Updated: 03/03/21 •  7 min read
Tim head image

Tim McPherson, Air Hockey Head Honcho

An air hockey player and all-around arcade game enthusiast, Tim knows what he’s doing when he is called to give expert game advice

How to Get Much Better at Air Hockey

Easy to learn, hard to master describes air hockey to a tee. It’s an extremely uncomplicated game, with very little room for fancy tricks. This might make the game seem a bit quaint to outsiders, as games like this often do, but it means that one thing is going to trump everything else when playing air hockey: raw skill. There’s no complex rules to hide behind, so everything you do is going to have an instant and perceivable impact on the table.

The trick, of course, is knowing which actions you can take will have the most impact at any given stage of the game, which is why this guide is here. This isn’t going to turn you from a newbie to a pro in one easy read or any such thing, but it will help you get a grip on the kinds of things you need to do learn how to get better at air hockey.

Defense, Defense, Defense

block-puck-shot

Air hockey is an intensely aggressive game, which can lead many people to think that hard focusing on your offensive game is going to be the best strategy.

But all this really leads to is, at best, a game where you and your opponent trade points on each other until inevitably the person who had possession of the puck first wins. This is great if you’re that person, not so much if you’re not.

No, while offense is important, defense is what wins games, and it’s probably the hardest things to learn. Air hockey pucks move FAST (over 80 miles an hour in some cases), only exacerbated by how small the table is.

The key to defense is twofold: having a stable “home” position, and effectively tracking the puck.

You need to know where the puck is at all times, how fast it’s moving, and always be in a position to block it. This can only come with practice.

This is where the ol’ triangle defense comes in, giving you the “stable home position” I talked about. You start at one end of your goal, sweep the mallet up to a center point about a foot from it, and then down to the other side of the goal, and around again. Do this as best you can to follow the puck as it zooms around the table.

Catch and Release

Your first instinct when blocking a puck is likely to be to just whack it back at your opponent immediately, or even as part of the block.

Instead, what you want to try and do is deflect the puck, and slow it down so it stays on your side of the field. Why? Well, this give you more control.

Remember based on the rules, once the puck enters your side of the table, you have 7 seconds to return it to your opponent. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s an eternity in such a fast paced game.

Make use of those 7 seconds to gain control of the puck, set it up where you want it, and smack it back with maximum force and precision. This one change is going to make a huge difference in the effectiveness of your play.

Precision Banking Shots

In the glossary of terms for air hockey, Banking shots are trick shots where the puck bounces off the sides to get to the goal. These are exceptionally important in air hockey, as straight on shots are rarely going to work. Knowing your angles is important, but so is proper technique.

Most peoples’ natural inclination is going to be to slice their mallet sideways and hit the puck off the wall that way. This works, but you’re going to lose quite a bit of speed and power, as all the force is directed sideways, rather than forward.

Instead, you want to gain control of the puck (as mentioned above!) and “double hit” the puck; just a little tap to get it moving in the direction you want, and then slam it straight on from the back in that direction. Once you get it down, it’ll be more like one, smooth diagonal smash than two quick hits.

Keep in mind two things when doing bank shots: don’t be predictable, and try to only hit one wall.

You want to try and vary up which walls you hit. If you always bank off the right wall, for instance, it makes your shots predictable and easier to block.

Likewise, you don’t want to put too much horizontal power into your hit, as it will carom off of both walls. This can potentially make the puck more unpredictable, but at the cost of speed; you need to be very careful that this is what you want to happen instead of doing it by accident.

Avoid Beginner Mistakes

The biggest mistake a new player of any game can make is to try to be too fancy or flashy. Like any game sportsmanship is not about showing off but how you should act.

Also, many beginners hear about trick shots and fancy moves and try to replicate them, only to fall flat on their face because what they really need to learn is their fundamentals; better blocking and puck control in general.

One of the excellent benefits of air hockey is that it’s not that hard to learn as long as you spend the time to gain the skill. The air hockey game rules isn’t complex and anyone can pick up the rules immediately. As long as beginners use the most reliable air hockey table in their disposal, there won’t be any problems in becoming a pro player.

Have an Ace up your Sleeve

On the flipside, too much simplicity in your game makes your play feel straightforward and predictable, making it easy to shut you down for any experienced player.

Mind games are absolutely essential in such a simple game. Your options for action are limited, so you need to get inside your opponent’s head and do things they won’t expect.

Enter the feint (or “pump fake or complementary shot”): pretend to be gearing up to hit the puck one way, then quickly change direction. Relax, these types of shots are still within the game rules.

This is where being “predictable” for a while is to your advantage. If you program your opponent to expect one thing, and then do the other, it will often result in a free point. This is where taking some of the advice I’ve given with a grain of salt is important; for example, if you hit a right wall bank shot three times in a row, and then suddenly pump fake a left wall shot, there’s a high chance you’ll score.

Tom Erickson