The monkey on my back

February 24, 2013

That figurative monkey is Mark Robbins.

Literally, Mark only resembles a monkey… with his hairy face and.. well.. that’s about it.

An archeological dig found this picture of Mark and Wil Upchurch.  Nowadays, the passage of time has changed Wil… however, this picture proves that Mark has been 61 for over 30 years now.


I kid, I kid.  I joke around with Mark because we have had quite a lopsided history on the table.  Mark has killed me.  All I can do is toss insults his way and be sullen about it. He’s a lefty, old, has a funky offense that features a lot of chased overs, and an old-nontraditional defense.  Basically, he’s my kryptonite.  I can take games, and the rare occasional set off of him, but most of the time he just owns me in a sick, sick way.  In the IL state last year, he just had his way with me – taking me down 4-0 without even breaking a sweat.  I’ve learned to accept that he’s got something for me.. and after a big win – he likes to chat about it (we all kinda do, really – I’m no exception).  Mark gets that cockeyed grin, because he knows he’s got me.. and got me good.

So.. since I’m ranked/rated higher than Mark – of course, he wants to challenge my ranking.  Why not?  It’s a sure win on his part, he’ll get a bunch of points and rank up.  And I.. of course, want more table time with him so I can hope to find out what will work.  I have to admit, going into this challenge match didn’t leave me feeling confident… but the week before – I had some great practice with Dionisio… also a lefty, also hits good overs, and also plays a goofy back-ish rail defense.  I started to beat Dionisio by just going to a still puck, ratcheting up my accuracy and using a lot of pumpfakes.

This was my plan against Mark.

I had mixed feelings about Q not being able to make it, on the one hand – it’d be good to have his advice, on the other… it wouldn’t be videotaped.  So, no video exists of this match.  I know.. bummer.

Game 1 started.. and basic still puck offense comes out… I score well.  Good.  What’s really weird is that I’m blocking Mark for the first time, ever.  Game 1 – blowout city.. 7-1, Dan.  Mark takes his customary minute between games and I know I’ve just shaken him.  This was not going to be an easy time for him… I was going to make him work.  Game two was a different story, as it came down 6-6, but with Mark finishing me off.  I got my composure back and rattled off 2 more lopsided wins before finishing the set with a squeaker 7-6. 

Hey.. maybe I can win this thing.  I don’t feel like I need to alter my offense one bit.  No drifting.. still puck/pump fakes… cut motion straights to both sides, and a right wall under.. that’s it.  So long as I’m accurate – I’m doing well.  My defense isn’t Swiss cheese anymore.

2nd set – I rip off 3 lopsided games in a row before Mark takes 3 games of his own.  Game 4, I came out way ahead… It may have been something sick like 6-2 or something like that, and I relaxed too much.  Mark, fighting fiercely – then manages to claw his way back and win the game.  Then he wins the next 2 (including another 7-6 squeaker) to force game 7.  Yuck.  Thank god I finally woke up and finished out the set to put me up 2-0.

The next 2 sets – I’ll just say that they were close.  Sick close.  7 games each time.. with yours truly somehow able to squeeze out a victory.  Set 4 was really close as the set came down to the final point… but again – I prevailed. 

4-0 Dan.  Not what I was expecting.

Even though the sets were incredibly tight – the stats back up that I was playing better.  16 games to 10 (not exactly blowout city).. but I averaged 6.19 points per game, while Mark had 5.23.. which is significant – nearly a point per game. 

Ahhh… it feels so much better now that a lower rated player doesn’t have my number anymore.  Mark was the one person that I really dreaded playing that was rated lower than myself.  Everyone below me that rounds out the top 25 are very good, and I’d have a tough time winning against – but I don’t think I’d feel lost like I have against Mark.

The Venezuelan Invasion

February 6, 2013

Any time someone takes time and money to travel to you to play air hockey is special.  It’s incredibly special when someone travels from far away.  This past weekend, we were especially blessed when two air hockey players from Caracas, Venezuela came to compete.  

My understanding that Paulo Correia and Dionisio Diaz had been practicing very hard and wanted to test their skill against the very best in the world.  Not long ago, Jose Mora came to Chicago for the standing Billy Stubbs challenge, where Billy will pay out significant amount of cash for anyone who can beat him 2 sets or more in a challenge set, best of 7.  Jose came the closest to collecting money as he won the first set before falling 4-1.  Now, I believe it was Paulo who put Jose out of the winner’s bracket in Houston (much to my chagrin, since I had to face Jose).  I believe this was some kind of evidence that Paulo could compete with Billy (though I have serious reservations regarding the transitive properties of air hockey dominance).  The other history between Billy and Paulo is that they faced each other in Houston in August.  While Billy won 4-0, it was due to Billy’s cut shot from right of center, which Paulo had difficulty defending.  With practice and study of the film, Paulo could be confident that he could force a close match with Billy.  And if not.. the opportunity to play the best in the world at their peak is exciting enough… even if that means coming to Chicago in February.


Paulo was going to play another challenge match the day after playing Billy – against Q, but Q has been injured, in a nasty way – with a serious nerve problem in his hand.   Watching him try to play with this problem is like watching someone play left handed for the first time… all control and feeling had gone out of his hand.  Hopefully, a couple weeks is all that will take to get him back.  We gave Paulo a last minute substitution in Goran Mitic.  According to our ratings – Goran is #4 in IL, I’m #3, and Q is #2.  I would be have the honor of playing the other Venezuelan, Dionisio Diaz.  

Going into the match, Billy, who is putting up money in case he loses – doesn’t take anyone softly.  One thing to test early on would be to see if Paulo has adjusted to Billy’s cut.  I’m sure Billy looked into his game a bit more, but my own, limited analysis was that Paulo must adjust to this shot, or he will be toast before the end of the first game.  Billy was confident, but I know he’s not overconfident.  Paulo’s offense is somewhat similar to Q’s and my own.  He has a massive, accurate right wall under, a sick cut, and – as we saw this weekend.. he can summon a perfect right wall over just about at will.  He doesn’t do too much left wall stuff and he doesn’t seem to vary his release all that much.  In fact, the very first shot that Billy took kind of shook him.  Paulo *charged* Billy’s first shot, a right wall under.  I can’t even imagine after studying Billy, taking a long flight from the other side of the equator, and coming up with that strategy as his first defensive maneuver.  Paulo came out hyper aggressive on defense.  It took Billy a little while to adjust, and I believe Paulo scored a couple goals just by charging… but it wasn’t effective enough to turn the tide.  Billy adjusts very well to charging defenses, and throughout the match, Paulo didn’t take nearly as many chances.  It takes a lot of confidence to charge, and we saw it vaporize as the match went on.  I didn’t notice any obvious adjustments other than the lack of charging as the match progressed.  Billy just kept throwing every shot in his arsenal at him – varying between the cross/lwu and the cut/rwu – with a couple rwo’s thrown in as his offspeed.  Paulo had some very good off-speed straights (Wolf-slayers), but more often than not, Billy was able to force them into turnovers.  All in all, I didn’t see a portion of the game where Paulo had an edge.  Billy had the edge in everything I consider important: puck control, offense, defense, transition, strategy, and adjustments… though Billy didn’t have to do much on the last 2.  Billy ended up winning the match 16 games to 1… with an average game point differential of around 3.  It was a massive win.  Through it all, Paulo was focused, nothing really seemed to rattle him, and he had a great fighting spirit.  There were times when the puck seemed to not want to stay on the table… and where I’ve seen myself and others lose their mind a little bit, Paulo was very focused.  

Paulo would get his opportunity for revenge against Goran.  Billy and I thought the deciding factor in this match would be Goran’s defense.  Goran sees a cut/rwu combo from Q and I all the time… and we like to think we have good unders… but we were sure Paulo was going to score – just how well?  We thought the only other trouble Goran can get in is his chase game… sometimes Goran likes to speed the game up, and sometimes it affects his control.  Goran’s match went much like Billy’s… Goran threw the kitchen sink at him, and his defense couldn’t hold.  One thing I noticed is that Paulo tried to match Goran’s tempo.  Goran can sometimes play very, very fast.  It’s easy to get caught up in it.  Paulo did.  Goran did work in a couple slow offenses – one with a slow line attack, using the blade of his mallet to set up the drift.  This was a new one for me, but it worked very well to set up his cut.  It was one more thing that Goran did to mix things up against Paulo.  Goran’s defense held.  After the first set, Goran said that he had a good read on his offense – and wanted to force Paulo into hitting perfect banks… because he was dedicated to blocking his straight shots.  Again, Paulo didn’t make the necessary adjustments and Goran rolled.  In the 4th set, it seemed like Paulo was adjusting on defense, but it was only good enough to win 2 of the 6 games in that set.  16-3 was the final tally, with Goran winning each game by an average of about 2 goals.  Very impressive.  

Paulo, Dioniso, and Billy


For the final match.. I’d play Dionisio.  I’d seen him play, but I didn’t watch any film. I thought of him as a cross/rwu sort of attacker.  I went into the set confident… but I also know that left handers are the bane of my existence.  I just don’t play lefties very much.  Mark Robbins beats me badly with his weird near backrail defense – the same one Dionisio employs.  I got some practice in with Mark last Wednesday, so I was hoping that it’d help.  I just went into the match thinking that I’d play my game… I use a lot of pump-fakes and time delays… something I hadn’t really seen from a Venezuelan player.  I was hoping this would give me a big edge.  The first set went how I’d hoped… I squeaked out a couple close games and discovered that my offense is going to work.  I established that I was going to block all of his straights, which I think I did a good job of..  Dionisio’s defense held in game 4, which got him the win.  He was scoring on me, but I felt like I’d hone in soon enough.  We both play a slower than average pace.  The 2nd set, the tables had completely turned.  D made the necessary adjustments, and started blocking my right wall under, in fact, he did an amazing job of sweeping the block right off the table, resulting in far more turnovers than points.  He had done a good job of blocking my cut all the while.. and it seemed like my best shot was the cross, but I just wasn’t accurate with it… it seemed like it was there all day, but I just couldn’t get it to stick.  Meanwhile… Dionisio was hammering left wall overs on me at will.  As soon as I’d adjust, he’d hit me with unders.  He’d all but abandoned straight shots unless it was in transition.  The visitors got excited for the first time this weekend!  Game winning shots were cheered by Paulo and their friend Vicki.  Even though it was against me, it energized and added importance to the match.  I love it when people cheer, even when it’s against me.

I needed to learn how to block those overs, or I’d be toast.  I saw that Dionisio fell into a little bit of a habit – based on where on the table his took his shots, he was giving me a tell on what shot was coming.  His right wall under he hit later in his drift vs. his right wall over – I was able to relax against that shot, until he didn’t attempt any right wall overs.  He wasn’t hitting his cross unless he brought the puck more to the center of the table.  His left wall overs came when he was closer to the left wall, and his unders when he was further away.  After D’s big win in the 1st game of the 3rd set.. he had gone on a nice 5-1 winning run.  By the 2nd game of the 3rd set, I felt like I was doing a better job on defense.  My problem was that my offense wasn’t scoring as well as I’d hoped.  My solution: the still puck.  I was hitting offgoals, but not really working into my attack… really – what I needed was to 1) be more accurate, and 2) keep him jumpy.  Not drifting the puck as quickly really helps your accuracy.. and I was able to get him jumpy with my pump fakes.  The accuracy thing really helped my cross.  When it was missing.. now it was hitting.  I was essentially using the same release on my straights.. hitting to both sides.  This is only really effective against players that play too close to the back rail – which Dionisio does.  I didn’t want him to get the idea that he could charge at will, so I kept him honest with unders.. and all of a sudden – the pump fakes and delays along with the added accuracy did wonders.

By the end of the 3rd set – which I took 4-2… I felt like I’d found the key to unlocking his defense… as well as beefed up my own defense.  No longer was Dionisio scoring whenever he wanted.  I added a couple nice forehand left wall unders and completely dominated the transition game (though, because D was so controlled, there weren’t many transition opportunities). In the very last game, when I scored my 6th point, the puck struck Dionisio’s pinky finger and split it open.. blessing our table with his lifeblood.  I, myself, have spilt blood on our tables and know it is not fun – especially when it happens due to a recurring injury.  For a while, I’d tape my pinky finger, curled up, so it’d have no chance to touch the table.  Dionisio came back and scored another goal before I ended it.  Once I made the proper adjustments, I finished the match winning 12 of the last 13 games.  The last 2 sets were very lopsided in my favor.  Only one game did he score 5 or more points.  

After all was said and done, Dionisio mentioned that he had issues with a nagging injury – his left arm was injured when fixing a car.  He said that it doesn’t usually bother him with the weekly tournaments, but in a long match-play.. it became more bothersome.  

Billy spent some time talking to Paulo after our match… I think he’s trying to convince him that a non-charging triangle defense is the way to go.  I think that was the biggest advantage I had over Dionisio, and definitely the biggest advantage Goran had over Paulo.

We hope to see them come back.. we’re always happy to have visitors come into town… and we try to be good hosts.  We capped our weekend off with a nice barbecue dinner.  (Vicki’s there on the right.)




January 22, 2013

Let’s do a retrospective for 2012 for your host, Dan Meyer.  All blogs are narcissistic and mine is no different.

It was a hell of a year for myself and my air hockey career.  I started this blog to document my progress through the ranks of competitive air hockey, and in just a few short years I finished Master level in a National tournament (not many players can say they’ve done this).  I’ve competed – and won – against some of the best players on the planet.  I’ve helped put up hundreds of videos up on my vimeo page (… and I feel like I’ve just gotten started.

Ok, so let’s recap.  I played 63 rated sets that doesn’t include challenge matches and tourney sets.  I was busy, especially considering that after July, I mostly played practice sets.  In January, I played a challenge match against Goran.. and I lost 4 sets to 1.  It wasn’t a complete bloodbath, and the game count was fairly close at 19-14… a step back from a couple months earlier when I lost 4-3 20 games to 19.  

In February, Chris Lee travelled to Chicago to play a challenge match.  He found out my success on the table was no fluke… and I learned how to adjust against a great player who came out with an excellent gameplan and took the first set.  Challenge sets are incredibly strategic… I found out how important it is to make adjustments.

IL State… which I tried to block out of my memory.  I basically shit the bed at this tourney.  I’d prefer to not remember losing to 61 year old Mark Robbins… who has completely owned me the last several times we’ve met.  Mark just has the perfect style against me.  If you can copy his style – you can probably beat me right now… though it may take you, oh, 30 years to get good at this goofy style.

In the 2012 Vegas tourney – I finished master!  9th place, just squeaking into the top 10.  My only losses were from 10-time world champ, Danny Hynes (who also was in the finals of this tourney) and Mark Nizzi – who is an incredible player who has also been #1 in the world.  Everyone else I faced, I was able to overcome… most notably, August Parra and Joe Cain (x2).  I was especially happy since I fared so well against them.


Then I had a major breakthrough – July 11th.  On that day, I played a rated set against current World Champion Billy Stubbs – and won.  In 3 ½ years, I went from never playing against a rated player to beating the world’s best  (it certainly helped that I played him *a lot*).  But I also feel like this is no fluke, since I’ve beaten him 2x times in practice sets since then (including last night).

In August – I got a visit from Mr. Rosen – longtime player and the dedicated player who runs the Vegas tournament – and defended my title, winning the challenge match 4-0.  

In the 2012 Houston tourney, I finished worse than in Vegas, getting knocked out of the main draw by losing to tournament winner – Billy Stubbs and 3-time world champ Jose Mora.  Seems like I do a decent job when I’m not facing current or former #1 players!  I did lose to perennial master Travis Luscombe (though this was after I beat him in the winners bracket of my spinoff), and lost to Pete Lippincott.  I finished 19th in a very, very deep field.

Oh – and probably my greatest achievement to date was in the doubles tournament.  Where Q and I faced the team of Danny Hynes and Ehab Shoukry (they only have 12 world championships titles between them – they’re pretty freakin’ good).  We beat them 3 games out of 5 to send them into the loser’s bracket… and I was lucky enough to score every winning point.  We met them in the loser’s bracket, however – and they pasted us 3-0 – with Danny posting a 7-0 game against us.  They got immediate revenge.

Another significant set was when Keith Fletcher came to town… another great player – who’s been in many National-stage finals.  He came to challenge Billy’s #1 rank, and Billy really took it to him.  Q and I snuck in rated sets against him afterwards and we both won.  We may have been taking advantage of him a little – as it’s tough to be mentally focused after such a disappointing challenge match… but I’ll take a win against him anyday.

…and finally – the great and crafty Phil Arnold came to Chicago to challenge me (nice that I got a high enough ranking that people will travel to play me).  I’ve only faced Phil once before, and he got me pretty good.  He’s got a funky defense, he’s a former #1, and he’s an old guy – basically my kryptonite. It was a *tough* match… and I discovered that I can hit a right wall over.  I managed to adjust just enough to keep ahead of him – and it helped that I’m in better shape for such a long match.  He got up on me 2 sets to 0.. but then I figured it out and got the next 4 in a row.  Great match.

I feel like I’ve arrived as an air hockey player.  I have an identity, a unique playing style, and have some real wins against some of the best players in the world.  In a couple weeks, I’ll face players traveling from Venezuela… these guys are coming just to play air hockey (though I hope they get to see Chicago as well).  It’s simply awesome.   Someday, I hope to travel to Caracas as well.

So, yeah.. 2012 was great.. One of the things I’m working on now is doing some serious statistical analysis on what shots score… perhaps what sequence of shots work.  There’s more to this game than just hitting the shots!  The sequence, the adjustments, playing your strengths vs. your opponent’s weaknesses… all of this matters so much – and finding the right shot at the right moment is an interesting challenge I hope to… at least shed a little light on.  Who doesn’t love charts and graphs and statistics, and Dan going on too long about everything?  No one, that’s who.

Analysis #1 – Donovan Brown v Justin Flores

August 21, 2012

With the world championships wrapped up, and Billy Stubbs having won a 2nd major tourney in a row… I’ve decided to take my blog in another direction.  I’d like to pretend for a moment that I know what I’m talking about and add some commentary to the videos that Q and I took of the tournament. 

To check out our videos of the world championships – check out our vimeo page:

…but I’d like to take a time and break down a set between these very equally matched players.  I’ve played with Donovan in years past and have a great appreciation of his game.  He’s athletic, has great range and has shown improvement every time I see him.  He’s always looking to improve his game.  Justin – well.. I haven’t seen too much of his game, but did get some table time the night before the main tourney.  I briefly explained to him how my offense works and what pump fakes/time delays/mixing up your offense can do for you.  I’m known as being a guy who uses pump fakes and really just using timing changes and reading defenses to score… and I’ve seen a bit of a surge in the last year or so of people using pump fakes.

I thought this would be a fun match to break down because they’re two players that are very close in skill – each make adjustments, and Justin does a good job and a poor job of executing the pump fakes.. and I think I can illustrate when these time delays work and when they don’t.  It’s a really easy thing to incorporate into your game… but it does take some time.  I don’t mean to get on Justin’s case… I mean – he is showing how well he can be coached by doing this at all (assuming he wasn’t doing this before we played).

Anyway – here we go:

The match

Unfortunately – we start with game 2, as I must have missed the first game.  I really wish I had it, because it was a squeaker.. with Justin winning 7-6 against Donovan.

The first thing I notice is that both players have a good stance.  Both have their left hands on the back of the table… Justin’s feet are close to the table on offense, and Don looks athletic and active on defense.  Ok.. right off the bat, we see Donovan lose the puck by taking a series of quick shots – not setting up, and then Justin hits a nice, hard left wall under for the first point.  Don follows up by working on a cross/left wall attack, but loses the puck on an unforced error when he mishits the puck.  Justin takes 2 shots.. one offgoal cut – where he sees Don’s defense coming all the way back to the rail.. and he follows up by hitting a cross that scores.  2-0.  Don goes into what I call a ‘newbie’ cut, by using that left to right motion into a cut, which Justing defends perfectly.. and goes right into a quick cross.  Look at where Don defended that shot.. again – a straight where he’s on the back rail… 3-0 Justin.  Justin then makes another great turnover, and then at 0:58 – you can see him work in a nice little delay.  Don *again* pulls back, but at least he was correct in pulling back.. but Justin’s right wall under goes in.  Justin starts to run away with it, now and is up 4-0.  Don calmly sets up his shot and hits some offgoals… but again manages to lose the puck.  Justin tries to hit a left wall under, and loses it himself.  Don switches up to a cut/right wall attack and hits home a rwu. 4-1.  Justin hand serves and hits a cut which falls.  Again – every single score against Don… he’s been at the back rail (bad D).  5-1 Justin… but Don comes right back and hits an ace rwu to make it 5-2.  Justin then comes back and hits a cross motion shot to the cut side… but Don moves back enough that the shot sneaks in. 6-2.  There’s a good volley.. Justin blocks a straight by playing good, out defense… and Don must’ve seen that as he rips a nice under to make it 6-3.  Justin works in a delay under that misses.. but then hits a perfect left wall over to end it… winning easily 7-3.

So.. watching this game – I don’t see Justin doing anything special.. his shots are accurate, but Don is giving him points by pulling back for *every* shot.  He’s scored a decent mix.  2 cuts, 2 crosses, 1 rwu, 1 lwu, 1 lwo. Don scored 3 – all rwu’s.  Don also lost the possession battle in this game as well.. losing more pucks to unforced errors.  So.. if I was Don – I’d hammer home that rwu until Justin blocks it.. simplify my drifts so I don’t lose the puck.. and do a better job of playing out defense.  If I was Justin… I wouldn’t change a thing.

Game 3.

Don comes out and hits a *sick* left wall under to start the game 0-1.  Justin comes back and handserves a lwu for a score.  Don.. it looks like is just playing a pure zone defense where he’s pulling back to the middle of the table and daring his opponent to hit corners… It doesn’t seem to be working.  1-1.  Gross.. Don scores on himself 2-1.  Don catches Justin offguard and tries to hit a transition shot – but ends up flubbing it and giving up the puck.  J comes back and we start to see (at 2:51) a little bit of a pull back and long delay… and Don plays perfect defense.  There is a long volley that features J going for too many banks, and D giving up the puck before J scores with a cross. 3-1.  D comes back and aces a cross 3-2.  A little bit of a volley, and J scores a transition cut 4-2.  Don follows that up by scoring on himself again. 5-2… and he’s a little pissed off.  He does settle down and goes into a nice, slow drift… Justin gets a bit too aggressive and charges.  Don pops in the easy rwu 5-3.  Justin mixes up his cadence a bit and throws in a nice time delay, and beats Don to the corner with a nice rwu… 6-3.  Donovan comes back with an open v off the left rail and hits a rwu to make it 6-4 (it would be tied if Donovan didn’t score on himself 2x).  Justin comes back with a couple big time delays – and sets up a quick left wall under to end the game 7-4.

Key to this game is Donovan scoring on himself twice.  Against an evenly matched opponent.. 2 points is too much to give up.  Justin continues to score with a very good mix of shots.  He’s got a total of 6 straights to 5 banks.  Don is still mostly scoring with rwu’s… but if he can hit lwu’s like he started out with… he could be on to something.  But really.. he’s scoring almost all right wall unders.  If Don can compliment that with a cut – it would help him… but really.. he’s losing this set due to the fact that he’s just not maintaining control of the puck.  Let’s see what happens.

Game 4.

At 5:28, we see the first true pump fake by Justin.  Justin hits an offgoal, but he should have seen that Don pulled back again.  Justin tries a couple more delays, but scores with a non-delay left wall under 1-0.  D follows up with a simple drift and a nice, accurate cross. 1-1.  D gets a lucky break on more bad defense by pulling back on a straight.. but then does the exact same thing as before and pops in a quick cross.  1-2.  6:38 – we see Justin do some more pump fakes… but isn’t convincing enough to get Donovan to move.  D gets the puck and is now hammering home that cross.. 1-3.  Another back and forth… Almost every shot from Don is a cross… and with good reason.  Don is like a shark and he can probably taste it.  He’s showing his experience… when you see a shot working – hammer it home until the defense adjusts.  Many players – especially lower level ones simply can’t do it.  Here we go – Don hits *another* cross to go up 1-4.  Justin calls a wise timeout to wrap his head around this.  Justin counters by using pump fakes.. but notice how far away his mallet is from the puck when he does it.  It’s not close enough to the puck to convince Don the shot is coming.  Don gets the next shot to fall with a newbie cut that takes a bad bounce… this is Don’s first cut that scored since we’ve started watching… 1-5.  Justin hand serves a rwu for a quick score. 2-5.  At 8:10… Don wisely shoots another cross, but this time J stays out.  Key moment and shows the adjustment.  Defense reigns for some time before Don switches it up and hits the lwu – the compliment to the cross. 2-6.  Justin comes back and hits what I call a ‘bizarro cut’ – which is the cut motion to the cross side. 3-6.  Don ends up ending it with a right wall under.

This game was wholly owned by Don.  He didn’t make any really dumb mistakes – played clean… and then found the cross… and hammered it home until Justin adjusted.  By that time he’d already scored 4 crosses in a row.  That is what you call winning air hockey.

Game 5.

Boy.. when Donovan starts with that left wall under – it looks pretty good.  He does a good job here of setting up this shot, hitting offgoals and making Justin wonder what’s coming next.  The lwu comes faster in his cadence that he set with the offgoals.  Good, solid offense that shows an understanding on how to manipulate a defense and followed up with a great shot. 0-1  At 11:04.. we see that slow drift I’m famous for.. and a real pump fake… and look what happened! – Don’s defense flinches bad… but J didn’t follow up the fake shot with a real one fast enough and Don was able to recover.  A good pump fake has to be convincing.. and the real shot has to come pretty quickly after the fake – the idea is to get that defense out of position.  Don goes back to the cross – 0-2.  Don starts to get a little sloppy, and Justin tries to take advantage, but it doesn’t quite work – Don scores a nice transition under 0-3.  The set at this point has completely turned around… Don’s on a 10-3 run and hasn’t made the kind of blunders that cost him the first 2 games.  Justin isn’t having it and handserves a quick lwu to make it 1-3.  At 12:00, we see some more legit pump fakes, and we see Don moving.  Justin does it again… not the best pump fakes.. but he manages to get in a nice cross.  2-3.  Here.. Don makes a weird adjustment.  He’s given up 2 scores in a row, but instead of continuing to work the simple drifts – he speeds up his drifts and hits harder shots including a forehand.. unforced turnover.  Don gets the puck back with some good defense and seems to take my advice and hit a quick bang bang cross.  Don stays with the gameplan by slowing down and hits another cross.. Huge point to go up by two – 2-4.  Justin calls a timeout… gathers himself and hits a nice, hard lwu. 3-4… had this point gone the other way… it would have been huge for Don. Don responds by popping a good lwu – 3-5.  Justin tries another handserve and hits the puck in transition with a cut.  D goes back to old habits and pulls back for that shot.  4-5.  I must’ve missed a point, because Don scores the winning lwu 7-4.

So.. here, we’ve seen Donovan take the bull by the horns and hit more crosses and straights… but since Justin seems to have made that adjustment to block that cross, the lwu has opened up.  Don is still moving back on every shot, but Justin isn’t taking as many straights as he should… also – he’s missing to the center of the goal, giving Don easy turnovers.  A little bit more accuracy on his part can go a long way.  Donovan found a shot that works – and now he’s trying to keep ahead of Justin’s defensive adjustments.  It’s really where you’d like to put your opponent.  Justin’s just got to win one more game… but Don’t got all the momentum.

Game 6.

Don scores first with an unexpected cut shot.  We see some outstanding defense by both players.. and you can see the intensity has started to ratchet up.  Justin hits a cut shot that really catches Don offguard as it came in much slower than his other shots… and we’re 1-1.  Another good bout of defense, but Justin ends up with it before going into a medium paced circle drift and sinks a right wall under.2-1  It seems like each possession ends up hitting into the defense for a turnover.    Don breaks the stalemate by hitting a solid rwu. 2-2.  Justin has been very effective with hand serve lwu’s.. and works that magic again for another point. 3-2.  We see some more back n’ forth.. Justin committing 2 unforced turnovers but playing perfect defense… and then he hits a great lwu with a different release than what he’s done – hitting his shot closer to the centerline. It’s tough to defend that lwu when you can hit it from that position.  4-2.  This is followed up by D mis-hitting a double bank.. another unforced error… and Justin tries to capitalize, but instead finds his own goal.  4-3.  He comes back with a straight that is blocked by Donovan – again.. he’s back at the rail… but the puck slows down enough that D thinks he can get it.  He can’t – and Justin takes the quick transition shot off the right bank to the Left of D’s goal… would have been an over if D wasn’t so out of position.  A transition over is a pretty tough shot to defend… and a key point – 5-3.  Don comes back and, I think attempts his first left wall over.. and this one sinks. 5-4.  Justin, needing a point, hand serves that lwu – but D is on top of it.. he’s just seen it too many times.  8:55 – slow circle drift… Justin pump fakes, but I can’t tell if it freezes Don enough to let the under go.. or if Don was just pulling back to the center of the goal… either way – key point with a rwu to go up 6-4.  Don makes it 7-5 by going back to that simple cross straight.  Justin finishes Donovan off with a slow drift.. many pump fakes and hitting the under.  Pretty sure the pump fakes didn’t help him – but the accurate shot did the trick as Donovan just fell back to the center of the goal.

I’m sure I missed a couple here, but let’s look at the shot selection. 

Justin: 4 cuts, 4 crosses, 5 rwu’s, 0 rwo’s, 5 lwu’s, 1 lwo

Donovan: 2 cuts, 8 crosses, 7 rwu’s, 0 rwo’s, 5 lwu’s, 1 lwo. 

The big difference is Don scoring on himself.. but I like Don’s shot selection throughout the game… he just kept hammering that cross that was working for him.  Justin definitely mixed it up a little more, but was a little bit more disciplined on defense.  Both players had their moments where they couldn’t lose.  It did hurt me to see Donovan still pulling back for every shot – especially all of those straights.  A lot of people have this problem, though… and the solution is straights-only practice games. 

Anyhow… that’s how I see it.  I guess there wasn’t too much pump faking going on by Justin.. but it was nice to see him sprinkle it in his offense and getting D to move.

recent challenges

January 26, 2012

I challenged Goran recently.  Chris Lee is coming into town and Goran is top 10.  I’ve done well against him lately and our last challenge went 7 sets. I thought it was pretty legitimate and it’s been pretty common for someone to have to defend after a nice little jump in the rankings.  We played at Goran’s with Billy, Q, and Mike reffing.  We’ve all been playing a lot lately, and Goran’s experience just won out the day.  He played very smart – didn’t do too much chase bullshit and we both just played really well.  In between sets, I asked Billy if he had any advice – and he had next to nothing.  This means I was playing very well.  Actually, we both played very well.  Goran won this one… and we both elevated our defenses to levels we’ve never seen.  I know there was one game I was down 6-3 – and came back to win.  Tons of fun and it was a great experience.

Must’ve been something in the air because Mike challenged Q.  They played last night and Q just beat the ever living shit out of him.  It was gross.  Mike just had nothing… couldn’t adjust on defense and his only response was to hit the puck harder -which just caused the puck to fly off the table.  It was grim as Q beat him 16-1.  I actually felt a little sorry for Mike… there was just nothing he could do.  We looked up the stats and discovered that Billy beat Accrocco by an even worse margin.  I can’t even imagine someone beating a top 10 player by that much.

The match was over so quickly that we played a couple games of press your luck (I suck at this game… never been good at it).  Mike won one of the games, though he may have had a little help.  Then we played a little round robin tourney… where I lost to both Q and Mike.  Q made a surprising win over Billy.  All of the matches were 2 of 3.  Nick looked really sharp after he got warmed up.  God, it would be great to have these guys come out once a week again.

I really thought Mike had turned his appearance around.  After I humiliated him at the Blackhawk tourney (the DJ asked me how I’d do against him on the air – and I said a lot of off color shit about him… calling him a child who can’t dress himself was probably the nicest thing I said) I thought Mike had gotten his act together.  He stopped playing air hockey – and I think this was his big mistake.  He got “too busy” after he turned 21 and got a job working at a bar.  His pictures on facebook made it look like he’d learned to ditch the messy long hair, the dark goth-cartoony t-shirts and the super baggy jeans that hang around his ass.  He was sporting a new look at the bar.  Spiky, but clean cut mohawk, clothes that fit and didn’t project an image that he cuts himself in the dark of his self-created depression.  It looked like he could actually land a girl… and here he is again… playing air hockey – and he’d slipped back to his old ways.  I suppose it didn’t help that he’s working as a mechanic and can’t be bothered to wear nice clothes (understandable, because he’s covered in fucking grease the last couple times I’ve seen him), but he let his hair grow out and it doesn’t look like it’s seen a comb or a shower in weeks.  And the pants.  fuck.  the pants.  Dude wears jeans that are 10 sizes too big and what gets me is that he wears a belt with it… but he’s still having to pull them up because they sag to mid-ass.

Goddamn it Mike, get yr shit together.  Go ahead and get freaky hair – but put some effort into it. I don’t care what you do, just make it look intentional.  And go ahead and wear the hole-y jeans… but make them fit.  That baggy shit makes you look like a child.  You can do any weird shit you want so long as you make it look like you put some thought into it.  That’s what we liked about the mohawk.

Goddamn it Mike, we’re going to miss you if you make it to Florida like you keep threatening.  I hope you’re full of shit.



January 12, 2012

I like to think I’m a good influence on people.  For the most part, I encourage people’s vices and readily celebrate them – which, by most accounts would count as a bad influence.  In 2011, it was the year of self-improvement for ‘ol Dan.  I went on a diet, which wasn’t even my idea.  I just stuck with it more than my friends who put me up to it.  I started the year at over 250, and now hover around 210.  I want to lose more.  Last year, I started doing yoga.  It took my wife some convincing for me to join her – and her last ditch effort to get me to go was to tell me about the gender imbalance in class and the fact that there are a lot of tight pants and hot girls in whatever class I would take.  I was sold.  Turns out, it’s a great workout and it’s definitely contributed to my weight loss and my desire to have a photographic memory.  After losing a bunch of weight, Q and Billy wanted in.  They have different approaches to motivating themselves.  For them – it’s about competition.  I could probably get these two clowns to do just about anything if I made it into a competition.


All of us lost tons of weight… and we’re all better for it.  I think Billy lost something like 40 pounds (in about a third of the time it took me to drop the same amount of weight), and Q almost as much. 


But something else was motivating these two.  For Billy, it was obvious.  In the Vegas tourney, Billy lost to both Danny and Ehab.  The loss to Ehab was particularly tough since the first 5 games were all 7-6 games.  He didn’t have to wait long for a rematch.  He lost again to Ehab in the winner’s bracket 4-1 (and Ehab beat him by an average of over 2 points per game, which is dominating).  He then had to face Ehab again in the loser’s bracket and lost the set in game 7… another 7-6 nailbiter where the last point was scored on a flubbed in goal.


The weight loss challenge had begun, and to add to that, he had the motivation to try to gain an edge on Ehab.  He also had another giant piece of the puzzle:  a great sparring partner in Q.  And just as importantly,  both of them had understanding ladies at home.  Since the beginning of October, the two played constantly.  Every day.  To put this in perspective, when I started – I only played once a week and it didn’t take me long before I was beating some of the regulars.  It was a very large uptick in practice.  They even developed a very involved warm-up routine.  Snagging pucks was something Billy noted he was lagging recently and was determined to fix that… as well as drills designed to improve puck control.  But mostly, practice consisted of playing… over and over again.  I believe Q’s motivation is to finally beat Billy in a set – to beat one of the all-time greats and this was his chance.  From the time of this writing, they’ve played over 80 recorded sets since October.  And that may not even be half the sets they’ve played… and only 4 of those times did Q force a game 7.  No one comes close to the amount of recorded sets played.  I think I would be 3rd in the number of recorded sets played during that time – and most of them would be against Billy and Q.


In November, Q and Billy went to Houston.  Billy having lost tons of weight and looking like a completely different person.  Q was gunning for 3 different people: August, Syed, and Brian Accrocco.  Q’s main motivation seemed to be just gaining experience against the couple people he felt he was in league with… and if he could jump up in the ranks – all the better.  Playing 3 challenge matches in 3 days is pretty killer.  It’s not something that’s typically done.  He took the #5 spot in the world when he beat August 4 sets to 0… but then lost the remaining sets to Syed and Brian.  And speaking of Brian – he was planning on coming to Chicago to challenge Billy… but with Billy’s trip to Houston, Billy agreed to play him on Brian’s home turf.  Billy’s performance was like an omen.  Brian… who has more top 10 finishes than I care to look up got beat 4 sets to 0… and more impressively, won 1 game out of 17.  Billy then faced Ehab and got his revenge.  It was no cakewalk, however.  Billy got up early – taking the 1st set, and after Billy won the first game of the 2nd set – Ehab got on a roll… winning the next 6 games (and the 2nd set) – and it really didn’t look good for Billy.  When Ehab went on that streak – Billy didn’t score more than 4 points in any of the games.  Billy then turned the tides and then *he* won the next 6 games (and the 3rd set)… and was up 2 sets to 1.  The last set was competitive, but Billy won it 4-2.


Instead of running home with their new ranks and calling it a job well done – they didn’t stop.  Billy immediately challenged Danny Hynes for the #1 spot… and Q, putting up a pretty poor showing against Brian, issued a re-challenge.


Suffice to say – they didn’t stop practicing.


A little more than a week ago, they revisited Houston and brought Goran along.  Goran had his sights set to Syed.  Goran had been helping Billy practice and got into decent shape himself.  Goran didn’t drop a set to Syed and became the new #7 (August has some voodoo against Syed as he topped him again – only to lose his #5 to Pete Lippincott).  Q, again didn’t have any luck against Brian.


Danny v. Billy was quite the contest.  Heading into the match nobody was sure if Billy’s practice and recent success could carry through and beat, who, without any arguing – is the best air hockey player of the past decade (and can be argued, best of all time).  Danny’s recent tournament success is unparalleled.  Danny, however, hasn’t had quite the success in challenge matches as he’s had in tournaments… of course, saying this – is only the tiniest chink in his armor.. and he’s only lost challenge sets to Nizzi and Davis in recent years.  Danny is the best, plain and simple.  Predictions ranged all over the place… but one thing that couldn’t be argued was the physical condition of both.  Danny is a large man and his style of play is incredibly physical.  Billy had dropped tons of weight and looks prepared to run a marathon.  The comparison was stark – but this is air hockey.  Typically, how in-shape you are doesn’t really have much effect on the table.


The first set was pretty grim for the visitors.  Danny came out strong and won a couple very close games and looked every bit the champion he is.  Billy came out and tried to establish his cut/rwu attack – one he is not known for.  It wasn’t really going to work against Danny.  However, Billy responded and the second set was tighter… and Billy got all the breaks.. squeaking out a close 7 game set.  Set 3 was another very evenly matched set that went a full 7 games.  There was a line call that seemed to bother Danny which ended with some of the hardest shots I’ve ever seen – which sank for the win.  Billy then gave up his right wall attack in favor of a left wall attack and Danny started to get visibly tired.  Danny wasn’t as active on offense and wasn’t snagging the pucks he won in the first couple sets.  Even so… set 4 went again to the full 7 games – and Billy was able to tie things up.  From here, the unthinkable happened.  Continuing from the last game he won in the 4th set – he went on a winning spree the likes nobody had put on Danny… Billy then went on to win 9 games in a row… (12 out of the last 13).  It was  a dominating performance… and Billy became the new #1 in the world.


Right now, it seems Q and Billy are taking a break.. and by a break – going back to playing twice a week instead of every day.  Billy wants to win the next Nationals… but does he need Danny to be tired before he can overcome him?  Danny won the first 2 of 3 sets including the first set – which seems to be more important in winning a tournament than it does to win a challenge match.


I think it’ll come down to who is more motivated to win.  Right now, I know what Billy is capable of, but I don’t know about anyone else.




Singles – Houston, 2011

October 6, 2011

Ok – onto the singles.

I was very much looking forward to this tourney.  I’ve been steadily moving up in the rankings since I started playing this sport, and here I am – another chance to prove myself.  I had just finished 12th, in a weaker field… if I could come close to that in this tourney – it would be a success in my book, I believe.  Just want to keep making progress.

I wish I had all of my matches on video – but we decided that setting up cameras for all of our matches is tedious and a distraction.  So, we just set up our two cameras to record the main two tables pretty much nonstop.  This was pretty cool because we get to film everyone – so if a great game happens, we’ll have it recorded.

Day 1.

Now that we have some videos up on the ‘ol vimeo page, I figured I’d start writing about the last big tourney.

Let’s start with my first set against Nathan Gibson.  Nathan is at most 10.  I do pretty well against the youngsters.  I won this set pretty handily even though I had that moment of “here we go… ugh” after the very first shot Nathan hit went in with a perfect right wall over.  After the set, I chatted with Travis, and he told me that Nathan had scouted me and thought he’d take me without problem noting that I “couldn’t block a right wall under”.  Oh kids.  Also, it should be noted that I didn’t let up on Nathan at all.  There was going to be some odd spinoff system where the lower brackets were going to be split in two based on how many points you scored against people.  It was understood to me that you should try to win every point even if you were playing a kid… but I’m not sure if everyone went out there and tried to destroy their opponent… even if they’re 10 years old.

After that set, I went right into the teeth of a champion… Albert Ortiz.  I did what I normally don’t do, and that’s start out slow.  Albert’s got a fancy style and takes most of his shots from the back half of his side.  His shots vary in speed… blistering unders or off-speed overs.  Very hard to tell where they’re coming from.  My defense really couldn’t stop him… and my offense faltered enough.  I caught a spark in game 3  with my cross that I hoped would be enough to get me going… but all great players are very good at adapting.  I just couldn’t keep up with him.  My inexperience against great and unique players is highlighted below.

I got sent to the loser’s bracket right off the bat.

After a long time waiting… I got to play in another set against Kevlyn Lunos.  Kevlyn moves the puck with great control and likes to hit crosses, which I tend to defend reasonably well unless the person has a great left wall under.  I just felt too confident against him.  After Albert, I felt like I could defend anyone better.  I worked my standard pump fake right wall under/cut attack, and even mixed in some cross/left wall shots.  Everything was working and humming along, and the scores proved it.  Kevlyn never got more than 3 points on me in any game.

Like I said, Kevlyn has great puck control, but I think he needs to work on hitting the puck harder.  He’s got the fundamentals in spades – but just doesn’t have the zip.  I felt like I could sit on any straight and know I had enough time to get back to block any banks… that and I could snag pucks much easier.  Adding more zip puts pressure on the defense – I’d much rather face someone who really knows how to play, but doesn’t have velocity than someone who just swings like a Wildman.

My next set was against Fernando Guillen.  It looks like he’s been playing a long time (going on 8 years), and still has his youth.  Steadily marching up the ranks, as it were.  I always have a goal of just trying to mow over anyone who gets in my way.. striking early and never letting up.  Fernando played well and seemed to adapt to my offense by the 4th game – which he won 7-6.  The last game, I managed to put him out 7-6.  Had he won this game… it could have been a different story.  I managed to take him out – and Fernando absolutely destroyed his spinoffs… with his only close set with Hernandez.  It’s only one spot higher than where he finished last year, but I could tell he was much improved.  Usually when you win your spinoff, it means that you were taken out of the tourney too early.

Ok.. so I had won both of my loser’s bracket rounds… from here – all of my sets get very difficult.

My next match was against Goran Mitic.  I’d only beaten Goran once out of I think a million sets… and it was a 4-0 rout in his basement… and he was experimenting with some low-top mallet he’d glued finger inserts onto.  It was still enough for me to have at least a tiny bit of confidence.  I came out swinging.  Two things really helped me – I was getting Goran moving with my pump fakes, and then he’d instinctually cover his cut side if he felt a straight coming – but I was hitting a “power cross”… which is basically a cut motion straight, but to the right (or “cross”) side.  The other is that I could actually play defense against him.  Goran is a streaky player.  He can get behind by missing shots or by chasing the puck and committing an unforced turnover.  And then he can take such wild shots in transition that you can’t hope to block them – everything happens so quick, that you’re going to be out of position at least some of the time – or you’re just going to let Goran chase and not take advantage of potential turnovers.

So.. how did I do?  Well.. I started off incredibly well.  I won the first three games, 7-2, 7-3, and 7-3… completely on fire.  I had this set in the bag, right?  Goran starts tightening up his defense and starts getting just absolutely sick accurate with his shots.. and then *he* goes on a run.  7-5, 7-5, and 7-6… ugh.. close ones… and then heading into the final game – I managed to block nearly everything my way and win 7-2 (total points an impressive 44-31).  Goran went on to fight (and ultimately lose to) perennial master, Travis Luscombe in the spinoffs, even though Goran sent Travis initially to the loser’s bracket in the main draw… each set went the full 7 games.

Check it:

Of course.. playing one IL player is one thing… going down to Houston to play your doubles partner is another.  This time, Q.  This tourney was to be Q’s coming out party.  A mere 20 months ago – this guy came to our IL state tourney and got destroyed… he just couldn’t compete with the game he had.  Now.. he was facing me after very nearly beating a member of the “new guard” – Davis Lee… which would have been the biggest upset I’ve ever witnessed.. and possibly ever.  Q was on fire, and just because I faced him… he wasn’t going to let up.  I played sloppy, and Q was sharp.  It was not pretty.  Big congrats to Q, because after he beat me – he got tossed from the tourney by Tim Weissman, and then won his bracket beating a murderer’s row of tough players (August and Nick x3).  I know Q wanted to face Syed just to play everyone in the spins… but it wasn’t to be… anyway – Q finished 9th, his first Master level finish.  20 months… and a master – his velocity up the ranks is undeniable… I have no idea where he’s going to top out.

So.. out of the tourney I go.  I’m guaranteed at least 16th place, which isn’t too bad.. and I can finish as high as 13th.  I have, what I think, is a pretty good draw for my spinoffs.  I don’t have to face Goran or Travis – and I think they really should be in this bracket instead of just below me.  My first opponent in the spins is Evan Seigworth.  I did *not* want to take him lightly.  I saw this guy beat Anthony Marino last year, which is something I would have a very hard time doing.  Evan is just a straight up solid player.  He’s got every shot, a good defense, nothing that he really relies on – he will shoot any shot at any time and does not make many mistakes at all.  I feel like I’m very streaky compared to him.  Our first game came down to the final point… and from there – I settled down and started to roll.  He never got more than 3 points after that.  I was playing at a *very* high level.  I was reading his shots, blocking well.. and my offense was still working well.  Felt good with a 4-0 win.  Actually.. it was the second day of the tournament and I felt great.  I’d been losing weight since the beginning of the year and I’ve been playing a lot.  My body was in great shape and even though I played a ton the day before… I was still feeling great.

So.. Evan, Tad Gibson, and Joe Cain were in my bracket.  I was worried most about Joe since he’d beaten me up pretty good in Vegas recently.  I never ran into him – a very surprising set happened when Tad beat him.  I remember reffing this match and it was really odd.  First off, Joe was complaining about hurting his finger… but beyond that – Tad plays by charging and trying to time when the offense is going to take a shot.  He takes chances that can work out well for him… and Joe made it easy for him.  Joe didn’t alter his cadence for his shot at all, and Tad was guessing correctly more times than not.  So.. I got to watch very closely what works and doesn’t work against Tad, and Tad took out what I thought would be my toughest competitor.

So.. since Tad and I both won our first round, I would face Tad.  My entire offense is based on the defense not being able to guess when my shot is coming.  My pump fakes either get the defense moving (which gives me information on what shot to take), or they stay still a little too long and I can pop quick unders.  I learned by watching the previous game to stay put on defense and not get too involved in trying to snag pucks because Tad is always trying to score the transition goal.  I played very well.  The most Tad got was 5 points against me, and  I outscored him exactly 2-1.  Another 4-0 rout.

Joe faced Evan in the loser’s bracket… and after my 4-0 win against Evan.. I was really hoping he’d take care of Joe for me.  Evan didn’t disappoint – and came out to a 3-0 lead.  Joe was getting extremely frustrated… I think this is when Joe made a grip adjustment to allow his hurt finger a chance to breathe… and he pulled out some impressive wins, 7-5 followed by two 7-2 wins.  It came down to the final game, and Joe had completely turned things around… and I recall Evan getting an early lead and causing Joe to lose his cool.  Evan ended up winning 7-4.  I couldn’t have been happier.

My rematch with Evan was similar to our first set.  One game came down to the final point, and the rest I ran away with… another 4-0 win.  I was very happy with my spinoff performance.  I didn’t lose a single game… going 12-0 in my spinoffs.  So… recap of the IL guys:

Billy finishes 3rd after losing to Ehab in a 6-6 game 7 nail biter when Billy blocks a shot very well.. only for the puck to flub in.  Q finishing master while winning his spinoff.  I winning my spinoff,  Goran nearly winning his spinoff, and “Evil” John Song finishing 38th (much better than my first Houston tourney).  Very, very good turnout by IL.

Highlights:  Q nearly beating Davis Lee and ending up finishing master, Billy absolutely picking apart Tim Weissman, and myself beating Goran for the 2nd time ever.

Q also had confidence that even if I had beaten him in our set, that I would have gone on to win out in the bracket he won… thanks for the vote of confidence.

One more thing that needs to be said.  There was a mentorship award that was given out at the awards ceremony.  I thought, for sure, it would go to Billy.  I think there are a number of reasons for this… and the most glaring is just the success of the people who play with him, who are new to the sport.  Exhibit A: Q… finishing master after 20 months of playing seriously.  Everything Q learned came from Billy.  I, myself, owe my entire game to Billy… and here I am knocking on the door to Masterhood.  One more reason is that we put up a video of Billy giving his lesson for the cross/left wall attack – one that Billy is particularly known for.  Since we put it up, we’ve had the video loaded 535 times (according to our vimeo stats, and has 987 views according to  We’re planning on adding more tutorial videos.  Billy has always been one to give advice… build us up when we’re feeling low and tearing us down when we develop bad habits.  My and Q’s success are directly related to his mentorship.  This is not a dig at Danny – who may be the best and most passionate air hockey player of all time.  I think Danny is great at talking about the mindset it takes to be a champion – and he’s an absolutely astounding competitor.  It could be that I haven’t seen all the work that Danny has done, but I think Billy’s contributions in developing talent are palpable and significant.

2011 International Air hockey – Doubles

August 19, 2011

Ok, I guess I can begin with doubles. I was considering not participating, just like in Vegas… but I realized that I’ve been playing enough to not be sore the 2nd or 3rd day out. I feel like last year I really suffered from being sore… but a lot has changed in that time. Q has caught up to me in skill, for one… and I thought he’d make a great doubles partner. We’re basically Billy’s apprentices and to see how far we could get (either in doubles or singles) would be a testament to how well he’s advised us over time.

Q and I formed our team: Rainbows, Unicorns, and Pixies. Q’s wife even designed a shirt for us that features Tinkerbell holding back the mane of a unicorn throwing up a rainbow – all on a cloud that says, “My World” on it. We finished it off with rainbow wristbands. I’ve always considered doubles to be a fun event to tune up for the real deal. People come up with crazy names to call themselves for these things, so we thought we’d follow suit.

Wearing “periwinkle” colored shirts and getting ready to play in one of the biggest air hockey tournaments when I was sleeping in Chicago that morning was a bit of a change of scenery. Jarring, to say the least… but here we were and we pulled our draw of Jacob and Avery. I’d been told that these guys have been practicing 4x a week and watching air hockey videos. It seemed pretty awesome to me that these guys have been putting in the effort to get better.

These guys play pretty good. You can see that they’re still working on mechanics and don’t have every shot… or at least with the accuracy and zip you need. I like Avery’s style. He uses the same attack Q and I started with… a simple cut/under attack (as a lefty, cut/left wall under). Mastering this before moving on to more complicated attacks is what has worked for Q and I.

After a shaky start – and really, a very close set.. Q and I overcome these young upstarts.

Our next set was against the reigning #1 and #2 of the sport, Danny Hynes and Ehab Shoukry. Unfortunately, we don’t have this on film. It would have been great to look over this set again. I believe they got up 2-0 before we squeezed a game out of them… and another was close. I know I had a hard time scoring against Ehab – and he scored at will on me. I know I got Danny with a good pump-fake, but was otherwise worthless. Q shined, though. He’s the only reason we came close.

Shot into the loser’s bracket, we met up with the team of Joe Cain, and Travis Luscombe… two master-level players that would test Q and I. I’ve played well against Travis in the past… and poorly against Joe in Vegas. I know Q struggled against Travis’ cross, but we got Travis with a lot of right wall unders. It all kind of evened out, as we played 5 very close games. I wasn’t sure how well I did until I watched the videos, and I counted 19 goals that I scored, vs 15 I scored against me (including the heartbreakers I scored against myself). Almost good for a +1ppg. Of course, all of the pressure fell on Q – when in the 5th and final game, I got us up 6-5, and then scored on myself. Timeout was called, and Q and I talked about what shot he should take. Q’s best shot against Joe was his cut. Q just looked at me and said, “Cut?” and shrugged his shoulders. I looked… hemmed and hawed a bit… and then said, “uhh.. ok”. Q goes right out there and hits his cut, which Joe charged. Talking with them later – they knew we were going to hit a cut, and a charge is the correct thing to do (and very gutsy). Instead of forcing a turnover, the charge sent the puck off the table – and Q was able to recover for the win! Q and Travis had a Chipotle side-bet… which we also won. Yay.

We went on to play another team – Mark Butler and Tory Evans. The biggest thing about playing the two was that the older guy had the softest mallet I’ve ever seen (great for defense), and the youngster had a high density mallet (puts a lot of pop on offense). I don’t recall the scores, but I remember doing well.

Our next match was against Davis Huynh and Anthony Marino. I like both of these guys a lot, and I didn’t think we had a much better chance against them than we did against Danny/Ehab. It felt like I had a chance to score against Anthony, if I could be accurate at all. Davis pretty much shot whatever he wanted (including great lwo’s). Q had his moments, but we got 3-0’d… and shot out of the tourney.

This tourney featured spinoffs… so we got one more chance to elevate us one more place higher. And we got to play a couple very old-school players. They like to play a back rail defense and do some bizarre shit. Tom hit tons of one-twos or just straight up volleyed. Hernandez also featured some great shots… but a defense that should have been much easier to score on. Q and I lost this one, but felt that if we were to face them in the tournament – we would fare very well against them.

…and that’s it. We finished 6th in the tourney. We beat Travis and Joe, which was our highlight. More importantly, fun was had by all.

Oh – and Billy/Tim beat out Danny/Ehab in a very close set.

Seeding FAQ

August 13, 2011

So. I wrote out the advantages and disadvantages of a ratings vs. ranking system for seeding air hockey tournaments. I tried to be as balanced as possible… but I think I’ve discussed all the major questions we have regarding the two systems. If I didn’t answer good enough, or didn’t bring up enough examples – please comment below. I’m going to post this on ahw as well – where I imagine most of any discussion will be.

Current seeding system:
Q: Hey man, how’s this thing work?
A: Pretty simple. Just look at the last major tourney – seed everyone that way they finished last time.
Q: Well that’s easy, huh? Well… wait. What about people who’ve never been to a tourney – how are they seeded?
A: Meh – we just randomly throw them somewhere on the bottom. Unless we “know” them, then we put them where we think they should go.
Q: Sound pretty arbitrary to me
A: Nah – it’s not really arbitrary, it’s just that if you’ve never been to a major tourney we have to have allowances for this. Take Randal Leistikow, he’d never been to a tourney, but we know he had beaten some good Colorado players and earned his rank through a challenge match victory. We think he got seeded correctly.
Q: Well.. what about someone who went to one tournament, but missed the most recent one?
A: We have a system for that. For each major tournament you miss – you drop 3 spots. Then we tack on .5 right before the tourney to make sure you don’t share the same spot as someone else. There are limits to this, though.
Q: Such as…?
A: Well… we classify players. Say someone finishes master a couple times. This player is established as an ultra-pro player, and if they miss a tourney on top of having a bad outing… it would be unfair to the person who had to play this person early on. So, we put them at the bottom of the “ultra-pros” – which is 12th. This is what happened with Travis for this tournament. He missed the last tournament – and finished a little bit lower than master in the last tourney he competed in.
Q: Ah.. ok. So let me summarize. The basic structure is the finish of the last tourney, plus we fudge for non-participation, and we fudge for “established” players.
A: Yes. Of course, the non-participation punishment isn’t really that severe, and although the number 3 for losing rank is arbitrary, it’s applied evenly to everyone. I guess the biggest point of contention is this last point. Someone could look at Mark Robbins and say he’s an ultra-pro, and someone could look at him and just say he’s a pro. You look at his last tourney (his lowest finish ever) and say that he’s definitely a pro, but look at the history of all of his playing – and you could justify him being an ultra-pro. This is the part of the current system that gets the most flak. It’s based on how well “known” this player is. A player from outside the established community would have a hard time getting properly seeded. This system seems to work well for the size of air hockey right now, but it doesn’t scale up very well should we have tournaments with 200 or more players. Imagine how a tournament director would seed a tourney in such a way. I might play a major tourney with 60 people early in the year and finish 30th, but if were put in a tourney with 120 people – should I be seeded 30th? Or 60th? The current system would say 30th… and you would benefit from playing in smaller tournaments with a weaker field. Not only that, but if we were to have a tourney with 200 players, figuring out exactly where to seed a new player would be incredibly difficult if not impossible. How do you determine if someone should be put in at 80th, or 160th? Players are also terrible at self-analyzing. Cory Dzbinski came to his first tournament in Vegas and if you would have asked him what his rank would be – he’d probably tell you he was a ‘4’, but he’s closer to a ‘2’ (sorry Cory).
Q: Any other ways you can change your seed?
A: Yes. Play a challenge match. If you think there’s someone ranked higher than you – play a challenge match, which is a grueling 3 of 5 sets or 4 of 7 sets (depending on how the defender decides). If you challenge a higher ranked player and win – you take his spot, and everyone between your ranks drop one.
Q: How many chances do you get to challenge someone? Can they decline?
A: As many times as it takes, and they can’t decline, but a defender can push off the acceptance of a challenge set a certain amount of time. Challenge matches are fun ways to encourage players to travel to play epic and very meaningful games. If you beat the #1 guy – you get to be ranked #1 in the world! The downside of this is “regional clumping”. Two years ago Dan Meyer played in his first major tournament in Houston. A bunch of guys from Chicago finished in various spots (Mike Y finished 33rd, Dan 49th, Nick H 53rd). So, after the tourney – they all played challenge sets. Nick beat Mike, then Dan beat Nick, and then Mike beat Dan. So, their rankings changed from 33rd, 49th, and 53rd to 33rd, 34th, and 35th.
Q: Have other problems come up?
A: Yes. In the 2009 tournament, Mark Nizzi (a guy who generally finishes in the top 5) dropped out of the tournament mid-way through… and finished 48th. According to the system, this is his rank. Now, before the next tourney, he’d get moved up to a reasonable seed (top 10, at least)… but in the meantime, here he is with this low ranking. What if he wants to challenge the #25 guy for his rank? He’s technically below that person and can challenge for a higher rank. Should he be able to? Mark could challenge anyone in the top 16 to get the right matchup going into the next tourney. If he picked up the #8 rank to get the matchup he wanted – would the tournament director move him up to #6? A small movement in seed could change the matchups for all the top players where there is a style advantage, and someone would get the short end of the stick. What if Mark challenged the #16 ranked person and lost? Would he justify a top 10 seed? Where exactly would you put him?.. it becomes a difficult position to put any tournament director. Where Mark was placed in the 2011 Vegas tourney was ultimately determined by vote, and this displeased a number of players.

Q: Ok, I get it, I get it. The current system tries to be as fair as it can – and it has those challenge matches, which are really cool despite you talking about “regional clumping” – who comes up with this stuff anyway? So, this all well and good. Are there any other ways to seed a tourney?
A: Yes. Goran Mitic a couple years ago proposed we keep track of our scores and rate air hockey players statistically using the Elo method.
Q: Wait, let me stop you right there. I hate math and all of its witchery. I came here to play air hockey, not muddle with numbers all day.
A: Can you add and multiply?
Q: Yeah – that’s easy. I thought you were gonna get all crazy with statistiacal cluster analysis, Hilbert spaces and Fermat’s last Theorem on me. I can add and multiply.
A: Ok, then. Let’s start from the beginning where you’re not rated just yet. Goran thought that in order to get rated, you should have to play 5 different people a best of 7 set. We figure that if you play 5 different people, that we’d have a good idea of how skilled you are. So, let’s say there is a new player who wants to get established. He (player A) starts with 1,200 points (everyone starts exactly the same)… and he plays someone (player B) with 1,300 points. So, we take the difference in ratings (1,300-1,200=100) and look at the chart here: That Elo guy calculated the odds someone would win based on this system. So, with a difference of 100 points, Player B is expected to win 63% of the time.
Q: What does that mean?
A: Well.. according to the ratings, Player B is expected to win – so if he beats Player A… he’ll get some points, but not as much as if Player B pulled an upset. Does that make sense?
Q: So… I get more points for beating someone really good, but not as many for beating someone not as good?
A: Exactly.
Q: So, how many points exchange hands? How is that calculated?
A: Well. Context is important here. We, as a community, put more emphasis on big tournaments and challenge matches than when players just get together to play during a weekly event. So, we can multiply the final result by a factor of “importance” or “value of match”. Ok – so here’s the basic calculation:
Rating’ = Rating + Value Of Match * (Set Won or Lost – Win Expectancy)

Rating’ = New rating
Rating = Old rating
Value of match = (see chart below)
Set Won Or Lost = 1 for win, 0 for loss
Win Expectancy

It’s pretty simple, here’s an example:
Example 1: Player A has a rating of 1200 and Player B has a rating of 1300. Player B is expected to win 63% of the time, based on their rating.

If player A wins a challenge set his new rating would be 1219 =(1200 + 30(1-.37)) and player B would have a new rating of 1281 (1300 + 30(0-.63)).

If it was reversed, and player B won – because player B is *expected* to win more often than not, the point swing isn’t as great. If A lost, he would only be 1189, and B would only go up to 1311. An 11 point swing instead of a 19 point swing.
Q: Ok, I get it. Pretty simple math. So – one thing bugs me. How is “value of match” determined? Seems arbitrary that it’s 30 for normal Mitic sets, 60 for State Tourneys, and 90 for Nationals.
A: True, but Goran has run the numbers with different factors. Thing is, with Air hockey – we don’t have a ton of matches entered into the database. If everyone played hundreds of mitic sets each year – we could have a low factor, and you’d slowly creep to a very accurate rating. Right now – after you play a dozen or so sets, your rating should be pretty accurate. Also, some players tend to play each other *a lot*. Instead of having lots of challenge matches and seeing this “regional clumping”… you’ll get an accurate proportion. Let’s use Dan and Q as an example. If you look at their history, they each take sets off of each other. Q wins slightly more than Dan… but if Dan were to challenge Q for his #9 spot, after a couple challenge matches – odds are good that Dan would win one of them, and then they’d be ranked #9 and #10. But if they just play for ratings, if Q wins 63% of the time – the Mitic system will push them so that Q will average about 100 points more than Dan to reflect Q’s actual win percentage. Now – back to “value of match” – the higher the number, the bigger point swings there will be. There should be a balance. Too high point swings, and someone could be rated 12th, then play a couple matches and go all the way to 24th, then back up to 16th. A lower value would just take someone many, many matches to get to where they should be in terms of rating… and if someone makes a big jump in skill – it’ll take more matches (data points) to adjust their rating to the proper spot. Ultimately, this number is used equally for everyone… so long as these values are consistent, it doesn’t really matter what the values are… the system will work.
Q: Ok.. I think I’m getting it. So.. the other system had some fudge factors to deal with people missing tourneys and whatnot. How does the Mitic system deal with some of these complicated problems?
A: After 2 years (1 year) of inactivity players with a rating total of more than 1200 will lose 10% of the difference of their rating and 1200. This does not have any effect on the calculations of prior matches.
After 2 years of inactivity the player will be dropped from the rating list. If the player plays after they drop they will be treated as a new player. This does not have any effect on the calculations of prior matches.
Q: Any other rules I should be aware of?

A: You must play 5 different players with at least 1 player having an official rating to earn an official rating. Until you have an official rating, your rating is “provisional”. When a player with an official rating and a player with a provisional rating play a match, only the rating of the player with the provisional rating will be affected. This is so an established player isn’t punished by someone who may be really good and is way underrated. Playing new people should be encouraged.
Q: So – what does this have to do with seeding?
A: Seeding a tourney with this system in place is that we can rate everyone who’s been keeping track of their sets. You just lay everyone out by Mitic points, and that’s your seeding list, which makes the process very simple and completely objective.
Q: Yeah – but what if I don’t want to keep score… I just want to play for fun.
A: It’s neat to have a record of all your matches. You can track just how well you were at any point in time. Wouldn’t you like to see how you’ve been performing over time? Most players like to have some kind of record of that time when you finally pulled out that upset against a rival.
Q: But the seeding isn’t done like this, anyway – why should I care to record all my sets?
A: Well. Someday, we may decide that a statistical ranking system will be better for seeding. Until then, recording your scores will help us evaluate the Mitic system so we can see how accurate it is. Plus, we’ll have a record for how well you’ve been performing – for many players, having this record in a database is nice to have.
Q: Well – I play in Houston, and we play handicapped best of 5 sets. How do you apply Mitic ratings for this?
A: Right now, you don’t. There is a way you could do it, but the math gets messy. I know Houston doesn’t like to pummel beginners into bloody paste as it can be very discouraging… but more established players have begun to waive their point spread so that they can have their set count towards the Mitic ratings. Even if the set isn’t a best of 7 for a normal Mitic set – Goran has been working on what kind of “value of match” values one could do for a “best of 5” or even a single game. Having this in place lets completely new players that aren’t willing to play a best of 7 get into the system.
Q: So, let’s say I have a regular practice partner who’s pretty good and beats lots of other people, and I match up very well to this person – and I just beat him all the time – isn’t beating the same person over and over a limitation in the Mitic system?
A: This has happened. Again with the example of Mark Nizzi. He and Keith Fletcher (both highly rated players) played many sets, and Mark has won them all. Looking at the difference in Mitic points – Keith should have won more than what happened and the points are skewed towards Mark. Goran has considered having another factor for limiting the number of times one can take points from a single person over a certain period of time to deal with this because certain style matchups can give a player a skewed advantage in Mitic points.
Q: So many numbers! I thought I had it figured out, but there are all these weird rules in place!
A: Not really. The number that changes is just that “value of match” for the most part. The others are statistical ways we align the points, much like the current system punishes players for not showing up in a tourney.
Q: So, let’s see if I get the basics… if you win a match you go up based on the skill of your opponent and the importance of the set. If you lose, you go down the same.
A: I think you got it.
Q: Ok, ok. So, what are the main differences between the two – any advantages one has over the other?
A: Well, the current system’s big advantage is in challenge matches and encouraging really important challenge matches when there are no tourneys going on. The Mitic system acknowledges this, and adds a point bonus to these challenge matches so that there’s a bigger point swing (and making it more significant). There are 2 ways in which the Mitic system deals with complicated problems better than the current system. The first is the “Nizzi issue” in the first case where Nizzi drops out of a tournament early. Instead of losing his rank from 5th to 49th… he will lose Mitic points, but it won’t be as drastic of a move. Nizzi will be nudged down, but the movement won’t be nearly as drastic. Nizzi can then play anyone he wants to recover those lost Mitic points, and he’ll benefit by getting a better seed in the next tourney (should we adapt the Mitic system for seeding). The other thing is in large tourneys with many unknown players. It’s much easier to get a Mitic rating by playing people in your area than it is to make it to a national tournament. If a player from Russia were to show up to one of our tournaments, we can look at his Mitic rating to see where he would be seeded. Without the rating system in place, the current system would have a difficult time figuring out where that person should be. The current system does a good job of seeding 1-32, but has a problem dealing with seeding people much further down the line. The Mitic system also does a better job of telling people “how good they are” compared to the field. There may be a big jump in skill between 7th and 8th place, but the current system doesn’t measure “how much better” – the Mitic system gives you a better idea how you compare to everyone else. The Mitic system also encourages playing more frequently. Each set gets you closer and closer to your true rank. The more data in the system, the more accurate the system is. One downside to the Mitic system is that it takes a lot of work to maintain this database, and if tournaments aren’t being seeded in this manner, there’s less incentive to record your scores.
Q: Well then, that was much longer than I thought it was going to be.
A: Yes, sorry about that.

Day 2 – the end of the tourney

July 20, 2011

So. Re-watching my set against Randy Lind was fun. It was cool to see the people in the background taking up my game and cheering me on. Syed got a front-row seat for the performance… and why not? He was going to play the winner.

Oh Syed. How you’ve become my nemesis. Syed ended my tournament last year in the spins, and this time – he took me out of the loser’s braket. Syed’s been very active in Houston, and it shows. The first time I played him – he beat me 4-0 in what was the only shutout I had in Houston last year. This time I knew it was going to be different because I was so much better.

Well.. it didn’t turn out that way. Syed came out intense and won the first game. I was nervous and playing that way. I recall making some really bad unforced turnovers which crippled me. Sy took the first game 7-3. Then came the back breaking. Not one, but two 7-6 games went Sy’s way. He was up 3-0, and I was two points away from being up on him instead. It’s rough. I then found my groove and turned it into a match. I found my defense and settled down to win the next two games decisively, 7-3, 7-4. Game 6 was another nail biter… and Sy took another, backbreaking 7-6 game. We each scored the same number of points in the set… but it’s a killer to lose so many 7-6 games.

After the set was over.. it felt like I had made too many mistakes and Sy just played better than me… but the stats say we’re dead even. I didn’t play my best, for sure. I have a feeling we’ll keep running into each other. I’ll get him one of these days. For now, it’s a great rivalry. We’re both at the top of our games and I should spend some time looking at film to get a feel for his game before we meet again.

I’ll keep this short.. in the spinoffs – I faced Fletcher and Cain. Fletcher beat the crap out of me.. 4-1. I managed to take the first game, but that was it. My set with Joe was much closer. I took the first two games.. and then he managed to get 2 7-6 games after that. He still had almost a point per game on me, though. Looking at the number of 7-6 games, it looks like they really cost me in this tournament. Looking at the close games where I lost.. it was lost in 7-6 games. Pretty interesting.

I left this tournament thinking I had played really poorly and even though I finished at my all time high (12th), I felt as though I made a lot of mistakes that could have been prevented. I’m learning that to really play well, you have to have a calm mindset, but have to be fierce and active at the same time. Your body has to be quick but under control.