Air hockey keeps getting older and so does the median age of its player base. The second wave of young players—who connected with the sport during the 1990s—are now firmly in their 40s. Players in the Old Guard are in their 60s. Sometimes air hockey feels like that Stallone/De Niro boxing movie, Grudge Match, for better or worse. Where is the new blood? The last (and only) time a teenager became world champion was back in 1989.
Colin Cummings recently changed all that by winning two world championships, back-to-back, as a 16-year-old. Although his rise seems meteoric, it was the direct result of six years of hard work—playing air hockey nearly every day and focusing on improving specific skills. His air hockey adventure began as a ten-year-old when his family moved into a house in suburban Houston across from frequent top-ten finisher Brian Accrocco and his son Steven. Cummings first played on a professional-style table in the Accrocco’s garage, and it was there that he learned about the humiliation of losing, and losing often.
WOTP: Why does air hockey appeal to you? The game came out of the 1970s and even the idea of a video arcade seems ancient now.
Cummings: Strangely enough, to me air hockey isn’t an arcade game. I’ve played in people’s garages, or in people’s houses, or at the movie theater, or at SRO in Houston, which has four tables. I’ve never really imagined it as an ancient arcade-type game. I thought it was new and fresh and it was never in my mind that it was old or dying out.
WOTP: At what point did you realize that this was something that you could be good at?
Cummings: In 2012 I competed in my first U-14 tournament for kids at the World Championships and I ended up beating Steven [neighbor Steven Accrocco] in the finals. When I saw that I could beat a kid who had been practicing and playing air hockey his entire life, I knew that I had some kind of skills. And after watching the final of the main tournament between Billy [4-time world champion Billy Stubbs] and Ehab [defensive genius Ehab Shoukry] and just seeing how much competition was going on and how many people were watching the tournament and how some of these people literally put their whole lives into it—I knew it was something that I’d stick with for a long time. That was the first time I felt could really advance in this a lot further and maybe someday become world champion.
WOTP: Why do you think you were able to surpass your neighbor Steven Accrocco? You had far less experience.
Cummings: I think I just wanted it a lot more than he did. When we first met he was the king and he’d already been playing air hockey for six years. At that point he probably thought he had reached the highest level. One day I started thinking about how I had all the same materials given to me—I had the same body size as Steven and we were both smart. I wondered why he could beat me and I couldn’t beat him. So before that day I’d go over to his house and maybe we’d play for an hour before hanging out or riding bikes or whatever we’d do, kid stuff. But after that day I realized that if I played every day more seriously eventually I’d start passing up people. And that’s just exactly what happened.
WOTP: Let’s talk a little bit more specifically about your game. What is your playing philosophy?
Cummings: I have about six different ways that I like to hold the mallet and each helps me with different shots. I have a lot of different ways to attack people. I definitely wouldn’t say that I practice shooting one shot 50 times and that I can hit it 49 out of 50—that’s not how I really work. I can shoot every shot and when I’m in the zone usually it’ll go in perfectly every time. I don’t have a lot of mess-ups in tournaments anymore. I like to have a whole bunch of different shots—I like to widen my artillery—to make sure that whatever kind of defense I’m put up against I have the perfect solution they might not be ready for. So one advantage is this huge variety of different tools that people aren’t ready for. Another is that I’m extremely fast and I run pretty much every day. And I come in with the attitude that I’m not going to stop—I’m not going to lay down—there’s no way that I’m going to slow down for anything.
Colin traveled to Colorado in 2015 to compete in the AHPA World Championships. Although his best finish ever was sixth place, he beat his neighbor’s father Brian Accrocco in the winner’s bracket final en route to dethroning the current world champion, Billy Stubbs, in the championship. Colin became the youngest world champion ever, although some grumbled because this was the first tournament promoted by the divisive, upstart AHPA, and fewer players had attended.
WOTP: Do people ever try to delegitimize your championships by saying you won against a weak field? There are people who always talk, right?
Cummings: A lot of people did say that after Colorado but those words probably affected the people around me more than they affected me. I knew I had just taken down the champion and if people thought they were going to give me a harder time than him, well, that didn’t make much sense to me. I was happy that I won either way. Some people said, “The only reason Colin won is because there was a low turnout,” so I was expecting somebody to challenge me for my ranking. But nobody stepped up. Nobody said, “I’m going to take out this little sixteen-year-old kid.” Everybody just got quiet.
WOTP: Can you talk about your next tournament?
Cummings: A little after the Colorado Tournament the USAA announced the World Championships in Houston. This was going to be the tournament where all of the old players came to take back the title from me, thinking that I didn’t really deserve it. The turnout was going to be a lot larger and a lot of the big dogs like Wil Upchurch and Andy Yevish were going to fly in. Billy Stubbs was going to be there and Danny Hynes and Ehab Shoukry and some of the Venezuelan players. It knew it was going to be a great experience. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to have to just win this one too!”
WOTP: What do you think about the Venezuelans and their style of play?
Cummings: I love all of the Venezuelan players. Every time I went to a tournament I always end up walking over to them and saying, ”I love your game; I can’t believe you can do all this cool stuff!” But before this tournament, Pedro [4-time runner-up Pedro Otero] pulled me aside and told me: “It’s going to be me and you and we’re going to play in finals. And I will not lose. I will not lose.” I thought, “Man, I’ve never beaten Pedro before and he’s an angry Venezuelan guy who can kick butt!” But I just said, “Okay, let’s get to the finals!”
WOTP: Were you able to compete against many air hockey legends at this tournament?
Cummings: I was able to play against almost everybody. I played Andy Yevish a lot especially since he was my double’s partner. I played Billy [Stubbs] one practice game and I think I played Ehab too in a double’s game and I definitely played Tim [10-time world champion Tim Weissman] and Jesse Douty [11-time world champion]. And even Jose Mora [3-time world champion]. I played all of them. I had a huge smile on my face the whole time. In singles I was able to play against Wil Upchurch [2-time world champion] again, who is this gigantic man with a great beard and scary glasses. I thought he was going to destroy me! And somehow I was able to beat 11-time world champion Danny Hynes, who has crushed me so many times before. He beat me the first two games but I didn’t give up. I said, “You know what? I don’t care. I’m going to play him even harder!” And I started shooting more off-goals and outspeeding him and using his best shot against him, which is the right-wall-under. And I kept myself in the match by stuffing his cuts, which didn’t make him happy!
WOTP: Can you describe what it was like playing Pedro Otero in the finals?
Cummings: Pedro ended up beating Danny [Hynes] to win the loser’s bracket. Danny and Pedro are really good friends and Danny was taking him down. He was actually up 3-0 and then somehow Pedro came back and won four games in a row. He was on fire—I thought he was this giant coming up to take me down!
Afterwards, Pedro came up to me and said, “See? It’s me and you now. It’s going to be a great match!” And I just said, “Oh man!” Pedro and I played three years ago in Chicago and he beat the nuts out of me, 4-0. That definitely wasn’t my time. I wasn’t anywhere near the right level. I remember him pounding the hardest right-wall-unders that I’d ever seen. And you know it’s coming. You just know it’s going to be a right-wall-under right in your face and you can prepare for it all you want but he’s just going to shoot it anyways. And it’s just so fast that I wasn’t ready for it at the time.
This time I knew it was coming so I knew I had to hold the mallet in a way so that I didn’t have any fear of how fast the puck was coming. I couldn’t be afraid of getting my fingers hurt and after a while I gained confidence. A couple of times when he shot his right-wall-under or right-wall-over I charged it and after charging it a couple of times I knew that he was a little bit iffy on whether he should shoot it or not. And whenever I saw him thinking about it that’s when I could tell what shot he was going to shoot. On offense I went with a lot of cuts and cross-straights. The Venezuelans don’t play as much of a set-up game as we Americans do so they are not as used to it. Plus I did it a lot faster.
The hard-fought final went to seven games, with Cummings prevailing over Otero in the last game 7-5. Although some players had dismissed his previous victory in Colorado, Colin silenced his critics by defeating a deep field in the best-attended tournament in air hockey history.
WOTP: Now that you are world champion do you feel any pressure to retain your title?
Cummings: Yes, but probably less pressure than past champions have. If people beat me then I have a lot of time to come back and beat them again. The first person that’s going to beat me could be anybody. Mostly it depends on how much I want to keep my skills going. All I think about is getting myself better, getting the people around me better and just having fun in air hockey right now, that’s all I can do. Because as soon as I lose the fun that’ll be the day that I lose a tournament.
WOTP: So air hockey is still as fun as it was?
Cummings: It’s a different kind of fun. Before it was fun to just hang out with my friends—people who were the same age as me—and talk about air hockey and other things. But as I got better people didn’t want to play me anymore because they knew I’d just wreck them without even trying!
WOTP: Are younger people gravitating toward air hockey or are you a singularity here? How does the future look for the sport?
Cummings: About 20 people in my school are really interested in air hockey full force and are going to try and play in the next world tournament with me. I think there’s a bright future ahead for air hockey but we’re going to have to put some work into it. I see a whole lot of things we can do in the future. I want to start setting up air hockey clubs more widely in different areas. I’m going to fly to the Air Force Academy in Colorado; I’m going to start a foundation here in Beaumont before I leave. Once we just establish certain areas we’ll be able to get more and more air hockey clubs set up everywhere and we’ll have a lot more people that will be interested. Our goal should be to keep new players, not just show them air hockey one time and then let them go off.
WOTP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Cummings: Everybody really does like air hockey! If I bring it up in conversation, people will usually say, ”Man, I love air hockey; I want to go play that.” Sometimes the hard part is just getting a table somewhere, getting a nice location, getting players together.
Every time Elon Musk’s dazzling transportation system of the future, the Hyperloop, gets a mention in the press, so does air hockey. Musk described the Hyperloop back in 2013 as “a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table” and that innocent description seems to make it into every article about the new technology. Lately that has been often, since two competing ventures recently filed for permits to make Hyperloop test tracks a reality.
So air hockey has been on my brain a little lately because of this and I wonder if it has been on others’ as well.
Twelve years ago I set out to make a film about air hockey and a small but passionate group of people that competed seriously at it. Although Way of the Puck was eventually released in 2010, the lion’s share of the photography was done between 2004 and 2006. In fact, a very early temp version of the documentary played at the Houston International Film Festival in 2006.
This was the year of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback.” The year of Dreamgirls and The Departed. The West Wing was still on the air. “SPARTA!”
A lifetime ago.
Thanks to the Hyperloop, however, I’ve gotten curious again about air hockey. What happened to all of those guys in Way of the Puck? Were they able to grow the sport at all? Or did they abandon their love air hockey for more practical things? It’s not the early 1970s anymore; it’s 2016! Is anything happening at all? Perhaps I should reengage with the strange universe of air hockey to see if anything interesting is still going on there…
Here at the Way of the Puck website we intend to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of that initial festival run by rolling out a limited series of air hockey-related articles, interviews, and posts over the coming year. We’ll publish an interview with the current world champion, a 16-year-old high school junior from Beaumont, Texas. We’ll put out a first-person account of a California player brought in to battle test an air hockey robot. We’ll see what’s happening on the manufacturing side of air hockey, if anything. We’ll look up our friends in Spain and Venezuela and explore whether air hockey interest has continued to spread internationally. And we’ll check in with some of the main characters from the movie to see where they are now: the Promoter, the Guru, the Ex-Champ, and the Entrepreneur.
And what’s up with this upstart AHPA? Is this a rival air hockey league or just another promotional body? Are they trying to secede from the air hockey Union? Never forget: Nobody respected the AFL in the beginning either.
Then again, people disrespected the USFL as well—and rightfully so.
Stay tuned. Air hockey still loves you.
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.