entrepreneur who splits his time between Wildwood, New Jersey — where he owns two stores on the boardwalk (Fame and Superstars) — and Sherman, Connecticut, where he enjoys a more rustic existence with his air hockey averse wife, Anna.
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/
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.