We have just passed the 10-year anniversary of the article “Air Time” written by Way of the Puck director Eric D. Anderson. The article was a direct result of that very first encounter with the air hockey community in Fremont, California at City Beach. Players Davis Lee Huynh, J. Hilton Reed, and Harvey Thornburg introduced Anderson to competitive air hockey, while informing him that the world championships were only a week away in Las Vegas. That evening was impactful enough to compel Anderson to head to Las Vegas with a camera crew to find out if there was an interesting movie in all of it. Hard to believe that was ten years ago!
The article was a follow-up with Huynh—then ranked a distant sixth in the world—and his mission to win a world championship. Huynh eventually did win two championships (in 2007 and 2010), but at the time his ambition seemed like pure fantasy.
Giant Robot magazine no longer exists so we scanned the article for all of you air hockey heads out there!
Billy Stubbs is a 39-year-old creative director based out of Chicago, Illinois. He started playing air hockey seriously in 1993 while living in Georgia, trekking up to Atlanta every weekend to play with eleven-time world champion Jesse Douty. After finishing 48th in his first national tournament, he decided he needed to practice even harder and dedicated himself to systematic, rapid improvement. The following year he placed fifth, a result that raised eyebrows, and in 1995 he came out of nowhere and rolled through a deep field—beating champions Tim Weissman, Jesse Douty, and Wil Upchurch en route to his first national championship. He was twenty years and six months old, the third youngest champion of all time. Although some predicted that youthful Stubbs’ disciplined, analytical approach would deliver him several championships in the 1990s, he went seventeen years without winning another one. In 2012, at the tender age of 37, he finally became world champion again, prevailing first in Las Vegas and later in Houston that year. He won his fourth world championship in 2014.
Stubbs plays an unflashy, rational style of air hockey—some call it “robotic”—which has earned him the nickname “The Machine.”
WOTP: It took you seventeen years to win another championship. What happened?
STUBBS: I think that after I won that first one I had a motivational lapse and didn’t take it as seriously. Maybe I took it for granted—being young and winning. And thinking I could win by just staying at the same skill level I was at. I went to tournaments the next few years and started dropping down to 7 and 8 finishes, not horrible but not contending either. And then some time passed where I didn’t play but once or twice a year and it really showed in my results. In the next seventeen years a lot of other good players came up as well.
WOTP: So what changed for you?
STUBBS: Well, in 2009 a couple of guys here in Chicago, Dan Meyer and Brian Quezada, came out of nowhere. These guys took air hockey really seriously and wanted to play all the time and learn. And I was happy to have them being so passionate and dragging me out to play two to three times a week. That was great. After playing regularly with them for a couple of years I made the decision that I was either going to quit air hockey or make a big push to be as good as I could be. I realized that I’d played this game recreationally for almost two decades and Father Time was kicking in. Also, just being in my late thirties gave me a reason to want to be healthier and be in better shape, and using air hockey as a tool for those things was perfect. So I lost 42 lbs in 2011. I got in great shape, started playing every day, had better practice players with Brian and Dan, and took the game more seriously.
WOTP: Did you have regular workouts? What was your plan?
STUBBS: What I did was model my training regimen—which is 5 days a week, 2.5 hours a day on the table, plus cross training and video study—after the U.S. Olympic table tennis team. I was looking at how pro tennis players and pro basketball players did it. And I took a big look at MLB players and table tennis players to see what their training regimens were like and what would happen if I applied that same training to air hockey. I think the one that worked best was the one I just described—the U.S. table tennis team regimen—and the results show.
Also, I always have a three-month calendar of what I want to work on—regardless of whether a tournament is coming up or not. I think that the biggest difference is before a tournament the calendar gets a lot more granular. There’s a lot more detail on it because I’m making a bigger and more focused push. That’s the way I get my head around staying in air hockey—I give myself small milestones that are laid out weeks to months in advance.
WOTP: So you’re winning just because you’re outtraining everybody.
STUBBS: That’s exactly right! The reason I’m winning because I’m outtraining everybody! I think you see that in everything across life. The people who are successful are, by and large, not the people that have the natural talent. The people who are successful in business or sports or whatever are the people who put in long hours. Look at Roger Federer: He practices tennis eight hours a day on the court and video studies for two hours a day and he sleeps for twelve hours a day. So his life is tennis and you see that in the results. He is the greatest tennis player of all time.
WOTP: Applied toward air hockey, this approach seems both highly rational and totally crazy!
STUBBS: Yeah! When I was younger I loved playing air hockey but I was always aware of the public perception of it as a kid’s game—not something to be taken seriously. That was something that was always in the back of my mind, maybe on a subconscious level. But as I grew older I became more comfortable in my own skin and realized that air hockey makes me happy and I love playing it, so I’m going to make this push and I no longer care what anybody thinks. And I’m happy that I did it because it’s something that I’m really proud of.
WOTP: But how much of this good feeling is results based? If you were finishing in fifth or sixth place would you still train like this?
STUBBS: That would be really tough. I wouldn’t feel the same for sure, because I’d realize I was outpracticing everybody by a large margin. And if I’m still doing that and Danny [Hynes] is beating me when he plays once a week for an hour a day, it’d be tough to come to terms with!
WOTP: As a creative director and marketing expert do you have any opinions on how to increase involvement in the sport?
STUBBS: Right now we’re in such bad shape and I think it’s obvious. We need to improve our brand image; we need to get a website presence that is decent. We need to do a few other very basic blocking and tackling things—just very basic things that anybody else in business would do to help make their business grow. The problem is we just don’t have people willing to put in the time to do these things. These things take man-hours and we just don’t have people willing to put in that time.
I’ve said that if I win five tournaments I’m going to step away from playing fourteen hours a week. I’ll dial it down to about an hour a week and then I’m going to turn my attention more to marketing and promotion of the sport. So I’ll take those twenty hours a week that I’m dedicating to air hockey practice and flip them over to marketing and trying to help us grow. But right now I just don’t have time to practice and promote at the same time—that’s asking a lot of people.
WOTP: Do you ever feel any resentment? I mean, why does it have to be you who does this?
STUBBS: I don’t feel resentment because I haven’t done it yet either. I’ve never invested twenty hours a week into marketing air hockey, so how could I ask other people to do it too? No, not resentment, just disappointment.
WOTP: Any final comments?
STUBBS: Just get out there and try hard at something and take it seriously and get good at it. Simple story, you hear it all the time; people don’t do it. And I’m guilty of not doing it in my day job and other things in my life. But if you are committed to something you’ll see results.
Practice makes perfect. I heard it in band all the time when I was kid!
Billy has written dozens of insightful articles about air hockey tactics, mechanics, and training methodologies at his blog, Say AH. It’s a gold mine for anyone seriously interested in improving at air hockey.
Check it out at: http://billystubbs.wordpress.com
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/.
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!
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.