Air Hockey Information

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dot"The puck flies back and lightning speed -- tocka-tocka-tocka -- and the players' faces are twisted into caricatures that shift between wild excitement and intense concentration.

"And the crowd watching is cheering and not quite believing how fast the puck is going until thwack! The puck lands in one of the goals. It gets pretty intense and the crowd usually lets loose with a mighty whoop for the scorer and good-natured jibes and condolences for the score-ee."

This isn't a scenario from an NHL game. It's a scene from an air hockey game, as described by 26-year-old Jasmine Suwa, a player since 1996.

dotA tabletop arcade-style game introduced in 1972, air hockey gives people the excitement of the fastest game on ice, even if they've never made it to the rink.

"Since I am an ice hockey fan, it was a thrill knowing you can practically bring it to the table," says Michael Roland. He has been hooked on the game for three years now.

dotSince '72, air hockey has grown from a game that people played in their basements and local arcades to a competitive sport with an international association, player rankings and professional tournaments.

However, you won't likely see regular ESPN coverage of air hockey competitions in the near future. In fact, many players agree that air hockey doesn't get the notoriety it deserves.

"I would like corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi to start sponsoring sanctioned events, just like they do for foosball and pool," says Roland. In an attempt to make this happen, Roland promotes the sport more than he plays it.

dotStill, there remains a strong contingent of players that take it less seriously. Though they're skilled players, they don't strive for pro status.

Suwa is one of these more casual players. She thinks of air hockey as more of a game than a sport. "We tried, this past season, to play a little more professionally," says Suwa. "But it just wasn't as much fun for me, personally. I like playful competition as opposed to cutthroat, all-out war."

She adds, "I think my biggest claim to fame was coming in third place once and getting a stuffed bear!"

dotRegardless of how seriously you take the game, you'll need excellent hand-eye coordination and agility to play. A player uses a small paddle to push the puck -- a small plastic disc that rides on a bed of air -- toward the opposite goal. Tables vary in size, but are commonly eight-feet long by four-feet wide.

dotTournaments are often held in large arcade facilities, where as many as a dozen games may be played at once. Some players end up with a shelf full of trophies from tournament wins. But not all air hockey players are competing for prizes. Some are in it purely for the fun.

"I've never participated in an event with a cash prize or anything more than a stuffed animal," says player Neal Slowik. "I did, however, win a Hershey's Cookies and Cream bar off my friend Bill last month."

dotAccording to international air hockey competitor Niki Jaquette, there are about 15 women out of 100 serious professional players. Even among casual players, says Suwa, "there are just so many more guys than girls....I'm not sure why.

"I think there may be a stereotype associated with air hockey -- that it's a guy thing. But all I have to say about that is that boxing, swimming, poker and even voting were considered guy things once upon a time," says Suwa.

The moral of the story? Just about anybody can participate in air hockey. "Air hockey doesn't particularly require great strength or brawn, only skill and a little luck," says Suwa.

dotAccording to Slowik, air hockey doesn't require much lower body movement. It's all arms, eyes and a lot of coordination. "The height of the table would require someone in a wheelchair to modify the chair so they sit higher," says Suwa. "But it can be done."

dotInjuries are rare, though pucks have been known to fly dangerously out of bounds. According to Suwa, getting hit by a puck really stings.

During one of Suwa's games, the puck sailed over the edge of the table and hit the "Coin Redemption" sign above the cash counter. "Glass and neon went everywhere," remembers Suwa. "The sign is still up, although it only says, 'Redemption' now. I think there's something strangely poetic about that."

Getting Started

dotSuwa's advice is to simply try it on for size. Who knows? You might not even like the high speed and intensity of air hockey!

"Once someone has played and discovers, 'Hey! I want to do this some more,' then they can investigate some of the avenues of the air hockey world," she says. "The Web is a great place to meet people who play like we do, or people who play professionally."

dotStart by finding a good coin-operated table at a local arcade, digging up some pocket change and finding someone to play against. "Typically, a game costs anywhere between $0.50 and $0.75," says Jaquette.

dotIf you decide to invest in equipment, about $15 is enough to get you started. Ysabelle Lemyre is a sales representative for air hockey equipment. "You just need a puck and two handles. For the pucks, it's $3.95 and for the handles, it's $9.95."

Tables, however, can be expensive. High-end games, such as the ones found in arcades, cost $2,500 or more. To save on costs, keep your eyes peeled for used games. They can often be picked up for around $500 -- and the good news is that tables can last 15 years or more!

Tables that you find in friends' homes are typically smaller and cheaper than the ones at the arcade. According to Lemyre, a new six-foot table for your home will run you $499.

Slowik adds that "you have the add-on costs of replacing broken windows, knick-knacks and having to spackle and repaint every couple of days!"

dotDon't expect instant fame. Take it up as a hobby and then practice, practice, practice! Roland says, "I guarantee, if you put a lot into it, you'll get a lot out of it."

According to Roland, most kids start playing around Grade 4 or 5. "That way, they can get the most experience at a young age," he says.

dotAir hockey players admit their hobby probably won't lead directly to any careers. But most say they'll stay involved with the sport for years to come. Many say they've learned valuable skills by organizing and participating in tournaments, or writing articles, or maintaining Web sites about their hobby.

If pro status is your goal, says Suwa, hook up with other players over the Internet. Once you're in the loop, you'll keep up-to-date on tournament schedules and information through word of mouth.


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