A Quick Look at Venezuela and Air Hockey
by Jacob Weissman
What do Hugo Chavez and Air Hockey have in common? Not much, except that both are making big news in Venezuela right now! Last month Caracas resident Pedro Otero flew up to Chicago and stripped the number one ranking, in the wonderful world of Air Hockey, from three-time world champion Billy Stubbs. Otero beat Stubbs four sets to two, twenty-one games to sixteen, a major upset in the eyes of the professional Air Hockey community.
This isn’t the first time Venezuela has caused quite an upset in the world of Air Hockey either! It all started in 1990, when several arcades began popping up across Venezuela, challenging a law established in the 70’s which banned all coin-operated games in the country. Then, in 1992, amongst political outrage, including police raids on arcades to confiscate what leaders saw as “brain-stealing machines,” the arcades fighting for survival across Venezuela culminated in the birth of La Ciudad de las Maquinitas, the first “large” arcade in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. This arcade became the father of Venezuelan Air Hockey, pioneering the controversial, coin-operated, sport.
Following a letter of invitation to the 1993 Santa Cruz Nationals from the United States Air Hockey Association, La Ciudad de las Maquinitas even agreed to help finance a trip for two of their local players, Waedi Hassan and Argenis Montilla, who, despite not knowing an inkling of English, wished to attend the tournament. La Ciudad de las Maquinitas paid for 80% of the players expenses, obtained Visas and passports for the two, and even convinced a Venezuelan airline to sponsor the pair. Hassan and Montilla returned to Venezuela with the first and second place trophies in the Amateur Bracket, and, thus, professional Air Hockey in Venezuela was born.
Down the road a couple of years, in the fall of 1995, a young 17 year-old Venezuelan player named Jose Mora came to America to play. The event was the 1995 Internationals, held in Colorado, and, to everyone’s surprise, Jose took fifth. The American player base thought his finish was amazing, but most likely a fluke. Jose showed up three years later in 1998, making history yet again. He took first-place, and became the first person from a country, outside the U.S, to become the number one ranked player. Mora then came back to win again in 99’ and 2000, refusing to give the champion title back to American hands, until he finally succumbed to ten-time world champion Tim Weissman in the 2001 national championship, placing third.
Jose though, was not the only Venezuelan to make several outstanding finishes. Pedro Otero finished second in all three nationals Mora won, losing out to the Venezuelan champion each time. The very same Pedro Otero has yet again pushed Venezuelan Air Hockey into the lime-light, becoming not only the second Venezuelan to hold the number one U.S.A.A ranking, but also the second person from a country other than America to do so period.
The battle for first, however, will not be conceded by America so easily; come late April Pedro “the Eagle” Otero will face off against five Ultra-pro level American players in Houston, Texas, in defense of his number one ranking by the U.S.A.A. Pedro will play Ehab Shourky, Tim Weissman, and Danny Hynes, all three of them former World Champions with two, ten, and ten national wins under their belts, respectively. However, his challenge won’t end there. Pedro will also spar once again with three-time world champion Billy Stubbs, still considered by most in the Air Hockey community to be playing better than any other current player, and, this time, Stubbs is out for revenge.
What Pedro Otero is attempting is completely unprecedented in the sport of Air Hockey. He is planning, in the span of two weeks, to play, and hopefully beat the top four players in the sport, and in full length challenge matches no less. That means Pedro will be playing anywhere between 140 and 180 games in under fourteen days. Considering most of these games will be against, literally, the best players in the world, each and every one will take tremendous power, focus, determination, and strategy if Pedro hopes to win. This is a serious undertaking for “the Eagle”, both mentally and physically, especially when it is considered that those he plays near the end of his campaign will be “fresh”, while he will no doubt be tired and sore.
That being said, Pedro is determined. After finishing second for years, he wants to completely and utterly expunge the negative stigma of being “second.” Pedro wishes to prove he is number one, that he is just as good as Jose Mora, his fellow Venezuelan. This is certainly the way to do it, beating the best of the best all in a row, only days apart. Pedro is putting it all decisively on the line. Either he will be the best, or he will not.
So, as most of the world watches and waits to see what Chavez’s death will bring, those of us here in the Air Hockey world will be watching and waiting, to see what this epic clash of champions brings about. We will be waiting to see if a new era of Venezuelan dominance is upon us or, if America will take back her title again, as she did in 2001, and if, when all is said and done, Pedro Otero is number one or number two.