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Hover Boards

Air hockey's appeal has outlasted the space program that inspired it.

Most Friday nights, Phil Arnold can be found in the back room at Standing Room Only, a bar at Northwest Mall where air hockey is played by titans.

He has a standing challenge for newbies who've never been in a competition before: play me, beat me, and I'll give you $1,000. Tonight, he has a taker who is such a novice that the basic rules have to be explained. They walk over to one of the four air hockey tables and Arnold sets each carefully tape-wrapped finger on the edge of his mallet – not the standard hand position but one that gives him greater power over the puck.

The referee – yes, there's a referee – shoves a dollar's worth of quarters into the slots on the table.

Phil Arnold is known around the United States Air Hockey Association (USAA) as a true finesse player. He uses everything he can — yelling, jumping up and down, and pretending to walk away from the table — to distract his opponents long enough to get an open shot at the goal.
Chris Curry
Phil Arnold is known around the United States Air Hockey Association (USAA) as a true finesse player. He uses everything he can — yelling, jumping up and down, and pretending to walk away from the table — to distract his opponents long enough to get an open shot at the goal.
Players face off before a game. The hand in the middle is that of the referee – required by USAA rules.
Chris Curry
Players face off before a game. The hand in the middle is that of the referee – required by USAA rules.

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Air shoots up through the 4,098 tiny pores drilled into the table breaking on Arnold's wrinkled face, while his black hair waves gently through the artificial breeze.

"Ready?" asks the ref, holding the puck at center table while both men stare intensely at the table. Bar patrons gather to watch the game. They stand on the other side of a net that's been strung up in advance to protect them from pucks gone astray – the ones with too much "English" on them.

As soon as the ref yells "break" and lets go of the puck, Arnold strikes in one fluid motion, banking the puck off the side of the table, where it then makes it home to his opponent's goal.

"It's like a chess game," says Arnold. "I like to outthink my opponents and keep them guessing. Am I going to be shooting a bank shot or a cross?"

Phil Arnold has a Ph.D. in religious studies from Rice University, tutors for students at the University of Houston and is currently ranked number 20 in the world at air hockey. Back in 1985 he was number one in the world and he wouldn't mind having that back. He was one of the founders of the United States Air Hockey Association in 1975, a group that keeps track of its events and tournaments.

The game may seem low-brow to some but not for Arnold. Perhaps that's because scientists from NASA invented it.

_____________________

NASA scientists started fooling around with what would ultimately become air hockey during the Gemini program, which ran from 1962 to 1966, according to Chris Green, an avid air hockey historian and player who lives in Dallas.

Phillip Crossman, a NASA contractor, was tasked with studying the physics of frictionless momentum or how objects would react in the vacuum of space, Green says. NASA was about to start docking spacecrafts in earth orbit and wanted to know how these objects would react to one another without an atmosphere to slow their momentum.

Crossman and other members of his team had overhauled something resembling a pool table and installed a compressor to shoot air through about a thousand tiny holes drilled through the top. They put something resembling an oversized poker chip on top and watched it hover. Since it produced no drag, the floating disk could be passed around for long durations.

Green says that Crossman enjoyed watching a bunch of scientists float objects above the hover table and thought about developing a game. If this table could turn the stuffy lab coats into happy, open-your-presents-cause-it's-Christmas-morning children, then he just might have something marketable.

But Crossman's game was set aside; NASA needed to concentrate on achieving a moon landing. It wasn't until later when his contract was up, that Crossman decided to resume work on the hover table, Green says. He approached Brunswick, the billiard and bowling company out of Skokie, Illinois, about developing the game. He built a prototype table, drilling thousands of holes in a sheet of Formica and using a vacuum cleaner to shoot the air up between them.

The table was a crude predecessor of what air hockey tables would become, but Brunswick was looking to expand its product line in the coin-op industry and gave Crossman a team of game developers to help with production. That turned out to be a mixed blessing. Brunswick, involved in the pool table industry since 1845, insisted that the game be played in billiards type fashion with six pockets and 15 discs hovering around and hit with a "cue disk" – providing a space age version of pool.

"The game just didn't work," said Green. "In pool, you wait for the balls to stop before shooting again. In this version, the discs just kept going; it would take them forever to stop since they just hovered on a cushion of air."

Frustrated by Brunswick's constricting requirements, Brad Baldwin, an electrical engineer with Brunswick, sent a puck flying across the table where one of his colleagues, Robert Kendrick, was standing. The shot moved with such force that the back end of the table fell to the floor and Baldwin yelled out, "I win!"

"Robert Kendrick yelled, 'Let me defend myself' and grabbed an eraser from a nearby chalkboard," said Green. "The two went at this for a while until their boss stepped into the room and asked them what they were doing. They took a minute and looked around and said, 'We're playing air hockey.'"

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32 comments
Jeff Morris
Jeff Morris

In pool, you wait for the balls to stop before shooting again. In this version, the discs just kept going; it would take them forever to stop since they just hovered on a cushion of air.

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Rhonda Omberg
Rhonda Omberg

I read this and the first thing I thought of was some wacky Will Ferrell movie. I understand how air hockey can become a sport; what I can't understand is why a 40-something would consider it some kind of career. And what gives with the "jumping up and down", the "fake time-outs", and the "martial arts moves"? Are you 12 years old, Mr,. Arnold? Do you need some sportsmanship lessons?

 
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