Game Play on Competitive Air Hockey Tables
I remember playing air hockey as a kid, and having a lot of fun, though I do not remember having any specific guidelines that we played by, we just went at it in fierce (but fun) competition. Air hockey tables had been around for less than eight years when air hockey became a competitive sport. Rules and game play are governed by the USAA (United States Air-Table-Hockey Association). For tournament play, only the 8 foot air hockey tables manufactured by Dynamo are sanctioned. Approved tables include the Photon, Pro-Style, older Blue Top, Brown Top, Purple Top or Black Top with unpainted rails.
Besides a table, the only other equipment needed are two mallets (one for each player) and a puck. The most common mallet looks like a sombrero, and as a kid, I would grip the top part tightly as I chased the puck around the table. But this is not how the professionals do it. In competitive play, the mallet is gripped behind the knob using just your fingertips. This allows for more wrist action so that the mallet can be moved around the table faster.
I learned that this mallet grip, and a few other things sets competitive play apart from us recreational users. I also discovered a few other helpful tips to improve my game, things that professional players do on their air hockey tables.
For basic defense, competitive players often use the triangle defense. The mallet is kept centered about 8 inches front of the goal. This means only slight movements are needed to protect the goal from straight shots, and bank shots can be prevented by quickly pulling the mallet back towards the corners of the goal.
The top air hockey players are very good on the offense with drifting. Drifting is when you control the puck on your side of the table by moving the puck in a set pattern, which allows you to knock the puck down the table in a variety of attacks. This can throw off your opponent since they do not know how you will deliver the final blow on the puck. Very slight differences in wrist movement can affect which way the puck will go. Some of the more popular drifts are the center, diamond (or circle), "L", and diagonal drifts.
As an example, on the diamond drift the puck is moved clockwise in a diamond shape, being contacted by the mallet twice, once at the top and once at the bottom. The reverse diamond moves the puck in the same pattern, but counter-clockwise. Both of these drifts encourage shots from several points on the table, and with only minor adjustments can utilize time delays, change-ups, and other techniques.
A final strategy used by top players on air hockey tables are shots that are organized into "combos". This means a group of shots which appear to be hit with the same delivery but in opposite directions. This is caused by hitting the puck at slightly different locations on the mallet. Now, I hadn't thought of this before but it makes sense that where the puck is struck on the mallet (since it is curved) would affect the direction of the puck.
Though there are probably a lot more tips, these are enough to get started to improve my game. The next time I am around some air hockey tables, I will try the looser grip, and some drifting techniques to see if I can confuse my opponent!