Airmails are cornhole’s most exciting shot. Nothing gets a crowd more energized than when a player throws their bag clean over their opponent’s bags and into the hole. We recently saw this on the biggest stage with Phil Lopez Jr. who went backside over 2 bags to stay alive in arguably the greatest game of all time. This is the stuff of legends! But should YOU shoot it? And when?
The Airmail is a high-risk/high-reward shot. Aside from being a shot that requires near pinpoint accuracy, the airmail can result in absolute havoc. Coming up short usually results in a trampoline effect. When this happens the thrower’s bag will jettison off the board. And even worse, this can cost a player MORE points by knocking their opponent’s bag or bags in! Execution of the airmail shot is critical. Knowing when and when not to shoot it will help you minimize risk and maximize points.
The first question you should be asking when it comes to the airmail: can you actually shoot it? Not just shoot it but MAKE IT! For most players, an airmail is akin to a Hail Mary pass in football. Anyone can launch a bag and pray. So ask yourself, can you actually hit it? At what percentage do you make it?
The reality is; if you are not making airmails in game situations at above 50%, this is a shot you should avoid. Players shooting below an 8PPR (points per round) and who struggle to make 50% of their slides shouldn’t consider shooting more difficult shots often if at all. The risk is just too high compared to the reward. The chances of something not going right increase with players who are not consistently making the easier shots. Giving up 2 is OK. Usually when giving up 2 you are still alive and you can regroup on the next round. Make it worse and it’s game over.
Fundamentally cornhole is about scoring the most points a player can in each round. This is with the end goal of getting to 21 before your opponents do. 12 is the maximum number of points a player can score in a round. We can dig into the defensive side and DPR vs PPR in the future, but for the average player cornhole is about scoring the most points possible each round. Fore that reason putting bags in the hole is the best way to maximize points. Likewise putting a bag on the board is more valuable than missing an airmail. That extra point matters. Whether it ends up on your side of the scoreboard or your opponent’s, it gets you closer to 21 or keeps your opponent a little further from their goal. This keeps the game going longer and it could be the difference in winning or losing a game.
When to Say When:
So when do you shoot airmails? The short answer for most players is NEVER. As your airmail shot improves, the license to shoot it increases. However, for a player making 1 or 2 out of every 10 airmails they throw, the answer should be NEVER. Let’s breakdown why:
8 is better than 7.
You are faced with this situation: You have two bags in and 1 up. Your opponent has 2 in and 2 up. They have 8. AND they have hole-position. Sure, hitting that backside airmail and turning that 7 into 10 would be great! But miss and the score could easily swing to 7-10 or even 7-12.
The chances of an average player making that airmail are somewhere between 10% and 20%. When a player is making 20% of their airmail attempts they are scoring 35-65 points on average. If you are able to put 60-80% of your bags on the board you are going to be between 60 and 80 points. You just can’t make up for the misses when you are not making your airmail at a high enough clip. Therefore you should go with the mathematically most beneficial shot: the slide.
When Does the Math Flip?
A player needs to make an average 32%+ of their airmail attempts for the math to even out and the number of points per toss to be equal to boarding that bag. This is a very high percentage for a backyard player. Moreover it is still a high percentage for most once a week players. This is why it’s almost ALWAYS better to layup.
|In %||On %||# of throws||Total Points||Points Per Attempt|
Take into account that the 32% airmailer is maybe getting 5% of their shots to stay on the board. You can see how this shot is now worth on average 1pt per attempt. That is equal to laying up. What this doesn’t account for are the errant and bad shots.
A highly skilled player is going to have a “good miss” more often than an average player. A “good miss” is a bag that doesn’t hurt. Missing deep is the most common of the so called good misses. However, if you come up short, the chances of chaos increase. When you knock your opponent’s bag or bags in, that airmail attempt wasn’t just one less point scored. It could easily result in a 3, 5, or 6 point swing to your opponent. This is a big reason why 90% of players should keep that airmail holstered. The risk just doesn’t outweigh the reward.
Airmails vs Slide Shots
Below is a look at some Slide Shot Percentages. As players get better, their bags-in percentage generally increases. You’ll see that better players are going to convert shots into higher points per toss or per round. By converting points to points per toss, you can see how a player would need a higher percentage airmail in order to have a similar points per attempt/toss when using an airmail. A player with an 8PPR is going to need a 65% airmail in order to maintain their points per attempt/toss. PPR is a stat you will hear a ton about but PPT or Points Per Toss is crucial when deciding what the right shot is with each bag. If you hit airmails at 25% you are scoring roughly 0.75 points per airmail. Contrast that with a slide shot that you make 50% of the time and 40% of the time it stays on and you are making 1.9 points per attempt. You can see that there is a 1.15 point per toss difference in the airmail and slide shot for such a player. If a player chooses wisely, that could be 3-4 points in a game.
|Slide Shot Percentages|
|In %||On %||# of throws||Total Points||Points Per Toss||PPR|
When is it OK to Shoot Airmails?
For someone with a good airmail there are situations where it is advantageous to attempt an airmail. There are times when a player is shooting bag 8 and they are already +1 or +2 for the round. The hole is wide open. Hitting an airmail here can be a dagger to their opponent’s mental game. A player who recognizes this also knows how to miss the shot. They are unlikely to cause a major points swing the wrong way with an errant attempt. The timing of this airmail may be when their team has a lead of 4-5 points. Situational shooting is an Advanced-Skill. If you are trying to add this to your game, you should already be shooting 8+ points per round AND have an airmail that is above 32%.
There are other times when the airmail is a go to shot. An example of this is when the score is 6-3 and a player has the last bag. The board says go up! All of the players sitting at 3’s bags are on the hole. An airmail has the potential to knock 1 or 2 of their own bags in. This even with the thrown bag trampolining off could make it 6-5, 6-7, or possibly 6-9. In this situation throwing the bag on would be a 6-4 round. This is when a player should be communicating with their partner. Does your partner agree that the reward is greater than the risk? Talk to your partner before you shoot a more difficult shot and make sure you are both in agreement that this is the shot to take in a particular situation.
The 100% greenlight for any player to shoot the airmail: when you need to airmail to stay in the game. If you are down 19-10 and you miss your first bag, you may end up in a situation where hitting an airmail is necessary to get the bags back to your partner. Hence this is the time to shoot! We saw this recently when Team Ultra’s Gina Ramirez found herself down two with the last bag in her hand. She had to shoot to win. She could not lay up rather than shoot. Laying up would have ended the game with Gina down one.
When NOT to Shoot Airmails:
One situation where I see players shoot airmails way too often is similar to that 100% greenlight shot. A player has a bag on the lip. Their opponent has 3 in. They have a good feeling their opponent isn’t going to miss bag 4. They want to hit the drag airmail. It’s sexy. They feel like it has to be done to stay alive. Regardless, I see way too many players going up here. Remember: In to Win is the hardest shot in the game. Once you’ve thrown that 10 it puts ALL THE PRESSURE on your opponent to make that last bag. Cross your fingers! The chances your opponent misses that in to win shot are significantly higher than you hitting the miracle drag airmail. Moreover if you miss the drag airmail, the game is over. This is BEFORE your opponent has to even throw that last bag. Always make your opponent make the shot! It isn’t sexy but the odds are better that he’ll miss than you will hit that miracle drag airmail.
Real World Data
Here is a look at some stats for a couple of local players I know. These stats include bags off. Some of these are airmail misses and others could be shorties and such. This represents a couple of different skill level players. You can see that the players with less bags off have higher PPRs. This seems to correlate to more wins too. What this says to me is that keeping bags in play results in more points per round and in turn a player is likely to win more games because of it. This is why decision making is so important.
|In %||On %||Off %||# of throws||Total Points||Points Per Toss||PPR||Win %|
Above all don’t shoot bad shots. Poor decisions are how players lose games. If you want to win more games: shoot less airmails. PERIOD. End of discussion. Significantly improving your airmail % can open up the opportunities where reward begins to outweigh the risk when throwing an airmail. However, simply putting more bags on the board is going to result in more points scored and closer games. All things considered, this is where one less mistake can be the difference between winning and losing.
Note: As a player, I have seen way too many poor decisions. It seems as though players want to show me their airmail as if to say “I can make ’em too!”. When I was getting started in this game, an article struck a chord with me. Stacia Pugh, one of the game’s elite female players, published “Why You Should Never Airmail“. It has been more than 5 years and her article is still relevant for the vast majority of players albeit outside of the Open division.
The number of times I’ve won a game on an airmail are rare. It’s far more likely I won because my opponent missed a few airmails and afterward I slid in for +2 or +3. Another key point, consider that the best players in the world are all using roll shots or are developing them. This is because they would rather not go off the back when shooting an airmail. Points are hard to get and you can’t take them off the scoreboard when you hand them to your opponent. If you’ve read this far, it’s probably a good time for you to evaluate your game and thus your airmail to see if you really should be going to it as frequently as you do.