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.
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.'"
And there, the name and the game were born.
Crossman filed a patent, but Brunswick only saw the game as a novelty and boxed the table in a warehouse. That's the way things stayed until, in the early '70s, according to Green, Brunswick broke the table out for a trade show. The company had hoped to use the table as a gimmick to lure people in to talk about their pool tables, but the tactic instead raised awareness for a new table sport. Brunswick saw first-hand what Crossman knew all along.
"It generated so much interest and Brunswick got so many orders that they didn't know what to do," says Green. Soon air hockey could be found in pool halls and would dominate the coin-op industry.
Now more than 30 years later, air hockey, a space-race baby, survives, outlasting NASA's Apollo program, the lame duck Space Shuttle program as well as Defender and Zaxxon, both very popular seek-and-destroy-simulated-flight arcade games, that once shared floor space with air hockey in many a neon-lit arcade.
Air hockey is governed by 17 basic rules of play contained in Section 1 of its regulations (other sections cover penalties, players' rights and other concerns). For anyone questioning them, an official rules list can be found on the SRO bar room wall for all to see and on the USAA's website at www.airhockeyworld.com.
Those rules set the total number of points it takes to win a game (seven), say that a player can use only one mallet at a time and there can only be one puck in use at a time. A player has seven seconds to execute a shot, which crosses the centerline. The seven seconds begin as soon as the puck enters and remains on that player's side of the centerline. Violation of this rule is a foul.
If any part of a player's hand, arm, body, or clothes touches the puck, "palming" will be called by the referee, which constitutes a foul. There are time-outs – one per player per game and no longer than 10 seconds. Once a player's been scored upon, he has 10 seconds to get the puck out of his goal and resume play.
Several of those rules were debated and stretched a bit during a recent "challenge set" between Syed Rahman and Phil Arnold. (A "challenge set" is when one player of a lower rank challenges another to obtain his or her spot on the leader board.)
Arnold, who loves to hoard the puck and pass it back to himself making it 'tick-tac' between his mallet and the edge of the table demonstrating his control, takes every last one of his seven seconds before sending the puck past centerline.
"It keeps them guessing when I'm going to shoot the puck," Arnold says. USAA players know it as one of his signature moves. "I could shoot that puck immediately after serving it or I could wait the entire time, my objective is to psyche them out," Arnold says.
He's been known to flail his arms wildly, imitating martial arts experts. He drops the puck to the table casually, all the while gazing at his opponent with an ice-cold stare And that's where he gets them – while they're distracted by his off-table antics he scores, sending the puck in at a hot 90 mph into his opponent's goal.
Rahman comes prepared for this game, well aware of Arnold's tricks. Rankings are on the line and Rahman isn't giving up his number 15 rating without some strategy of his own. Rahman just stares him down and begins counting down out loud from five to zero.
Arnold fires, but Rahman is ready with a block. Between games Rahman scolds the referee for allowing Arnold to go over his time. "It's my way of keeping him honest," says Rahman. "He's going to do all that crazy stuff with his arms and I'm just going to count to let him know it's not working on me".
In other "use-the-rules-to-your-advantage" advice, player Donovan Brown sees a beginner accidently drop his mallet on the floor, which is a direct violation of rule number 7 in Section VI of the official USAA rules, titled "Penalties and Fouls" (there are a total of ten sections ranging from everything to "tournament play" to "player conduct").
"When you drop your mallet go ahead in just put your forearm over the goal so you can stop the puck from going in," advises Brown.
Of course this raises the question, wouldn't this be in violation of rule number 6, section IV, which states that goal tending, or placing a foreign object (in this case, a player's entire elbow and forearm) into the direct path of a puck on its way to a goal is strictly forbidden?
"All you'll get is a foul and since you already got one for dropping your mallet it only makes sense to protect your goal," Brown explains.
"Any penalty results in a free shot," says Brown. "So don't worry about how many you commit; just think about protecting your goal."
It's June 4 and about 60 players from around the United States and several from around the world arrive in Las Vegas for the Air Hockey World Championships. They're here to see good air hockey, not participate in the glitz and the glamour of the slots.
Competitors file into Bally's Las Vegas Ballroom where Michael Rosen, commissioner of Major League and Recreational Air Hockey ( an organization similar to the USAA) has overseen the setup of eight regulation Dynamo air hockey tables.
"It's similar to the way the National Football League and American Football League existed," explains Rosen. "They eventually merged."
Rosen's dressed up the ballroom in trophies and video cameras streaming live webcasts of games. Red Bull energy drink is the Saturday sponsor. Rosen even attempted to break the world record of longest game of air hockey to be played and according to him, Guinness is currently investigating the 25 hour match and considering it for entry in its book of world records.
"We want to bring the world's fastest table sport to households across America," Rosen said.
Denang "Blade" Brown, (also known as "The Menace") a well built, 6 '7'', 47-year-old male stripper with weekly appearances at a club called "Jay's Place" in Atlanta, Georgia, arrives with dreadlocks past his shoulders, dark ski goggle sunglasses concealing his eyes and green, black and red wrist bands – making him appear as if he just walked off the television screen from a Mortal Kombat video game.
He discovered air hockey in an Atlanta bar after hours one night. Vacationing in Houston in 1996, he found himself at Houston's famous, since gone, Sam's Boat on Richmond, when he saw someone wearing an "Air Hockey Champion" T-shirt.
"I'm the air hockey champion!" Blade boasted to the man. "No," said the man, "I don't think so." "No," said Blade, "I am the air hockey champion!" "I'm telling you, you're not," the man kept saying.
The man finally invited Brown over to Shooters, a favorite air hockey bar for Houston's locals off of Silber and I-10 (it's since been replaced by a Dave and Buster's).
Turns out, Brown's opponent was Danny Hynes who was, at the time, ranked number four in the world. Hynes introduced Blade to Phil Arnold and a couple of other players who were nationally ranked. Then Hynes played Brown, who went down in flames. It only made Brown want to better himself, he says.
Hakim [no surname] and Sudarshan "Dash" Narasimhan are there from Singapore. With "only five air hockey tables in all of Singapore," according to Narasimhan, there's not much of a following for their sport, but they believe with a little help air hockey could be huge there. The duo spent their time getting all of the top ranked players to sign their mallets.
Players range in age and levels of dedication. Steven Accrocco, the 12-year-old son of top ranked player Brian Accrocco, of Houston, followed his father to the championship where he was competing with players two and three times his age.
"He's gotten pretty good," says the father about his son. "He beat me for the first time the other day and I was really trying." The pair practice at night in their newly transformed air hockey room that used to be their dining room.
Javier Pulido, who made the journey by way of Venezuela and spoke no English, holds his own against Keith Fletcher, a top skilled player from Colorado. Their match lasts seven games and both players score six points apiece in the final, sending the set to a match point situation. Fletcher pulls out a straight cross sending it into Pulido's goal winning the set, putting him at 13th place overall.
Pulido lost the set but the crowd acknowledges the high caliber of his play with a standing ovation at the end.
Arnold's first day of championship play doesn't go as he wanted. Two losses send him to a spinoff where he will be competing for 17th place with five other players.
Day Two seems better after beating Brian Quezada from Chicago, four games to two, but soon Arnold meets up with nemesis Mark Robbins of Colorado. The pair have been rivals for 35 years and Robbins, a left hander, has been ranked the number one air hockey in the world four times.
Arnold's tactics don't seem to bother Robbins. The "walk-away," a classic Arnold move, doesn't fool Robbins for a second. (In the "walk-away" Arnold pretends to call a time out and walks away from the table, prompting his opponent to assume a time out has been called and walk away as well, leaving an open, defenseless goal for Arnold. All Arnold has to do is run back to the table and send a cross-shot back to goal.)
Arnold's other "go-to" is his martial-arts routine. Again, as before, Robbins remains unbothered. In short order, Robbins gets control of the puck and beats Arnold shot after shot. Arnold begins talking to himself. "C'mon, Phil," Arnold screams out in game four. "Be great. Play great."
It takes just four straight games for Robbins to beat Arnold. But it's not completely over. According to the rules, in a spinoff, if a player has been beaten by a player earlier in the series, that player must win two sets. One of Arnold's wins came against Robbins the previous day, so Arnold has another chance.
After a 15-minute break Arnold returns to the table. In this set Arnold remains composed and focused. Twice in the series Arnold is called for going over centerline, but his flow is back. It's a win for Arnold in five games.
First place goes to Danny Hynes of Houston, who beat his doubles partner Ehab Shoukry, also of Houston. Hynes has won the championship eight times and hopes to break the record, now standing at 12.
Phil Arnold didn't finish first, but he's leaving Las Vegas with something he didn't have when he came in. He's been voted on by the USAA to serve as president.
"He's our godfather," Brian Accrocco, says.. "I look at Indian tribes that have elders and he's our elder."
Arnold is also working on his legacy. He mentors Doug Taylor, an up-and-comer with lots of promise in his mallet. "We want to pass on this sport to the next generation," says Arnold. "As we go, we want the sport to continue".
"Phil and I met at SROs and he started giving me pointers," Taylor said. "We exchanged phone numbers and he would show up and teach me all kinds of things." Taylor has been with the sport for only eight months, but already he sees his growth and has adapted his abilities to real world situations.
"I was at SRO and a cute girl was sitting at a table when a shot glass fell," Taylor said. "I totally caught it in mid-air. I said, 'see that's air hockey reflexes'".
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"Each one of you players has great potential," Arnold says in a speech made in front of the contestants as the championship play gets underway. "You can be chickens or you can be eagles. I want you to soar down on your opponents and use your talons."
"You know the knights of the round table?" asks Arnold. "We're all knights of this table." He points to one of the air hockey tables. "We play with chivalry and we play with honor. Each one of you players has great potential and it's up to you to pass it on."
Arnold boards a plane in the morning returning to Houston, not returning the world championship, but still hungry. After all, there's the 2011 International Air Hockey Championship coming up August 4-7 and it'll be in Houston at SRO. Until then, Arnold will keep practicing, taking on all comers.
"I've learned so many of life's lessons through air hockey," said Arnold. "It's been good to me."