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At a bar in Brooklyn this spring, when the hockey playoffs were still going on, a guy with a nose ring and glasses approached a visitor from Toronto who was watching the Maple Leafs game on a small TV in the corner of the bar. He challenged the Leafs fan to a game of air hockey and even offered to buy him a beer if he won.
He neglected to mention that he was currently ranked No. 10 in the world and was almost certainly the best air hockey player in New York.
His name was Justin Flores, and he had been coming to Ontario, a dive bar in Williamsburg, for weeks, waiting for anybody to approach the table. He’d recently found a student — a New Yorker named Liz Cash, who hoped to become the top-ranked female player in the world, and he had her training with the appropriate intensity. He himself was also getting ready for the World Championships that were set for the end of July in Colorado Springs. Both he and his mentee are attending and fully expect to achieve glory if not win much in the way of money.
But he was always on the lookout for more disciples, and he was always up for a game.
When the Canadian sidled over between periods, Mr. Flores was visibly pumped. If it was hard for him to attract opponents, it was no problem drawing a crowd once a game was underway. For one thing, Mr. Flores, who is 30, holds the mallet by its edge, not by the knob, the way most people do, which is the mark of a novice. He also knows how to put the puck into a so-called circle drift, gently cycling it back and forth before executing a killer shot.
Like a true hustler, Mr. Flores let the Canadian score a few points. The subsequent annihilation of his opponent drew stares. One bearded observer took the Juul out of his mouth and looked stunned. “I’ve never seen anyone play like that,” he said.
Mr. Flores became hooked on air hockey while shooting photos of the national championship for his college paper a decade ago in Houston, a hotbed of elite players. He can’t sum up what he loved about the game in a single sentence, or really at all — it’s just “too big” for him. He’s an engineer in training, a really no-nonsense guy. But for him, as much as he thinks it’s corny to say, air hockey is an art.
“It’s a level playing field,” he said, “and what someone does with it is up to them.”
But when he moved to New York in 2013, he found that few people felt the same way. In a city that has no less than five Quidditch teams and a competitive musical chairs tournament, almost no one seemed interested in his passion.
Mr. Flores has posted fliers around Ontario Bar (the only place in the area that would give him permission) and on Facebook groups like New York Air Hockey Club (which has fewer than 100 followers) with his challenge: He will buy a beer for anyone who can beat him. So far, he hasn’t had to.
According to the Air Hockey Players Association, one of the sport’s governing bodies, only 24 air hockey players in the world are designated professionals, and only 10 of them are recognized as masters. As far as he knows, Mr. Flores is the only air hockey master in the five boroughs. That’s something he’s been trying to change for years — his goal is to cultivate a local scene that rivals the one in his home state of Texas, where the game’s rules were first codified and the best players have historically come from.
But even there, competitive air hockey is relatively obscure. Aficionados blame the arrival of the video game Pong, released by Atari in 1972 — the same year that air hockey tables first went to market. Bar patrons clearly preferred digital table tennis; air hockey tables briefly went out of production in 1978.
A fanatic named Mark Robbins, who happened to be the son of Atari’s former president, rejected his birthright and rented a van so he could drive across the country and hold air hockey exhibitions at arcades, buying as many tables as he could along the way. His hope was that, at the very least, he and his friends could keep playing for the rest of their lives.
By 1985, he had persuaded a company called Dynamo Corp. to begin making what’s now considered an acceptable facsimile of the original table. Finding a Dynamo of a certain length — which by design features no blinking, distracting lights alongside it — is now the Holy Grail for enthusiasts.
Real estate is also part of the story. Competition air hockey tables are eight feet long, but space considerations in New York bars typically only allow for one that’s a foot shorter. Another complication arises from the fact that some of the few places in the city that can fit a bigger table don’t seem to want Mr. Flores around. He prefers to bring his own regulation puck, which is heavier and more robust than the flimsy plastic ones that you find at barroom tables.
“It’s like practicing baseball with a Wiffle ball,” Mr. Flores said.
With heaviness comes loudness. In fact, he was banned from training at a place with an eight-foot table in Bay Ridge last year because he switched out the default puck for a version that the pool-playing crowd found distracting. So now he’s exclusively training at Brownstone Billiards in Park Slope, where the air hockey table is in a different area from the pool players. It’s a trek from where Mr. Flores lives, in Ridgewood, Queens, but it’s worth it.
It’s also convenient for Liz Cash, Mr. Flores’s student, who lives in Crown Heights and will be joining him at the Colorado tournament. The table is paid for by the hour rather per game, which is much better for practicing maneuvers, like a boxer working a speed bag.
The two met in 2015 at Ontario Bar, and Mr. Flores instantly saw something in Ms. Cash, a muscular physical therapist. She’s a competitive boxer, unable to fully dedicate herself to martial arts because she keeps injuring both of her wrists. But she’s apparently in prime condition for air hockey.
Ms. Cash didn’t realize it was a legitimate sport until she met Mr. Flores at one of his air hockey meetups. When he told her that her competitive drive and athletic prowess gave her the capacity for greatness, she went from merely interested to obsessed.
“He told me I could be the best woman in the world,” she said at a recent training session. “At that time, Justin was like Yoda to me. He might as well have been levitating off the table.” She’s since started juggling and training her vision.
With only weeks to go before the 2019 Air Hockey Players Association World Championship tournament in Colorado Springs, the training partners had some work to do. Ms. Cash tends to stick out her left leg when shooting, like a figure skater going into an Arabesque. It’s a good way for her to build momentum — she describes it like the final piece of a whipping motion that begins at the arm. Plus: “Sometimes I do it because I’m only 5-foot-3 and have to be on my tiptoes.”
Although she’s quite ferocious and talented, she suffers from Meniere’s disease, which can induce the kind of vertigo she suffered the only other time she seriously competed, in 2017. She finished a disappointing 22nd in that tournament, but she thinks she could have won the whole thing if she hadn’t gotten dizzy.
An additional obstacle to her ascentis that she has only Mr. Flores and another pro, based out of Connecticut, to practice against. There’s also the fact that the table she’s training on in Park Slope isn’t very good. It meets the basic specifications, but it also has a huge gash on one end, doesn’t keep score, and frequently turns off in the middle of a game.
“This is like Chuck-E-Cheese for adults,” said Ms. Cash. “All the other serious players practice on tables that work well. Everything should be like butter.”
Before their recent practice session, Mr. Flores wiped down the lackluster table with isopropyl, and the two taped up their middle and index fingers. When they started playing, they both hit the puck so hard that it regularly flew off the table. They took turns unplugging the Dynamo, trying in vain to make it fully operational for the entirety of a match. It didn’t work, and Ms. Cash used the frequent pauses to drink a homemade concoction full of electrolytes out of a Mason jar. “I was surprised the first time I went to Colorado just how much you can sweat from air hockey,” she said.
After a couple of hours, the two were involved in a heater of a set. Ms. Cash was ultimately victorious, seven games to four. She was pretty sure that it was the first time she’d beaten her mentor — a good sign for Colorado — and something she attributed to the fact that she’d just learned how to juggle with four balls earlier that day. She was positive that had caused new areas to light up in her brain.
Since then, she’s spent hours practicing her forehand with a goal blocker. She’s also been playing against co-workers from the gym and training her vision. She thinks that this unique form of preparation will push her over the edge to beat Niki Flanagan, the best woman air hockey player of all time.
“My advantage will come from my insight into the human body,” Ms. Cash said. “No one else in the tournament is going to be thinking about their cerebellum.” As Ivan Lendl did with tennis, Ms. Cash also thinks she will introduce fitness and conditioning to the game of air hockey. “These big, heavy guys who I’m going to play against will be stiff,” she said. “That’s going to limit them.”
Ms. Flanagan is aware of her challenger. Now 47, Ms. Flanagan has returned from a five-year hiatus after having a daughter. A graduate of the University of Texas with what is said to be a devastating cross-straight shot, she was ranked as high as No. 14 in the world before she became pregnant.
When she decided to get back into the game about a year ago, she checked out some Facebook pages for air hockey and saw the sport had become much more physical than back in her day. Ms. Flanagan said that she started running and lost 61 pounds. She’s heard about Ms. Cash’s prowess but doesn’t quite know what to make of her.
“She has a good formula, because she’s into fitness and working out,” she said. “That’s a big part of things now. My stamina is up from running, and I’m on a low-carb diet. But I honestly have no idea what vision training even is. I’ll have to ask her about that when we finally meet.”