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Rule the table with these Air Hockey tips

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Stick your head into any arcade around the country and you're likely to find an Air Hockey machine. Since its introduction in 1972, the fast-paced game, with its gently floating pucks and distinctive mallets, has become a favorite of kids and adults alike.

But while it's often the source of epic, occasionally unfriendly battles between friends, few people think of it as a skill game. Turns out, it is. And if you're looking to improve your game, following these simple tips can help you become nearly unbeatable – or at least the baddest player in the arcade.

Hold the mallet correctly

Rookies tend to hold the mallet at the top of the knob. In doing so, however, they're inadvertently slowing down their shots and giving their opponents an opening to score.

Try holding it behind the knob instead. That will give you improved agility and better accuracy, letting you move quickly to block goal attempts and take more strategic shots on your opponent.

One popular grip is with your forefinger and ring finger inside of the mallet – and your middle finger bent against the knob. (Thumb and pinky go outside.) Among those who prefer this configuration is Travis Luscombe, an Air Hockey World Championships Master Elite. (Yes, there is an Air Hockey World Championships.)

Defend smart

When your opponent is in control of the puck, goaltending is your primary mission. Rather than positioning your mallet directly against the goal – or even an inch or two away (a common practice, since people think it provides the best coverage) – keep it about a foot out.

This will allow you to react quickly when you see the shot coming. If it's a straight shot, you'll have time to adjust the mallet. If it's a bank shot, you should be able to reposition before it gets to your goal and block the attempt.

When you do block, don't knock the puck back to the other side. Instead, just tap it lightly to regain control, then set up your next shot.

The unblockable shot

Most folks know the air hockey shot basics: shoot for the corners of the goal if someone's guarding close, and use bank shots if they’re guarding too far out.

If you want to ensure victory, though, try to master this nearly unblockable shot.

Start with your puck in the lower right corner, then tap it so it moves toward the center. Right before you hit it, twist your wrist counterclockwise (roughly 90 degrees) and just graze the puck with the side of your mallet.

Your opponent, watching your hand, will instinctively guard against a bank shot, but the shot will sail straight into the goal. Ten-time national titleholder Danny Hynes was taken down by this very shot.

Don't over-bank

Sure, it's fun to make the puck bounce back and forth between the side walls on the way to the goal. In theory, it confuses your opponent, and everyone loves the clacking sound. But in reality, it's a wasted shot.

The kinetic energy lost every time the puck hits the side ultimately slows the shot down, making it easier for your opponent to gain control. One bank is okay, but more than that and you're hurting your chances of scoring.

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