Married to the Mallet

Air hockey's savior can savor his lifetime goal.

Mark Robbins is running a bit late, as usual, and he's in a hurry to suit up. He hates to miss any of the action, even at his age. Still, there is a ritual, and it's important he get it right.

The first order of business is to dull yesterday's pain. It rolls through his joints and tugs at his muscles; it's the price he pays for a lifetime of top-level competition and endless exhibition matches. Robbins reaches into his bulging gym bag and pulls out tubes of Icy Hot ointment and a special herbal rub. He applies both vigorously to his left arm. "I've been playing for 29 years now," he explains, "so I got chronic wrist problems."

The next task is stabilization and protection. He grabs a roll of athletic tape and painstakingly wraps the ring finger on his left hand. He finds a single kneepad and pulls it over his sweats and onto his left leg, then slips into his running shoes.

Mark Robbins plays the Game.
Mark Manger
Mark Robbins plays the Game.

Robbins rummages through his gear once more, eventually laying his hands on the next piece of essential gear. He winds the Ace bandage carefully around his left wrist. Finally, he grabs a single glove out of his bag. It is mangled, black and old enough to look as though it's been backed over by a semi truck on a hot day. He yanks it onto his left hand.

Ready at last, he shakes his head at the absurdity of it all. "I swear," he says, "it takes me as long to get dressed for air hockey these days as it does for ice hockey."

Oh, well. Everyone's getting older -- even the Man Who Saved Air Hockey. It's time to warm up. Robbins, 51, stands up to his full 5' 5" height and starts bouncing on his toes. The Table waits.


People who do not know any better mistake the Table for just a field of play. But to true players, it is far more than a plateau of forced air. It is a special place. It engages the mind, frees the ego and provokes deep thoughts.

"The Table reveals the degree of one's competitiveness, of one's desire; some contend, even of one's sexual potency," Phil Arnold, co-founder of the game's first national organization, proclaimed in an early issue of Table Talk, an air-hockey newsletter. "But did you know that the Table, through the sport, strips away the illusions beneath which many of you are always hiding?"

Robbins saw the light in 1973, just one year after Brunswick, a firm best known for crafting pool tables, came out with the world's first air-hockey table. Then a college student in Arizona, he was the perfect candidate for the new game. His father had spent a lifetime working in the coin-operated-game industry. Robbins himself had played ice hockey for years.

"It was love at first sight, that sort of thing," he recalls. "I walked into the Tucson student union to play pool and saw the air-hockey table. I put up my quarter, picked up a mallet and won eighteen games in a row."

He played in his first tournament a year later, and he won. In 1975, he wanted to enter a college tourney, but there was a problem: He wasn't in college anymore. Still, guys were going nuts to play. One player, known as Spiderman, had enrolled in a community college just to get into the tournament; he never took a course. So Robbins called a friend at Boulder's Naropa Institute, where he'd studied for a year, filling the time between classes playing air hockey at the Dark Horse Saloon.

In the 1970s, the only thing vaguely resembling athletics at Naropa was recreational sex. "But I told him I had to be a student, and he agreed to it," he recalls. "I showed up at the regional tournament in Phoenix, told them I was from Naropa. I still have a T-shirt with Naropa U. on it." It was becoming clear what was really important in Robbins's life.

"I've had girlfriends complain to me, 'You love air hockey more than me,'" Robbins acknowledges. "Well, yeah. Women come and go. But the Table's been very good to me." Perhaps not surprisingly, he has never married. "Maybe to the Table," he says.

Like All in the Family and World War II, Brunswick's air-hockey table created an enormous legacy in a surprisingly brief period of time. Just as the sport was hitting its stride, though, video games suddenly appeared. Student unions, once filled with the happy sound of plastic pucks being pounded by plastic mallets, began echoing with the cheap beeps and fake explosions of Space Invaders. In 1978, after only six short years, Brunswick ceased production of air-hockey tables.

Robbins's infatuation, however, never dimmed. In 1982, after a few years dabbling in the Indian-art market, he turned his life over to air hockey. It was a dark time for the game. With video games storming the nation, tournament-quality tables were becoming hard to find. The 1981 City Championships in Houston, perhaps the hottest hotbed of air hockey, took place in a contestant's spare bedroom, on a single Brunswick table.

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