Structuring offense vs. unknown opponents

When playing someone unknown, you should quickly gather information about his defense to build an offensive strategy. In this post, I cover how to do this through off-goals, offensive progression, and in-game experimentation.

First, get a feel for your opponent’s defense by making generalizations based on appearance, such as:

  • How does he hold the mallet? If he uses a claw-grip, then he probably plays defense like a beginner. Start by attacking him with straights.
  • What is his stance like? Are his shoulders rolled too far forward? If so, expect him to be aggressive. Attack him with accurate unders.
  • Is his mallet against or away from the goal? If the defense looks capable, you should approach him differently and progress through your attacks from least to most difficult.

How does he deal with off-goals?

If you are unsure of your opponent, start with an off-goal(s). This allows you to see how your opponent reacts without wasting an on-goal shot. If the defense retreats, follow it up with a straight shot. Why? Because straights destroy back-rail defenses!

Establish under-banks, early and often

Regardless of who you are playing, unknown or known, generally begin by shooting unders. This doesn’t mean that your first shot, or second shot is an under; it means that you will start the match by shooting a higher percentages of unders overall because you want to establish unders to make sure that your complimentary straights are open later.

Offensive progression, have a plan

Once you have have sized up the opponent, with a few off-goals and unders, see what shots are open. Ideally you want to score with your easiest shots, again and again. For instance, you would rather score with medium-speed cuts than full-speed left-wall-over pot shots.

Next, go through a rote series of shots to see if any “gimmes” are there for the taking. You should usually progress through your offense something like this:

1) Cut shot from left-of-center (LoC)

2) Cross from right-of-center (RoC)

3) Right-wall-under from RoC

4) Left-wall-under from LoC

These are by far the easiest shots for most players (and me) to execute. If the defense isn’t capable of blocking these shots, you are going to score easily. And unless your opponent has an equal or better offense, you should win.

All air hockey is an experiment

However, if these shots are not scoring, you can experiment to find out what works. You can’t try everything in a match, but again, you should continue a pattern of trying different things that is something like:

5) Cuts from RoC

6) Crosses from LoC

7) Over-the-mallet banks

8) Time delays

9) Pot shots

10) Pump fakes

11) Alternate tempos

12) Different drifts

13) Right-wall-unders from LoC

14) Left-wall-unders from RoC

15) Forehands

16) Off-speeds, etc.

This progression is fluid because along the way you should be looking for different combinations of what works and basing your next play off of that. For instance, if you try an exaggerated time-delayed right-wall-under from RoC and the defense freezes, but the angle needs to be more acute to score, next try it from LoC for the better angle. Or if you discover that the defense is disciplined, you might skip to more advanced shots. As you continue to experiment, look for a minimum of 2-3 complimentary shots to score with.

Below are diagrams of complimentary shots; there are many more complimentary groupings, but these are some of the most common and useful:

Complimentary Shots

Since matches are relatively short, you have to quickly figure out what is working, or use in-game situations that are not as meaningful to experiment. For example, if I am winning the first game 6-2, but still do not understand the defense, I will spend a couple points breaking the code. Likewise, if I lost the first game 7-2 and am having a difficult time scoring, I might devote/sacrifice the second game to discovering what works. If you’re able to find a couple of effective shots, it could be enough to win the match, even if down 2-0.

Constantly adjust

Against skilled defenses, you will routinely adjust to score by going through a series of offensive progressions and experiments. This is one of the things that I love most about air hockey: There is always room to improve your strategy, and when both players are doing this, it becomes a battle of wits!

Releases

I’m finally getting around to posting my instructional video from the Worlds held in Chicago, Oct. 2013. Unfortunately the audio quality is low, and some of my demonstrations are off camera. We’ll re-record it soon. At the end of the video (29:16) Ehab Shoukry discusses defense:

Below are my unedited personal notes from the presentation:

***

Today I’m going to talk about releases. I will cover the following 3 topics:

  1. Attributes of effective releases
  2. Release mechanics for cuts/right-walls and crosses/left-walls
  3. Shot combinations based on releases

But first, what is a release? A release is how you strike the puck with the mallet. It’s not a pump fake, drift, or time-delay. It’s the motion of mallet to puck. It’s your delivery. Releases make or break offenses.

Attributes of effective releases

Deception, accuracy, and speed:

  • Deception – good releases disguise which shot is coming. The best releases go a step further and manipulate the defense into moving out of the way by fooling the defense to think that a specific shot is coming. In a sense, perfect releases control the defense’s mallet movement
  • Accuracy – champion-level players have releases that result in shots that are about 50% accurate within a 1-inch margin of error to either side
  • Speed – effective releases produce shots that are 100% of table’s max speed, but releases should also alter the speed of shots to a fraction of that speed

These 3 attributes have an inverse relation: As 2 attributes go up, 1 attribute goes down. For example, if you want to have releases that result in both accurate and deceptive shots, your speed will suffer.

Release mechanics for cuts/right-walls and crosses/left-walls

My approach to air hockey offense is to base all releases off of under banks. With under banks I am primarily concerned with speed and accuracy. I’m not as concerned with deception. Why be concerned with only the speed and accuracy of unders?

A triangle defense must always be kept in check with under-banks. If you have a fast and accurate under, the defense cannot wander; in other words it makes it very risky for the defense to attempt to snag pucks. A fast under commands respect and opens up straights, overs, and it also keeps the defense on its heels. Without an under there is nothing that can score; all straights and both over-the-mallets can be blocked by a single out position on defense.

First let’s look at the cut, right-wall-under/over combination. Then I’ll discuss the cross, left-wall-under/over. I think of these shot groupings as two different combinations defined by release motion.

Cut, right-wall-under/over combination is based on the release of the right-wall-under

Right-wall-under (Table Demo)

  • No deception through release
  • Beat defense to goal
  • Accuracy and top-end speed are most important
  • Hitting the puck flush results in best accuracy and shot speed
  • Violent release
  • Transition weight
  • Lean over table
  • Whip puck (full body: legs, torso, 3 parts: shoulders, elbow, wrist)
  • Fold hand into shot/point to target

Cut (Table Demo)

  • Duplicate right-wall-under release for cut (deception through release)
  • Cut off front of mallet
  • Make cut look identical right-wall-under – the bulk of my time practicing offense is spent figuring out how to make my cut look like my right-wall-under (and my cross look like my left-wall-under)
  • 100% velocity of mallet movement on all shots
  • Pointing (as with right-wall-under) creates follow through (deception)
  • Speed rationale
  • Definition (not bizzaro)

Right-wall-over (Table Demo)

  • Duplicate right-wall-under release for right-wall-over (deception through release)
  • right-wall-over off back of mallet
  • Speed rationale

Cross, left-wall-under/over combination is based on the release of the left-wall-under

Left-wall-under (Table Demo)

  • No deception through release
  • Beat defense to goal
  • Accuracy and top-end speed are most important
  • Hitting the puck flush results in best accuracy and shot speed.
  • Violent release
  • Transition weight
  • Lean over table
  • Whip puck (full body: legs, torso, 3 parts: shoulders, elbow, wrist)
  • Fold hand into shot/point to target
  • Lead with elbow
  • Reposition body (not part of the release but I want to talk about this because I think it has a huge impact on making the release easier)

Cross (Table Demo)

  • Duplicate left-wall-under release for cross (deception through release)
  • Cross off back of mallet
  • Speed rationale
  • 100% all
  • Lead with elbow
  • Reposition body
  • Definition (not wolf-slayer)

left-wall-over (Table Demo)

  • Duplicate left-wall-under release for cut (deception through release)
  • Left-wall-over off front of mallet
  • Speed rationale
  • Lead with elbow
  • Reposition body

Will repositioning your body give away whether a cut/right-wall v cross/left-wall is coming? Yes…maybe, but so what. By and large defenses won’t notice, and if they do, they can only narrow it down to three complimentary shots. And that’s totally fine. Your offense will still work. But, if you want to keep the defense completely at bay, occasionally you can use cut/right-wall releases out of a cross/left-wall stance or cross/left-wall releases out of a cut/right-wall stance. 1 out of 5 or so will keep the defense confused. It depends on my opponent, but these are plays that I normally do not use unless it is particularly effective because using cuts/right-wall releases out of a cross/left-wall stance and vice versa is complex and difficult because the body weight is running counter to the banks.

Shot Combinations

To develop combinations you should have a logical framework of how releases work together to construct offensive attacks.

As we have discussed:

Right-wall-under/cut/right-wall-over use one release (Table Demo) and the left-wall-under/cross/left-wall-over use one release (Table Demo)

Thinking of how to attack based on these combinations should be the first way to organize attacks in your mind. However, there are other effective and useful ways to think about combining shots. Such as drifts, mallet contact point, complimentary straights etc.), but these should not be the primary ways to organize shots. For the best attacks think of combinations in terms of cut/right-walls and crosses/left-walls because of 2 reasons 1) releases are the most deceptive weapon in your arsenal and 2) these combinations are simple to think about (and a simplicity is good – I could give an entire clinic on why simplicity applied to offense is the best approach), but within these shot combinations there are an infinite amount of ways to construct an attack. For example a right-wall-under with time delay out of a diagonal drift, followed by a right-wall-over with no time delay out of vertical drift and on and on.

Cross v cut (Table Demo)

Key differences: Mallet contact location and release motion (Table Demo)

Versus a good out defense we are not trying to fool a defense between cut and cross, but between straight and bank. This is an important distinction and I think that most players overlook this. Against a back rail defense, the approach that I am advocating for straights does not necessarily work, but I am most concerned with developing an attack that scores on good defenses, and good defenses play out from the goal and do not move when they think a straight is coming. Constructing releases and attacks to beat defenses that are against the goal or false rail defenses is an easy assignment.

Bizarro cuts and wolf slayers (Table Demo)

Definition – a Bizarro cut is a term that I use to define a straight shot to the right side of the goal that uses a right-wall-under release. A Wolf Slayer is a shot to the left side of the goal that uses a left-wall-under release. Cuts release is like X, Cross release like X. (Table Demo) Bizarro cut goes right. Wolf Slayer goes left.

Why these shots should not be used. For a Bizarro cut we’re using a right-wall-under release, so the defense pulls to here, or stays here if it thinks a straight is coming. In none of these scenarios is a Bizarro cut open. This will only score if the defense correctly reads the release as a Cut release and moves to the cut side. If you think about offense the way that I do, this means that ultimately your attack has failed (unless you are specifically trying to take advantage of a defense not recenetering correctly) because the defense should have been fooled into thinking that the release indicated a right-wall-under or possible cut.

Why these shots can be good in small doses and if done correctly (Table Demo). Double flinch. Wolf should be off-speed. And shots should not typically follow this approach.

Wolf is more effective v right-handed defense because it attacks the opponent’s weak side.

Recap and questions

Effective releases result in deception, accuracy and speed. Base all your releases off of unders. Think of your attacks as combinations based on releases: one release for cuts/right-walls and on release for crosses/left-walls.

Left-of-center vs. right-of-center

Before 2012, I thought that most shots should be struck from center-table so that unders have acute angles. There is merit to this approach, but my view has changed. In this article I discuss the pros and cons of attacking from each side of the table with video examples of top players. First a definition of left-of-center (LOC) and right-of-center (ROC), then a look at the offensive strike zone.

Definition of LOC and ROC

LOC refers to the table’s left side and ROC refers to the opposite. More specifically, LOC ranges from five inches outside the goal’s left edge to one inch inside, while ROC ranges from five inches outside the goal’s right edge to one inch inside.

Strike Zones

Shots should generally not be struck outside of the above zone (highlighted in blue) because the difference in straights and banks off the near-rail is negligible; banks off the far-rail are overly difficult and travel too far.

Pros and cons

Below are four short videos of top players who are experts at groups of shots from LOC and ROC. Beneath each video are pros and cons for that particular strike point/group of shots.

ROC: Cut, right-wall-under/over

Pedro Otero (left side) executes a grouping of cuts and right-walls from ROC: Cut, right-wall-over, cut, right-wall-under, and then right-wall-over.

Pros

  • Cut: More deception because the strike point normally indicates a right-wall
  • Right-wall-under: Shorter distance to goal, improved accuracy, and can handle more velocity without leaving the table because the puck impacts the rail at an obtuse angle
  • Right-wall-over: Shorter distance to goal, improved accuracy, and the obtuse angle means a wider margin of error

Cons

  • Cut: More difficult
  • Right-wall-under: Less deception, more obtuse angle – the defense does not have to pull as far to block it
  • Right-wall-over: Less deception

LOC: Cut, right-wall-under/over

Danny Hynes (right side) executes a grouping of cuts and right-walls from LOC: Right-wall-under, right-wall-over, cut, and then another cut.

Pros

  • Cut: Shorter distance to goal, improved accuracy, potential to capitalize on the defense not recentering
  • Right-wall-under: More deception and more acute angle – the defense must pull further to block it
  • Right-wall-over: More deception

Cons

  • Cut: Less deception
  • Right-wall-under: Less accuracy, difficult to execute, the puck travels further which means that the defense has more time to react, and the puck is more likely to leave the table when it impacts the rail because of the acute angle
  • Right-wall-over: Same as right-wall-under above

LOC: Cross, left-wall-under/over

Billy Stubbs (yours truly on the left side) executes a grouping of crosses and left-walls from LOC: Left-wall-over, cross, and then left-wall-under.

Pros

  • Cross: More deception because the strike point normally indicates a left-wall
  • Left-wall-under: Shorter distance to goal, improved accuracy, and can handle more velocity without leaving the table because the puck impacts the rail at an obtuse angle
  • Left-wall-over: Shorter distance to goal, improved accuracy, and the obtuse angle means a wider margin of error

Cons

  • Cross: More difficult
  • Left-wall-under: Less deception, more obtuse angle – the defense does not have to pull as far to block it
  • Left-wall-over: Less deception

ROC: Cross, left-wall-under/over

Jose Mora (left side) executes a grouping of crosses and left-walls from ROC: Left-wall-over, cross, cross, and then left-wall-under.

Pros

  • Cross: Shorter distance to goal, improved accuracy, potential to capitalize on the defense not recentering
  • Left-wall-under: More deception and more acute angle – the defense must pull further to block it
  • Left-wall-over: More deception

Cons

  • Cross: Less deception
  • Left-wall-under: Less accuracy, difficult to execute, the puck travels further which means that the defense has more time to react, and the puck is more likely to leave the table when it impacts the rail because of the acute angle
  • Left-wall-over: Same as left-wall-under above

A shot location/grouping with more pros than cons does not mean that it is better. For example, deceptive banks might be the most important consideration for offenses that lack power.

The best attack is the right attack

In my opinion cuts and right-walls from ROC, and crosses and left-walls from LOC are more effective in general because of the deception gained on straights and the additional velocity that banks can hold. However against a defense that does not recenter properly I am more likely to use cuts and right-walls from LOC and/or crosses and left-walls from ROC. Your opponent’s defense and your strengths will dictate which approach is best.

*This article is written from a right-hander’s perspective, mirror the information if you are left-handed.

Master the basics

Here is an article that I wrote before starting Say AH. It appeared in Goal Grinder Magazine.

***

Flashy offense impresses; basic offense wins. To hone a winning air hockey offense, master the basics.

Defense fights an uphill battle

The reaction time on defense is very small – impossibly small. Pucks move up to 45 mph. This might not seem that fast until you consider that a table is only eight feet long and when a shot is executed from the centerline, travelling at 45 mph over four feet, the defense has just under .07 seconds to respond. The upper limit of reaction time for athletes in all sports is .12 seconds. Simply responding to the puck’s movement to block it is not feasible because the window of reaction time is so small that it exceeds human limits.

A top-tier defense does not primarily respond to the movement of the puck after it is struck. It responds to everything that precedes the shot: the relation of the mallet to puck, tendencies, shot location, arm movement, and body language. When the offense disguises its shots perfectly and strikes the puck from the centerline at 45 mph the defense cannot react in time and is forced into to a guessing game. If you are on offense you want the defense to be in this quandary!

Just say no to chases and volleys

Since offense holds a distinct advantage over defense, the way to approach offense is to stick to the basics. Execute most of your offense at the centerline with full velocity while using a controlled attack. If you take your shots two feet back from the centerline, and do not use full velocity, you allow the defense time to react. Chases, volleys, hand serves, double banks, and blade shots, etc. are not needed to score effectively – this level of complexity will result in too many unforced turnovers and is difficult to execute.

For a world-class attack only three well refined shots are needed: Both straights and either one of the under banks, everything else is gravy. With just a Cut, Cross, and Right-wall-under (or Left-wall-under) a full offensive arsenal is possible. Add to each of these three shots various drifts, several shot locations (all near the centerline and middle), multiple releases with time delays, and you have more than enough to score on a defense that only has four feet to react.

Three shots, thousands of combinations

Let’s take a look at how a hypothetical player who only uses a Cut, Cross and Right-wall-under can score effectively by applying subtle variations to each shot. He has three drifts, two vertical locations, three horizontal locations, two release motions, and three variations of timings and drift speeds:

Drifts (D)
Right-to-left
Vertical
Still puck
Vertical Locations (VL)
At line
6″ back
Horizontal Locations (HL)
Center
6″ left-of-center
6″ right-of-center
Release Motions (RM)
Towards goal
Towards right-wall
Timings (T)
No delay
Small delay
Large delay/pump fakes
Drift Speeds (SP)
Slow
Normal
Fast

Within the matrix above there are almost 1000 possible combinations of shots and an infinite number of sequences. Below is an example of a shot sequence that our hypothetical player will find useful against most defenses:

1) Cut
D: Vertical
VL: At line
HL: 6″ left-of-middle
RM: Towards right-wall
T: Small delay
SP: Medium
2) Right-wall-under
D: Right-to-left
VL: At line
HL: 6″ left-of-middle
RM: Towards goal
T: Small delay
SP: Medium
3) Cross
D: Right-to-left
VL: 6″ back
HL: Center
RM: Towards goal
T: No delay
SP: Fast

Why end with a Cross? It works because it breaks the patterns established in the two previous shots. Straights executed six inches back have a better angle (sometimes). The defense may be out of position after defending shots from left-of-center. No delay reduces the time the defense has to adjust. And the fast right-to-left drift, after two medium-speed-drifts, should help yank the defense out of the way.

What this basically means

Since it is relatively easy to score you should capitalize on this advantage by perfecting a handful of basic complimentary shots, be able to make your releases look identical, and use a controlled attack from the centerline. If you master this and can identify which shots are most effective, you will render the defense helpless without doing anything that will impress onlookers, except win.

*Originally published July 26, 2012

Physical chess: progressing through multiple offensive attacks

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.

Drifts referenced:

Drifts

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 preceding open-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 an open-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.

Long live the pot shot

I love pot shots. Scoring a no-drift forehand cut at 6-6 is about as sweet as it gets! In this article I cover the pros and cons of pot shots, the appropriate frequency of use and discuss specific examples. First a definition of what a pot shot is and is not:

What is a pot shot?

A pot shot is an unexpected shot that is taken earlier in the offensive cadence than normal and is usually executed away from the centerline. Pot shots can be planned or used opportunistically if the defense is out of position. A pot shot does not simply have a shortened release nor is it a desperation chase.

A basic pot shot is illustrated in the following sequence:

Normal shot

1) Still puck in back-right quadrant

2) Two second pause

3) Drift to centerline

4) Time delay

5) Right-wall-under

Pot shot

6) Still puck in back-right quadrant

7) Right-wall-under immediately executed with no pause, no drift and no time-delay

The pros and cons of using pot shots

Pros

  • They surprise and catch the defense unprepared
  • Taking shots at various times strains the defensive player by forcing him to constantly focus
  • Straights executed from further back sometimes have better angles
  • Over banks executed from further back have more obtuse angles, which means a wider margin of error for over-the-mallets

Cons

  • Higher degree of difficulty
  • Taking shots from further back on the table gives the defense more time to react
  • Under banks executed from further back have less acute angles, which means the defense does need to move as far to block them

Use in small doses

In my previous instructional articles I have advocated taking around 80-90% of shots from the centerline while using a controlled attack. Controlled shots executed at the centerline are normally more effective than pot shots because of a few reasons:

  • Improved accuracy and consistency
  • More acute angles on under banks
  • Less reaction time for defense
  • The defense is more likely to flinch

For players who primarily use a controlled attack at the centerline, pot shots can add another layer of deception, but only a handful per game should be used. Offense should consist of around 10-20% pot shots, which is a significant enough frequency of use that pot shots deserve a legitimate strategy, and some love.

Why pot shots work and upper limit frequency

Surprising the defense by breaking an established cadence is the most compelling reason to take a pot shot. Because of this, their use should not exceed 50%. When pots shots exceed 50% almost all of the unexpectedness is lost, which is equal to attempting more difficult shots with little to no benefit.

Pot shot opposites: Ehab Shoukry and Wil Upchurch

Master elite players normally shoot between 10-20% pot shots. Wil Upchurch and Ehab Shoukry are both top-5 rated players with great offenses; they are also on different ends of the pot shot spectrum. Wil has one of the quickest paced offenses of all time and routinely uses pot shots as part of his deranged attacks. On the other hand, Ehab has one of the most controlled offenses. He relies on precision, power and gains deception from his releases while he executes almost all of his shots from a planned and controlled drift.

At the 2012 Houston World Championships, these two players met in a clash of styles during the winners’ bracket round of 8:

http://vimeo.com/album/2028316/video/47166540

Here is a breakdown of the frequency of pot shots in this match:

Wil – 99 total shots/34 pots shots: 34% pot shots

Ehab – 95 total shots/12 pots shots: 12% pot shots

Wil has the best pot shots in the history of air hockey, yet he only executed them 34% of the time, well below 50%. Wil understands that surprise is crucial to their effectiveness.

What can be learned from Ehab’s meager 12% usage? It is clear that even the most controlled attacks benefit from using pot shots. Ehab’s pot shots were actually more effective than Wil’s based on the success rate of pot shots attempted – this was largely due to Ehab’s infrequent use of them.

A deeper look at Wil and Ehab

Below are four short clips of standout pot shots from Ehab and Wil’s match along with my analysis:

Ehab executes a normal left-wall-over, then a chase cut and pot shot right-wall-under. The pot shot in this instance can be more specifically defined as a one-two. This sequence works because Ehab generally catches the puck and resets before drifting. It is especially effective because the chase cut produces momentary chaos; Ehab capitalizes on this with an immediate pot shot.

After Ehab attempts a normal off-speed cut, he has multiple options:

  • Grab the puck, establish control, drift the puck, then execute a shot
  • Drift the puck without establishing control, then execute a shot
  • Execute a pot shot

Ehab elects to hit a pot shot after circling around the puck. The circling movement causes Wil to think that Ehab is going to grab the puck and reset. Ehab capitalizes on Wil’s lapse of focus by sinking a textbook pot shot left-wall-under.

After a successful charge, Wil grabs the puck at the centerline, which leaves the puck in a still position for a fraction of a second. He then quickly transitions into a right-wall-over. I use the term “stop-and-go” to define this sequence. The stop-and-go pot shot causes Ehab to overreact to the bank. This happens because Wil normally drifts after grabbing the puck.

This sequence is sick! Only Wil can pot shot a forehand left-wall-over and follow it with a one-two left-wall-under smash at the rail.

Additional frequencies

Pot shot percentages by other Masters:

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Danny Hynes vs. Billy Stubbs: 2013 Houston City Open: finals, second set

http://vimeo.com/album/2307972/video/58463906

Danny – 192 total shots/35 pots shots: 18% pot shots

Billy – 173 total shots/21 pots shots: 12% pot shots

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Danny Hynes vs. Billy Stubbs: 2012 Houston Worlds: losers’ bracket, loser to 5/6

http://vimeo.com/album/2028316/video/47142248

Danny – 75 total shots/8 pots shots: 11% pot shots

Billy – 63 total shots/5 pots shots: 8% pot shots

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Davis Lee vs. Tim Weissman: 2012 Houston Worlds: winners’ bracket round of 4

http://vimeo.com/album/2028316/video/47859582

Davis – 174 total shots/14 pots shots: 8% pot shots

Tim – 183 total shots/19 pots shots: 10% pot shots

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Brian Accrocco vs. Keith Fletcher: 2012 Houston Worlds: 9/12 spin-off finals

http://vimeo.com/album/2028316/video/47142246

Brian – 124 total shots/15 pots shots: 12% pot shots

Keith – 110 total shots/11 pots shots: 10% pot shots

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How to develop pot shots

Player of all skill levels should execute between 10-20% pot shots. Straying from this range is usually symptom of an overly conservative or reckless offense. Mimicking and studying top players’ pot shots, like the ones in the above videos, is a good starting point for amateurs. Pros and above should be spontaneous and develop novel pot shots through experimentation. The exact frequency of use does not need to be known during a match while in the heat of battle. Once a player is aware of the appropriate frequency, a feel for what is correct will develop over time.

*Originally published February 19, 2013