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
“Cinema is an emotional medium first of all, and an intellectual one later. Movies have this effortless ability to forge an instant connection with the viewer and transport them to another place and another time, and this is what I find so compelling. We want to be transported. We want to be affected, to feel. It may seem strange for a documentary filmmaker to be speaking in these terms, but I think it’s important to remember that the viewers are going to respond first to an emotional connection with the material, even if it’s a documentary. Especially if it’s a documentary. You must forge this emotional bond with the viewer…otherwise you’re a failure. Then you’re about as interesting as an insurance seminar.”
There’s also a link at the bottom of the interview that connects to the entire uncut interview with Anderson. Check it out!!!
If Jose Mora is lithe, lanky, elegant Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki, then Pedro Otero is power hitter Hideki Matsui. All honed their skills playing professionally abroad, then emerged as dominant “rookies” on the international scene. Unbelievably, Otero competed in only four world championships, finishing second in 1998, 1999, and 2000, and finishing fifth in 2001. It is a masterfully short career, and Pedro has probably the highest average finish-per-event in air hockey history. Known for his rock-solid defense, and uniquely powerful (and difficult to defend) right-wall-over, Pedro lived in the competitive shadow of his friend and fellow countryman Jose Mora, who edged him out in three successive tournaments.
We traveled to Madrid to speak with Pedro back in the summer of 2004. The footage was never used in the film, but we wanted to publish a short excerpt of the interview and wish him well.
WOTP: Can you tell me how you got started?
PEDRO: I began playing in the city of Caracas in Venezuela in 1994. I was seventeen years old, and I began playing with some friends. We played our games at Arcade City, which is where we played for many years. Over time, more people joined us. My normal practice partner was Jose Mora. We spent a lot of time practicing together. I can say that our levels were equal because of our consistent practice. We practiced very often, practically every day, and that helped us reach a level that allowed us to travel in 1998.
WOTP: How did that all come about?
PEDRO: In 1998 Jose and I decided to travel to the international tournament in Santa Cruz, California. Tim Weissman helped us in our adventure –- to find some manner to travel to the United States. He made a collection of money amongst the players over there. And he facilitated ticketing information and things like that. I can say that if it were not for him, I believe that we would never have been able to go.
But we still had to embark on a 79-hour one-way bus trip once we arrived in the United States, without knowing, really, what expectations we had for winning, nor having been able to compare or contrast or playing level with the players there. I realize it was a stupid thing to do, an odyssey based more than anything on youth. But in reality, I’m sure neither Jose nor I regret it. And the fruits of this [Jose and Pedro finished first and second place] demonstrate that it was worth the effort.
WOTP: Were there style differences that allowed you succeed against the US players?
PEDRO: I believe that our style is different because in Venezuela we had many more players to compete against – the player base in Caracas was larger than any other city in America, except maybe Houston. There was more of a variety of rivals, which is why I think our style had to be much more complete. We could not just mold ourselves to the characteristics of one player. We had to have a game that was more compact and as complete as possible.
When I beat Tim Weissman in the semi-finals, I can say that is the biggest moment that I have lived inside of air hockey. And one of the best moments of my life, without a doubt. I can still remember that moment, everything that surrounded it, how I got to that moment. I can say that although I was beginning my career in air hockey, it was the culminating moment as well.
WOTP: How did you end up in Spain?
PEDRO: In the year 2001 I was trying to go live in the United States, because the situation in Venezuela wasn’t adequate. Andy Yevish helped me a lot. He was very helpful. Lamentably, in the end, things could not be. But I am still very grateful to him.
My family members and I decided to come to Madrid, but there is really only air hockey in one city in Spain, which is Barcelona. Generally, this isn’t very good for me because it is about 600 kilometers away. In all sincerity, it was very hard to stop practicing air hockey so much after eight years of uninterrupted play, but there came a moment when I had to recognize that life has other priorities.
WOTP: Do you miss it?
PEDRO: Truthfully, air hockey has given me many good moments, some of the best moments in my life. It has helped me feel that I can attain what I set out to do. In some ways I feel empty having left air hockey. But if were up to me –- under ideal circumstances –- I would have continued playing for the rest of my life.
Air hockey is a sport that teaches you the skills to better yourself in life. And for me, it has helped me realize myself as a person. Others I have played with have made the same comment –- that it’s extremely fun and competitive, and you enrich yourself as a person while playing it.
But one of the best things about air hockey is that you become like a small family, and always maintain contact. We always know about each other. And wherever you go, other air hockey players will know you are there and seek you out. It is something like a chemical between us, between all of us who have played. And that is something special.
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.