We began Saturday by making a run to a nearby Target for some snacks for what we figured to be a very long day1. We also nabbed a quick breakfast, eating as much fruit as we could.
Phil Arnold delivered a rousing, if a little overly dramatic, speech about the "razor's edge" and how it felt to be teetering between victory and defeat.
We warmed up and checked the big tournament bracket periodically for the seedings. As Brian and I were unranked, we were subject to essentially random ranking. I drew the #75 seed out of 102 people. My first match would come against Lorene Shoukry, who was ranked in the low 50s.
To say that I blew this match is a total understatement. Lorene's straights were accurate, and she used them frequently, but my defense should have been better. I also failed to execute shots that I should have easily made and complicated my offense to the point where I was entirely ineffective. As a result, Lorene beat me in 7 games, 4-3. It was a tough loss, but it taught me about how [not] to handle big games and showed me what mistakes I made.
It took a while, but I eventually received my pairing in the loser's bracket: Sarah Weissman. Sarah is the daughter of 10-time world champion Tim Weissman. While only 8 [I think?], she possesses the basic understanding of the game and can snap a nice right-wall over shot. In fact, probably 80 percent of the goals she scored on me were this exact shot. When she eventually develops a cut shot and grows a bit taller, she will be a tough player to beat. As it was, I defeated her 4-0.
As afternoon rolled on, I looked up my bracket and noticed that my next match would be a tough one, as I would play the loser of the Andrew Flanagan and Niki Flanagan match. For those not keeping track, these two are married and are both very good. Niki played well, but Andrew beat her in a match that could really have gone either way. Andrew won by a set count of 4-2, so I drew Niki Flanagan.
My match with Niki turned out to be everything I'd hoped to do in Houston. While she defeated me 7-3 in the first game, I had found a weakness in her defense and had keyed in on her main offensive tools. As such, I returned the favor with a 7-3 victory in the second game. She had become visibly (and audibly) agitated, as Dan sat nearby cheering me on2. Games 3 and 4 found me executing a variety of shots and forcing Niki to use different attacks against me. We split these games both by a 7-6 tally. The match could easily have slid one way or the other. Niki took the crucial fifth game 7-4, but I made her work for the sixth game, a game she eeked out 7-6 to take the set 4-2. Niki looked relieved after the match, and I let her know that I had just played the best air hockey of my life. With three 7-6 games, I had chances to make that a 4-2 set win for myself3.
The elimination sent me to the spinoff bracket, where I would play for the amateur title, with the highest possible rank being 49th in the field of 100.
My first spinoff match was against 11-year-old phenom Colin Cummings4. Colin is an incredible talent, and watching him play is truly a treat. He shows incredible skill and poise at the table, and his only real weakness at this time is his height, which I can tell frustrates him. With that in mind, he shows the instincts of being an excellent puck catcher and interference player (a la Davis Lee Huynh). Whenever he gets taller, I expect Colin to be consistently in the top tier of air hockey players. While I beat him in three games (matches in the spinoffs were best of 5), I let Colin know that he's incredibly close to playing in the Expert bracket.
I can't recall exactly what time it was, but I had been playing for hours upon hours. I can't remember the bracket exactly either, but I beat Jacob Weissman and Avery Yebernesky. I don't remember set counts, but I think Jacob was 3-0. Avery, a tough young lefty with a terrific left-wall under, had me down two games to one, but I pulled games four and five out of my ass somehow to take the set 3-2.
In the winner's bracket, I faced Chris Green. Chris plays a super fast game with a charge defense, meaning that his game is to intimidate his opponent and make them adjust their game to his. It took me a couple games to adjust, but in those, Chris and I split those first two games. After the second game, my legs and arm felt weighed down, and my back ached like it hadn't ached in years. I had played six sets at this point, and I just couldn't physically sustain it. Chris' game wore me down, and he easily dispatched of me in the subsequent two games. However, I had already played into the top 3 of the spinoff bracket, meaning I would leave Houston with two trophies.
In the spinoff losers' bracket, I faced off against Avery for the second time, he gave me a good workout, but I triumphed 3-1, despite my tiredness. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and noticed that the tournament had stretched out past midnight. The main draw, which was playing down to the final 16 players, was packing it in for the night, but I had to face Chris Green again and defeat him twice if I was going to win my spinoff.
Within the first minute or so of the match, I had taken notice that Chris had slowed his offense down5. But my tired mind and my desperation for a win under pressure led me to play a game I was not used to. I typically play a slow, patient game where I try to control the pace of the match and force my opponent to adjust to my game. However, in this match, I sped up my game while Chris slowed his down, and I lost control of the match. While I had two shots working against Chris, I couldn't seem to make either one of them go into the goal. As a result, Chris walked all over me in three sets to take home the Amateur title, while I finished runner-up, 50th in the field of 102.
Our spinoff had concluded around 12:45 a.m. Exhausted and sore, I grabbed a beer and talked air hockey with Mike Keller and some of the other players who had come down from Dallas for the tournement.
Dan, Brian, and I left SRO finally at 1:30 a.m., dissecting our successes and failures. I fell asleep within seconds of lying down, and my dreams turned to diamond drifts and cross straights.
My tournament was over.
1 This turned into a judicious decision, as none of us had time to eat a proper meal throughout the day.
2 Air hockey is generally not regarded as a spectator sport. It's considered in poor taste to cheer while the puck is in play, and cheering even after points occurs seldom. The atmosphere isn't unlike tennis or golf, but I think that it could be a more popular spectator sport. Just sayin'.
3 I didn't really kick myself around for not finishing the match better. Dan says he was convinced I was going to win it. Had I played better in my first match, I would likely have gotten a better draw in the losers' bracket and may have been able to face Niki in the Expert spinoffs instead. Oh well, live and learn.
4 Colin won the 10-12 division of the World Youth Championship the weekend before. I also heard from various other sources that he plays competitive chess, which explains his focus and ability to recognize defensive and offensive patterns. From the brief time I was around him, he seems like a pretty special kid. His younger brother Conor won the 9 and under division also and is a pretty bright kid himself.
5 Chris later told me he felt I'd stopped his fast volley offense well, and he'd had to adjust his game to it. I failed to adjust my game to match it, though, and it cost me a spot in the rankings and a second first-place trophy.
5 weeks ago