Turning the tables

Sophomore finds success in passion for competitive foosball


Provided by Jesse Rey

Sophomore Khoji Ybarra plays at a local foosball tournament. He has been playing foosball for around two years.

Sophomore Khoji Ybarra is on his way home after a tournament in Austin. It’s late, and the next day is a school day. He had lost pretty early, in the first match, but thanks to the double elimination style of the tournament, he still had a chance to win. Despite being disheartened, Khoji worked his way back up, all the way to the finals. It took twice the work, but he won second place in the foosball tournament.

Foosball is not a very common sport in today’s world, but it is still alive. After playing competitive foosball for around two years, Khoji is an example of that.

Khoji was introduced to foosball when he was six. He lived in Houston near his grandparents’ house and his grandfather had a foosball table, so Khoji began playing with him.

“I thought [my grandfather] was the best at the time because nobody that I knew could beat him,” Khoji said.

Although Khoji eventually became skilled enough to beat his grandfather, Khoji and his family moved to Dallas, where he gradually lost interest in foosball.

“I didn’t really have interest,” Khoji said. “I just thought it was a fun game like everybody else would think.”

Years later, Khoji met Warren Vanlandingham during one of his sister’s soccer practices. Vanlandingham’s daughter was on the same team as Khoji’s sister, and Khoji’s dad coached his sisters team. During the practices, Khoji and Vanlandingham would kill time by kicking a soccer ball around. The topic of foosball came up, and Vanlandingham invited Khoji to come check out the Texas State Championship.

“He invited [me] to come because he was trying to promote the sport because it’s not very big,” Khoji said. “I was like, ‘sure’ because I thought I was good because I could beat my grandpa.”

Confident in his ability, Khoji didn’t want to just come, he wanted to play.

“I [walked] through the door and it was at a hotel in Dallas, it was called Westin,” Khoji said. “I walk in and this guy asked me if I wanted to play because generally the foosball community is really nice, especially to kids. I played and after the first point, I was just so lost. He was just so much better than anything I’ve ever seen.”

From then on, Khoji started playing competitively. He didn’t have a professional table of his own, so he would come to Vanlandingham’s house to practice. Later, he got a table of his own.

“You could call [Vanlandingham] my coach sort of because he taught me pretty much everything I know,” Khoji said. “I’ve also learned from a bunch of other people, but he was my main guide.”

Vanlandingham said Khoji has a good approach to the game by setting goals that are achievable. Khoji has been steadily advancing in rankings from junior, beginner, rookie and amatuer.

“He likes to give me all the credit, but really the credit all goes to him,” Vanlandingham said. “I can show the same person something, and it’ll take them ten tries while he’ll make it in the first or [the] second try. It makes it real easy because you can move on to the next lesson rather quickly.”

Now that Khoji has a professional table, he practices every day after school.

“I’ll come over one week to practice, and I’ll come over the next, and I see improvement,” Vanlandingham said. “That’s just a rare thing. To have actual improvement in one week that you can see. A lot of people achieve those results over a long period of time, so we’re really proud of him.”

Khoji’s mom, Melanie Ybarra, has also begun playing foosball to help him practice. Because she usually takes Khoji to all his tournaments, the sport piqued her interest.

“It’s a whole other world I didn’t know about until someone introduced us,” Melanie said. “It’s fun and a neat game, and the more you get into it–like I’m now just getting into it, but I see why people get kind of addicted to it.”

Many of the local tournaments are held at a pool hall on Tuesdays and Fridays. Major tournaments will be at hotels. Khoji said in the recent year, he has competed in more tournaments, and around a year ago, Khoji made it onto the junior division of the U.S. team.

“Last year I wasn’t super good; I wasn’t one of the top juniors so I didn’t go to much,” Khoji said. “I just went to the local ones. But this year, I went to one in Texas, Louisiana, and Kentucky.”

Khoji aims to be on and compete for the USA men’s world cup team in the future. Currently, his focus is on becoming a professionally ranked player.

“I have a really competitive mindset, so If I someone is better than me, and I haven’t clearly made myself better than them, I want to prove myself,” Khoji said. “That’s why I feel like I continue to play.”