The following article was written by Jacob Weissman. It incorporates a 1996 article on face-offs by Don James, who might be called air hockey’s leading scholar of face-off strategy. 🙂 Note that Jacob’s article was written before the 2013 World Championships, so at the time of writing Billy Stubbs was World Champion.
Face-off Strategy, by Jacob Weissman
When we compare the Air Hockey of today to the Air Hockey of the 1990’s, it is easy to see that much has changed. The sport used to be based around careful, methodical deception. You beat your opponent slowly, as in a chess match, a tactic innovated mostly by Jesse Douty and then perpetuated by Tim Weissman in the early 90’s. After this, the Air Hockey textbook “tactic” became an incessant onslaught of deceptive attacks, like timed chess, meant to absolutely cripple your opponent, something innovated in part by Tim Weissman and then Danny Hynes in the early days of the new millennium. Today, Air Hockey stands on the precipice of a new innovation, the overwhelming, face-paced play style of Billy Stubbs. His new innovative style is not only extremely up-beat, based on fast drifts and faster release, but it relies mainly upon the positioning of the puck for deception. In the past the main forms of deception were time-delays and pump fakes, now more and more it is becoming about positioning. The theory is that if your releases are identical, and your tempo relatively upbeat, your opponent has no hope of keying in. Air Hockey is becoming more of a shoot-out now than a chess match. And yet, despite all this progress, there is one thing which has almost completely been lost in the fray: the face-off.
Facing-off is a lost art, and is relatively ignored by the Air Hockey community today. In the 90’s, around the time of its conception as part of the start of each match, it was thought of as a great addition to the sport, an excellent way to give an extra layer of strategy and depth to Air Hockey, a strategy and depth which has since been forgotten. Currently in the world of Air Hockey, only Ultra-pros, most of them from the era when the techniques were being innovated, and a select few current day pros, use many of these strategies on a regular basis. As for experts and below, and many pros as well, these strategies are practically non-existent. Most players only hit and block the puck during a face-off, and this needs to change. Players need to think about and practice how to face-off. It is an important part of our sport, dictating who gets that critical extra possession per match. At higher levels of play, this could give a player the one last point they need to win the match.
Yet, face-off strategy, rather than improving over the years, as have most aspects of Air Hockey, has rather degraded. This is something that could easily be improved, innovated just like the other aspects of Air hockey. All it takes is some attention from the community. In hopes that it will help inform the community, and save the neglected step-child of Air Hockey, the following is an excellent article by Don James written back in 1996. It outlines what were once considered to be the best “face-off” strategies. It is coupled with some current-day video examples of the techniques that Mr. James describes. Long live the face-off!
Rock, Paper, Scissors
Basic Face-off Strategy and Terminology
By: Don James, Jr.
Originally written in Volume 18, Issue 2 of Table Talk (Fall 1996):
The USAA has decided to begin every set with a face-off instead of a coin flip, at all sanctioned tournaments. The rule was a long time in the coming, but it will finally lend an element of skill, and not just luck, in determining who gets one extra possession per match. Players winning the initial face-off will begin with the puck in the 3rd , 5th, and 7th game. The centerline rules governing as face-off were also changes; the rules now state that a player’s mallet cannot come in contact with the centerline until after the referee releases the puck, at which point normal centerline rules are in effect. To master the face-off a player must possess lightning-like quickness, eerie intuition, superb fundamentals, and a vast and versatile repertoire of maneuvers. At the highest level of Air Hockey, the face-off is like a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” Every technique has its own strengths and weaknesses; certain maneuvers and tactics will always work against certain others. There are five basic strategies or “openings” used in the world of air hockey today. They are as follows:
Standard Opening- The easiest face-off strategy to use and learn is the standard opening. Simply put, all it is, is a basic shot (usually a bank shot) taken upon release of the puck. A normal (backhand) or a forehand bank is the most common shot attempted, although a double-bank can sometimes be employed ( especially effective against a poorly executed crowd opening). A quick release is vital to successfully using this technique. Long “Mike Barryesque” wind-ups before a shot are not acceptable, and if the opponent is using a standard opening of his own it will usually result in your being scored upon. Straight shots can also be effective, particularly against slower standard openings. The “crock shot,” invented by Brian Accrocco, is a push straight shot executed with no wind-up at all. This maneuver was developed to counter the Australian opening and more specifically the “Weissman pull.” The standard is the only one of the five basic openings which offers the possibility of a score, the others are just techniques to gain possession. Overall, the standard opening is the strategy which should be employed most often, for beginners and professionals alike .
Australian Opening- the Australian opening (invented by Tim Weissman) is one of the best face-off maneuvers used today. In fact, the rules of the face-off were changed to limit the effectiveness of this very move. To execute the Australian, the player positions his mallet with a forehand grip directly behind (or maybe a little bit offset to the right) the puck. When the puck is released the player moves his mallet to the right of the puck at the centerline and then pulls his mallet to the left in a forehand motion, causing the puck to be pulled onto his side. The Australian is used to gain possession, it is not a scoring strategy. The Australian opening is all about quickness and anticipation. One drawback to the technique is that the less the maneuver is telegraphed at the outset, the harder it is to successfully accomplish. If the player starts (or even moves) to the right of the puck before the release, his opponent will no doubt know what is coming. The counter to the Australian is a quick standard opening, and specifically a “crock shot.” Australian vs. Australian results in a hand-smashing test of speed. An Australian opening is unstoppable against an Invitational or Crowd opening. The reverse Australian opening is performed from the backhand side, while the “Weissman pull” starts with the mallet in position and the hand cocked to the side of the puck. The Australian opening should not be employed by Amateur or below players against superior competition.
Invitational Opening- the idea behind the Invitational opening is to force (or invite) your opponent to take a poor shot and then defend it. To execute the Invitational opening the player merley pulls back to his goal. The average shot taken off a face-off release is not nearly as hard to stop as a set-up shot, and therefore if one can get in defensive position fast enough, the Invitational is a deadly opening. A Siegeworth opening or overly aggressive Crowd opening is always defeated by the Invitational. This maneuver is very effective against lower skilled players, who tend to make poor contact with the puck upon release. The Invitational opening is also a very safe maneuver for beginning players to use.
The Crowd Opening- The strategy behind the Crowd opening is to block the puck, forcing a deflected shot, which should rebound harmlessly on your side of the table. When the puck is released the player moves forward within 1/2” of the puck, in order to make contact with the puck after it is contacted by the opponent. The contact must not be direct or the puck will rebound straight back to the opponent’s side. The Crowd’s ideal use is to cut off the bank angles used in standard opening. The “Cabot Stand,” invented and used by Tarl Cabot, is a Crowd opening executed from the starting of 1 to 1/1” back. The distance from the puck in the “Cabot Stand” allows for an Invitational opening type “get” if the opponent clips the puck while still cutting off the bank angles with a slight reactionary adjustment. However, the double bank is wide open and an Australian becomes even more effective. The Crowd opening will usually defeat the more passive Invitational opening because the puck stays closer to the mallet during the Crowd, allowing for a quick switch to an Australian pull or standard shot. This opening is effective against all levels of competition, but should be avoided against players who prefer the Australian opening.
Siegeworth Opening- The Siegeworth opening, invented by Evan Siegeworth, was developed primarily to defeat Crowd-type openings. To execute the Siegeworth opening the player shoots the puck directly into his opponent’s mallet in order to have the puck rebound back to him. The release of the puck should be a quick tap or flick type of shot executed from a straight-up position. If the player is quick enough, the Siegeworth opening can defeat any opening except for the Invitational, which will usually result in an easy give away. The Siegeworth is an advanced technique recommended for experienced players only.
Even knowing all of these techniques, the key to face-offs lies in the execution. Intimidation, anticipation, knowing your opponents tendencies, bluffing, and knowing how to deal with the false start are areas which play a role in more advanced strategy. The invention of new openings and derivatives of these will no doubt lead to better and more exciting air hockey.
Siegeworth open: http://vimeo.com/album/2299270/video/61643219 In this clip, world champion Danny Hynes quickly taps the puck off of Billy Stubbs’ mallet before Stubbs can even react, reflecting the puck so that he Hynes gains an easy possession. Here we see Danny exemplify what it is to simply move faster than your opponent, contacting the puck before they do. This is a basic fundamental of the face-off, especially when attempting the Siegeworth Open, which thrives on speed and finesse.
Crowd Open: http://vimeo.com/album/2299270/video/61643293 By keeping his mallet about 1” from the puck, Dan Meyer is able to deflect Danny Hynes’s attempted Standard opening and “get” the puck.
Australian Open: http://vimeo.com/album/2299270/video/61643294 Here Dan Meyer uses the Australian open to “pull” the puck quickly to him before Romero Castano can even hit the puck. Notice that, although he pulls the puck with a quick forehand like movement, he is not over to the left of the puck, as one does with the “Weissman Pull”, and thus not telegraphing his planned open. Doing this though requires a speed and finesse which many lack, again, a basic fundamental when it comes to facing-off, no matter what open you attempt.
Invitational Open: http://vimeo.com/album/2299270/video/61643222 As soon as the puck is released Albert Ortiz retreats from the puck and “invites” Brian Accrocco to take a shot, which ends up becoming an easy capture for Ortiz as the accuracy and speed of a shot, among other things, taken from a normal face-off position is usually significantly poorer than is the speed and accuracy of a “normal” shot.
Crock Shot: http://vimeo.com/album/2299270/video/61643221 Here Travis Luscombe simply pushes the puck forward before Paulo Correia can “get” it with his attempt at an Australian open. By swinging past the puck to the left without grabbing the put, Paulo leaves his goal wide open, giving Travis an easy score with his quicker standard open. As we have seen with every past successful open, Travis’s standard works only because he is faster than Paulo; despite the fact that the pushed straight “crock shot” works well against the Australian open, Paulo would most likely have still captured the puck if he was able to make contact with it before Travis.