Check out the new DVD casewrap for Way of the Puck! Many thanks to designer Eric Sommerfeld for his great work.
Please note that this collector’s edition DVD will contain:
- The full 81-minute Way of the Puck movie with Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 surround mixes
- Feature-length audio commentary with director Eric Anderson and air hockey guru Mark Robbins
- Eleven deleted scenes
- High resolution trailer
- Enhanced anamorphic presentation for widescreen televisions
- Our “Repeat after me: I can become the best air hockey player in the world, I just have to want it badly enough” postcard
- Scene selections
- Mr. Sommerfeld’s excellent DVD face and casewrap design.
Also note that the downloadable and streamable versions of WOTP available in the coming months will not contain these extras!
Like many fringe sports, air hockey is an activity that inspires profound existential questions in those who love it. Nostalgic documentaries like Ken Burns’ latest effort seem like easy, non-threatening missions — we love baseball, it is our national pastime, and we also love our love of baseball, which usually harkens back to an earlier time in life, when we were more innocent, when players were drug-free (well, just a different kind of drug — speed, perhaps), when these athletes were real role models, heroes even.
What’s harder is placing air hockey (or darts, or shuffleboard, or baseball card collecting) in a similar context. There is no assumed national love for these activities. The same passion that is celebrated in Ken Burns’ beloved Baseball or Tenth Inning is called into question when looking at air hockey. But should we not celebrate passion for passions sake? How obviously worthy is hitting a ball with a stick and running around to different safe zones like a grown-up game of tag?
Three-time table hockey champion Lou Marinoff has given much thought to these very questions. As a philosopher and author, it’s difficult for him not to ruminate at length on society’s indifference to these outsider sports — why it is that the very that you’ve been chosen to do — that you excel at — is kicked to the curb, or even worse, ignored. And what to do about it.
We spoke at length to Mr. Marinoff about these and many other issues.
WOTP: What are the differences between air hockey and table hockey?
LOU: There are many differences between table hockey and air hockey, although they are related to the same pure form, as Plato would have it: the form of hockey. The whole idea is that you have a game with boundaries and you try to put a puck into a net. How many players you have, what kind of puck you have exactly, whether you hit the puck with a stick or with some kind of a knob depends naturally on the kind of game you’re playing, but it’s all related to hockey.
The main thing is: With table hockey you have a team of players, which makes it look like ice hockey in miniature. You generally have a goalie and defensemen and wings, and you have the capacity to move, pass the puck back and forth. And generally one of these players will do the scoring.
In air hockey you have to do it all. You have one player who is basically controlling offense and defense together, very quickly. The transitions are very fast. And so the game is much faster. There are fewer possibilities in terms of who you are going to pass the puck to. There’s no one to pass the puck to, but you have to make a play off the boards or make a great defensive play, so there are similarities and differences, but it’s based on the same concept.
WOTP: Why does this appeal to you?
LOU: There are a lot of reasons why this is interesting to me as a philosopher and as an educator, and the first one has nothing to do with hockey. It has to do with a bigger facet of the human being, and that is games and play. We are not the only animal that plays. The other primates play a bit—otters play, dogs and cats play occasionally—but human beings have taken and evolved the concept of games and play to a really high level and a lot of our lives are consumed with playing.
Playing is very important to children for their development and play is important for adults, one way or another, whether it’s games or sports. Most of us end up playing something on a lifelong basis. Music is play. That verb “play” applies to a lot of facets of human existence, so it’s obviously something important for our species. And then the question is, where do you grow up, what part of the world are you from geopolitically, so what are you going to be exposed to when you’re young, in terms of games? Hockey? This is a game more for the northern latitudes and kids grow up with great passion for it, whether it’s table hockey, ice hockey, field hockey, air hockey, it’s all part of the same great game.
WOTP: But is it always play? Or is it something else?
LOU: Philosophically this is interesting: What is a game doing? When we play a game, basically we engage simultaneously between competition and cooperation. We need to compete with each other because often competition brings out the best in a human being. You discover your excellence sometimes only when you’re under pressure, when you really have to come up with a great play, you know, come up with the goods! That’s what spectators come to games for, right? They want to see the athletes performing at a high level. So competition drives us achieve our best in terms of performance. But we also have to cooperate. Table hockey, air hockey, ice hockey—these games teach sportsmanship because you need the other person to compete. You go out there by yourself and you don’t have a game. You can go out there and skate around or just move the puck around, but you actually need another person to compete!
WOTP: I guess what I’m getting at is, well, is there some kind of line between game and sport and where do you draw that line?
LOU: Really it has a lot to do with the medium in which this game is being enjoyed and witnessed and are being transported. If you ask the manufacturers what they are selling, very often they don’t even think it’s a game… they think it’s a toy. Table hockey had this problem for a long time. The people who made it were toy manufacturers, and only understood toys.
Then when they say, “Hey wait a minute, grown men are taking this seriously, okay it must be a game. It’s got this competitive edge; there’s a lot of sophistication in it.” As in air hockey, I’m sure, there are very sophisticated plays that can be made and so forth.
So it looks like a game. But what happens to the top players when people get really good at this game? They find other people who are also really good and have achieved a great level of play, and then they want to compete seriously. At that point it’s sport. At that point it starts to taste like a sport. It’s not just a game anymore.
But it is a little different with air hockey and table hockey. Why don’t we look at pro football players, hockey, soccer, and say: “You’re playing a kid’s game, what’s wrong with you?” Of course they’re playing a kids game! The only way you could ever get to be a professional is to start early enough in life and get the muscular memory going—get the techniques into your immature neurological systems—so as you develop into a human being you have those skills!
WOTP: Do you ultimately think there is something rebellious about mastering an antiquated table game like this?
LOU: Well, the car was invented a while ago and it’s still with us. If you look at tennis racquets and baseball bats and footballs and soccer balls… there are a lot of things that were invented decades ago—maybe centuries ago—that are still with us! So I wouldn’t be too prepared to dismiss something just on the basis of its antiquity!
Sports evolve, however, and I think the point that you make that is really interesting, is to look at the contrast between computer games and virtual games and real games. I’m claiming that one of the strengths of air hockey and table hockey is that they are real and not virtual. I think people want more reality than what they are getting.
Ultimately, you can look at a game like Nintendo, which captured worldwide a generation of children. It was a universal language, actually, for children. They could all get together and play Nintendo. Whether it’s Sega or Gamecube or whatever, the fact of the matter is that these are virtual and not real. The action is taking place on a computer screen, not in a three-dimensional space-time setting and the skill set you need—however adroit these people are at manipulating the control pads—it’s not the same kind of hand/eye coordination you need in reality!
So table hockey and air hockey both belong to a class of games that are played in space-time, 3d, with a real opponent standing on the other end of the table. And there is something there that is irreplaceable.
We are human beings. As such we need to function in real terms as well as in virtual ones. And if you start asking people, “Which is better: e-mail or real mail?” Well, they’ll tell you e-mail’s faster, it’s cheaper, it’s instantaneous, we can communicate around the world and all that, but you know what, people should never forget about the satisfaction of writing a letter to somebody… and getting a letter from somebody. That’s something that you really keep and can cherish and reread and has a certain kind of value. I know that the visual tradition has unfortunately supplanted the written one, but people still need to appreciate the virtues of reality and if they can’t do it with literature and letters and stuff, because the e-thing is really what’s happening, they have to do it with sport!
And there is a certain satisfaction to scoring a goal in the real world that you will never be able to replicate in virtual terms!
Lou Marinoff is the author of many bestselling books, including The Middle Way, Therapy For the Sane, and Plato Not Prozac. His many areas of professional and personal interest are showcased at his website: http://www.loumarinoff.com/.
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.
I’m pretty sure this means “Danny Hynes is an eight-time world champion,” if my remedial high school German serves correctly. The Germans do compound nouns as well as the Japanese do compound verbs — that is to say, brilliantly — and WELTMEISTER sounds pretty freakin’ great for a title if you ask me.
Yes, fearsome 8-time champ Danny Hynes was featured recently in an Austrian sports glossy called, well, SPORT. Probably one of the most brilliant defenders of the modern era, Hynes also has a varied attack that combines brutal straights and unders with delicate off-speeds.
He also has superb Hand-augen-Koordination!!!!
Babelfish does a decent job decoding this article; any German-speakers out there to help with the subtle bits?
Click on the images below for a full-sized scan of each page!
Thanks for this gem, Mark!
Kara Adema (formerly Klyn) was the most dominant air hockey women’s champion in the 1990s. But she wears that crown with kind of a dubious pride, and for many years campaigned against the need for gender specific rankings. For her there was always only one true world ranking: the one that was obtained against all of the testosterone in the room. Although she has been retired from air hockey for the past decade, she was a permanent fixture during the middle third of its history.
We feel very lucky to have tracked down the legendary Kara Klyn for this article! We asked her to talk about her most memorable air hockey moment, and this is what she said:
All air hockey players remember the table that got them hooked. I was 19 and it was 1989 in a shaggy little arcade in Fremont, California called Galaxy. They had ten shiny-new Tornado foosball tables and one Dynamo brown top. I could never beat any of the guys in foosball. But on the air hockey table—that was a different story.
Somehow, a flyer for an air hockey tournament in Mountain View—about 20 miles away—made it to Galaxy. They guy behind the counter there was excited to show it to me. A few weeks later I found myself at the California State Championships with some of the best players in the world. I had no idea air hockey could be that competitive, or that amazing. That first moment seeing professional play I was so intimidated I wanted to fade into the background and just be one of the girls that just looks on. But the look on my face gave me away. I wanted to play like them. And they wanted me to learn. Even though I was thoroughly defeated in that tournament, I won friends there that I would play against, and travel, promote, and experience random adventures in life with for the next several years.
By the time the early 90s came around I was working with Mark Robbins and Tim Weissman and was fully entrenched in promoting the sport in California, and occasionally around the country. I was learning the art of organizing major tournaments and building up prizes. I loved traveling and meeting new players. I had won a couple of women’s championships at that point and while having that title was very cool, my overall ranking was for me, personally, disappointing. Even if it was considered “good” for a female player. But it so happened that my best air hockey moment happened that same year in Littleton at a Colorado state tournament.
I was a hippy at heart then and I felt like I just fit right in with all the friendly people and the beautiful country. Being short on cash in those days I stayed with local players. I thought it was cool that the Colorado players that had been around the air hockey table a few times had a Brunswick table in their living room. Mark showed me “The Barn” filled with Brunswick tables. And by helping Mark with a few odd jobs around his place (and there are plenty of opportunities there;), one might luck out and score a Brunswick mallet, a devastating Berger puck, or some other interesting piece of air hockey history he has buried there.
But my best moment happened in a little sunken arcade within a giant indoor entertainment center. Spirits among the players was high that weekend. There was fresh snow (which was a treat for the Californians and Texans), great friends, a new laser tag gallery which we had passes to, and some truly great angles to video tape play from above the arcade pit.
While all tournaments are fun and intensely competitive, this one had a little extra undertone of fun infused in it. I went in the losers bracket my second or third match. Then something happened. I don’t know if I just stopped worrying about when I would lose and let my instincts take over, or if I found a new confidence from within. But I just kept on winning my matches. I rose above all but seven other players that weekend in the main bracket. I remember watching a video tape of that final match thinking…”Is that me playing?”
It’s been almost 20 years, since then and I think it was the highest finish ever by a woman. I didn’t even realize that at the moment. Does it still stand? I don’t know. I have won seven women’s titles against some very tough women (Andy Yevish and some others may say six titles, but that’s another story itself). But placing eighth in the main bracket was by far, my best air hockey moment.
Editor’s note: In a future installment Kara will break down her personal vendetta against the notion of holding women’s tournaments in air hockey. Looking forward to it, Kara!
Kara met her future husband Mike in 1991 and became one of the first functioning air hockey couples. They were married in 1999 and now have a beautiful daughter. Although Kara’s been out of air hockey for a while—in order to concentrate on school, career, and family—she and Mike still play each other on an old Brunswick, next to that Mustang (the other classic) in the garage.
Her portfolio and design work can be seen at: http://www.karaadema.com/
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!
Please visit the Way of the Puck Facebook page and become a fan!
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.