Rarefied Air

A Q&A with Boulder’s own world champion air hockey player.

August 13 2014, 2:00 PM

Mark Robbins at the 2014 World Air Hockey Championship in Denver, August 2. Photo credit J. Wesley Judd.

Mark Robbins has been called many things—a savior, a guru, a champion—all accurate, he says, and all a result of his four-decade air hockey career. A two-time world air hockey champion and one of the game’s most avid promoters, Robbins built his legacy and won his championships (in 1984 and 1986) in Boulder. He now splits his time between Colorado and Michigan, where he owns a recreational table manufacturing company, Gold Standard Games.

Air hockey was invented in the late-1960s and saw its first tournament in the 70s. Over the last 40 years, the sport has fluctuated between booms of popularity and bouts of obscurity. Robbins discovered the tabletop "sport" in 1973, when he was living with a girlfriend in a group-style, yoga ashram in Tucson that required him to commit to a strict lifestyle: no meat, sex, drugs, or drinking. To escape from all the chanting and meditation—and to avoid work around the ashram—he would sneak off to the nearby University of Arizona campus to shoot pool. The first time he picked up an air hockey mallet, he won 18 games in a row. He never stopped playing.

Robbins now spends his time playing tournaments, promoting the game, and designing air hockey tables. We recently sat down with him while was in town for the Air Hockey World Championship in Denver, to talk life, love, and the game that defines his life.

5280: You were born in a suburb of Chicago, your father was a prominent figure in the gaming industry. How did you end up in a yoga ashram in Tucson at 22?

My dad never quite accepted that I wasn’t what he was expecting—you know, a good, little Jewish mensch boy who went to college and became a doctor. My brother became a doctor. I was always sort of unconventional and had my own ideas.

5280: Did you try the mensch thing?

I went to college in Philly, but I left before graduating, and just sort of bummed around. It was like 1971. There was a lot happening in the world, there was a lot happening with me personally. School didn’t have any meaning for me at the time and I just had to go. And I did. I went up to Maine and Boston. Then I went to the west coast, spent some time in San Francisco, Berkeley, hitchhiked, rode freight trains, stuff like that.

5280: You rode freight trains?

Yeah. I liked Jack Kerouac, so I wanted to do all that stuff.

5280: How do you hop a freight train?

I was living in Arizona and Tucson had a really nice freight yard back then. They had a lot of empty boxcars and if the doors were open then you could jump right in before it started moving. That’s ideal. In every yard there would be a place for hobos and guys to hang out, and you would wait for the train. It’s not the thing to do if you’re in a hurry. Sometimes you’d get it when it’s moving just a little bit, but when it’s going pretty fast, it’s dangerous. It was cool, it was fun. You meet a lot of hobos. It sort of got popular to where women would start, but it really wasn’t the best place to meet women. I’ve heard now that they have marauding gangs and stuff, but it wasn’t that dangerous then.

5280: What was going on in your life when you started playing air hockey?

I was doing all that in Tucson, and I even started going to this bar and drinking, and this was sort of like a low point in my life. I’m drinking beer and hanging out with these guys. It was pretty low life. This was before there was air hockey in the world, imagine that. You haven’t lived in a world without air hockey, but for my first 21 years I didn’t even conceive of it.

So there’s no air hockey, and I had been involved with some spiritual stuff and I met these people in the ashram. They had a free lunch going on and they were really friendly, so I started hanging around and going to their yoga classes. I decided to move into their ashram and that sort of transformed my life and got me onto a spiritual path of really serious, heavy-duty practice. I did that for a while, but I didn’t quite fit in. There were sort of cultlike elements I didn’t like. I had one foot in it but couldn’t buy the whole package. If I hung around the ashram, they’d find some work for me to do, so I’d go over and play pool at the student union at the University of Arizona. Then in late-June of ‘73, I walk in to play pool and I hear this sound going and I see this crowd of people and I’m like, what is this? There are three air hockey tables. I put in my quarter and went 18 games in a row. I’ll never forget that because I was counting them. I was like, wow, not only am I good at this, I really like this.

5280: Did you know air hockey would become such a huge part of your life?

Kind of. Maybe a month later, this girl Patty, we were together sort of intimate and she said, you know, I think you love air hockey more than me. And you know what, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to lie to her. She’s long gone. There’s been a lot of women come and gone since then, and air hockey is still here.

5280: How did it feel to win the two world championships in ‘84 and ‘86?

Great. It felt fucking great. I’m not saying I’m the greatest player of all time because I’m not, but at a certain time, I was the best. I was the best in the world.