Written by 4-time Air Hockey World Champion, Billy Stubbs
(August 13th, 2013) –
Tim Weissman famously described high-level air hockey as “physical chess”. This post covers some of the fast-paced strategy that brings Tim’s comparison to life. In this article I will:
Breakdown a hypothetical three-drift attack
Relate the drifts and shots to each other
Discuss how the drifts and shots fit into the overall offense
In the 10 drifts and shots below, I will assume that each is blocked correctly and evaluate this sequence as if the opponent is unknown. If you have history with your opponent, tailor your approach based on previous experience.
Drift and shot sequence:
1) Right-to-left diagonal drift: Right-wall-under
I like to start off with unders because I want the defense to become accustom to moving back to the goal. This will help me score easier points with straights later in the match when it is more meaningful.
2) Right-to-left diagonal drift: Cut
This is pretty straightforward. Early on, if a bank is correctly blocked, I will generally follow up with its complimentary straight, using the same drift, release, and shot location.
3) Open-V left rail drift: Cut
Prior to this shot I have used two right-to-left drifts. I like to use Cuts and Right-walls because they are easier for me to execute, so I am not going to give up on them yet. My next move would be to try a new drift. I would use an open-V left rail drift for four reasons: 1) the open-V left rail drift can be started in the same manner as the right-to-left diagonal drift – which will add to the element of surprise, 2) I want to see how the defense responds to a new attack which incorporates an almost opposite directional drift, 3) the extreme left-to-right nature of this drift should help pull the defense to the right, especially after hitting a Right-wall-under and Cut out of a right-to-left diagonal drift, and 4) hitting another cut establishes that I am capable of hitting the same shot back-to-back, even if it is blocked.
4) Right-to-left diagonal drift: Left-wall-under
I am now deliberately switching back into another established attack. I do this because: 1) the precedingopen-V drift has created a break of pattern and should result in minor confusion for the opponent, 2) I want the defense to feel comfortable by seeing me reestablish the right-to-left diagonal drift that has previously resulted in only Right-wall-unders and Cuts, and 3) once the opponent sees the right-to-left diagonal drift reestablished, a Left-wall-under should be an unexpected shot selection based on the pattern of shots executed from previous right-to-left diagonal drifts.
5) Right-to-left diagonal drift: Cross
The same logic for shot #2 applies to this one: I am following a blocked under with its complimentary straight.
6) Open-V left rail drift: Right-wall-under
The last time that I used the open-V left rail drift I executed a Cut. This time, when I will switch back to the open-V left rail drift, I will execute the complimentary Right-wall-under to the preceding Cut that came out of this drift. This also works on a second level because the Right-wall-under also compliments the Cross in the prior shot, by following a straight with an under-bank.
7) Open-V left rail: Forehand Left-wall-under
I am following an open-V left rail drift with another identical open-V drift for the first time in this sequence. Prior to this, I only executed Right-wall-unders and Cuts from this drift. In this instance I like going for a forehand Left-wall-under for three reasons: 1) it is the first use of a forehand and I do not know how my opponent will respond, 2) I expect the defense to freeze in an outward position or move to my right because of the severe left-to-right direction of the drift, and 3) this shot attacks the opposite side of the goal as the preceding Right-wall-under.
8) Right-to-left diagonal drift: Right-wall-over
So far I have executed two Right-wall-unders and one Left-wall-under in this sequence of seven shots. I would expect the defense to overreact to the goal based on the frequency of striking 50% unders and no overs from the four previous right-to-left diagonal drifts.
9) Right-to-left diagonal drift, transition to Open-V *right* rail drift: Cut
At this point, I would begin to work in a third attack. I like a Cut in this instance for three reasons: 1) it balances my attack – I have been right-wall and bank heavy to this point; three of eight shots have been right-walls and five of eight have been banks, 2) the Cut out of the extreme right-to-left drift from anopen-V right rail drift is very deceptive shot in its own right because the puck is in the strike position of a right-wall and then moves into the cut position as it drifts only a couple of inches, and 3) transitioning from a right-to-left diagonal drift into an open-V right rail drift will be confusing for the defense which will generally freeze in confusing situations, but this will be a very long setup and will give the defense enough time to un-freeze and most likely flinch.
10) Open-V left rail: Forehand Cut
Picking back up on the Open-V left rail drift, my last shot was a forehand Left-wall-under, I would follow it with its complimentary straight because: 1) it attacks the opposite side of the goal as the preceding backhand Cut, 2) this drift sequence works well with the preceding mirror-opposite open-V right rail drift, and 3) from a purely sequencing perspective, up to this point I have attacked my opponent’s left side of the goal in six of the nine shots. To balance my attack, a shot to the right side of the goal makes sense. This results in a 3:2 shot ratio to the left and right side of the goal, which is accurate assuming that you are playing a normal right-handed defense. Furthermore it balances my attack at six straights and overs to four under banks; which is about the correct distribution.
So what is the takeaway?
Some of my reasoning for which shots to hit and drifts to use might be debatable or some might even say wrong, however the idea that logic should be a part of every drift and shot selection is essential to achieving championship-level air hockey.
As you work on mixing drifts you will become more proficient at keeping up with different shot progressions at the same time. In matches, I am normally eight shots deep in my progressions. On call, I can name my six previous shots and I have an idea of what my next two plays will be based on how the defense reacts. Proficiency in mental agility and recall will improve with practice. When this ability develops, Weissman’s comparison of air hockey to physical chess becomes apparent.