Jonas Neubauer isn’t going to help organize your closet. “I would totally suck at that,” he laughs.
On the surface, this statement is not unusual coming from a 33-year-old male who works at a brewery taproom. But Neubauer isn’t an average 33-year-old male – he’s the four-time Tetris World Champion. Stacking and sorting are sort of his specialty.
Chances are, you are aware of Tetris, the wildly popular puzzle game – and candy-colored vestige of the Cold War’s final era – created by Russian engineer Alexey Pajitnov (with the help of a couple co-workers) in 1984 at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. You are probably also familiar with its deceptively simple, incredibly addictive formula: seven different-sized blocks descend from the top of the screen, and continue building until the player forms lines. The goal is to clear the screen, and, for the purists, score as many four-line combinations (a “Tetris”) as possible. They’re worth the most points, after all.
And at the Classic Tetris World Championship tournament – taking place this weekend in Portland, Oregon – points are what matter most. Neubauer has won the event every year since its inception in 2010, and he’s headed to PDX this year in an attempt to make it five titles in a row. If he’s successful, he’ll not only secure his spot in video-game lore, but walk away with a cash prize, too.
To do that, he’ll have to defeat a field loaded with top Tetris talent, each versed in classic techniques (all tournament games are played on 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System consoles) and all gunning for the game’s Holy Grail – a “max out” score of 999,999. No one has accomplished the feat at the tournament, and privately, only a select group of masters can claim to have reached the figure. Neubauer is, of course, one of them.
As he prepares to defend his crown, Rolling Stone spoke with the champ about his special skills, his gaming history and the unforeseen benefits of being the greatest Tetris player on the planet.
What lead you to Tetris? At what age did you discover the game?
My uncle Bill in San Diego had a computer in ’85 or something. It was a really basic version on his Macintosh whatever. It was the first computer game I ever played and it just did something to my brain where it was like, “Alright, now I understand what you need to survive. So now we’re going to take this entire side of your brain and dedicate it to the most awesome thing that’s happening right now.”
When did Tetris become more important than, say, Super Mario Bros.?
I was about 9 years old. I had my first big game of 176,000 and I turned a corner where I was actually decent at it. That’s not a great score, but way back then, when you’re 9, that’s pretty good. I got to level 19 for the first time and saw what I was up against. After that, I was like, “I need to play only 19 until I can handle it.” So I played nothing but 19 until high school. It was so overwhelming that I’d cry and get frustrated. The controller I used in the 2010 tournament had my little 12-year-old bite marks on it because you get to this point where you’re biting your controller. It was this weird masochistic drive.
So when did you recognize you were one of the best in the world?
Senior year of high school, a bunch of my buddies would come to my house. That’s when people first started watching me play. I was scoring somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 at that point. But then there was the proliferation of the Internet in 2002, ’03. There were these Tetris message boards and you could go on there and post a score. I posted a [photo of] a 980-something, but they still said I was using a Game Genie, so that was a whole thing. In 2002 or 2003, I maxed out and put that score up.
When did you realize there were other players in your league?
During the build-up to the first tournament. As soon as you’ve maxed out, you can win on any given day. When I saw Trey [Harrison] and Harry [Hong’s] 800,000 videos, I realized if they can handle that 19 speed, they can definitely take me down. That was the first eye-opener. But I thought I was going to win it. It was a little tougher than I expected playing in front of a crowd because Tetris is a very isolated game. I wanted to do the no-headphones thing because I wanted the whole experience, like a baseball player who doesn’t wear batting gloves.
Do you expect to win this year’s tournament too?
I feel like I had a nice little lead on people, but they’re closing that gap. You can plateau and only get so much better. People are much more dangerous this year than three or four years ago. They’re playing really good Tetris. There’s that element. There’s the randomness. It’s really difficult to consistently win. The important thing is there’s no way to program a cartridge to take the random element out. Even if you give people the same pieces, their configuration changes, so it’s still a chaotic board. I don’t think you’ll program that aspect out of it.
What’s your strategy? What makes you better than everyone else?
I play at a very metered pace. I don’t press “down” ever. I liken it to public speaking. People who aren’t good at public speaking will fire through their sentences and speak really quickly and make mistakes. I play a very tight, aggressive style. There are certain moves you can do where you build chaos and then you can tuck and flip pieces at the last minute. I think people are starting to do it more, but in 2010 I was the only one doing these little kickflips. If you can do it consistently, basically you can handle more chaos. You can be more organized.
I’m constantly trying to work a sloping, high left/low right deal. That is the ideal situation. It’s a misconception that people want a flat playing field. If you have a perfectly flat playing field, you already can’t put the Z-block anywhere. And you can’t stall because if you put an L-block on the right, you block your well, so you want a sloping right because now a Z-block stalls you, an L-block stalls you. A last-second adjustment will completely open things up for you.
How much practice do you put in?
Even with a month until the tournament, you’re probably playing a half-hour to an hour a day. People want to do little tournaments. I want to play the least amount of public games as possible. You want to keep your opponents in the dark. It’s gamesmanship.
Is it kind of embarrassing to be the reigning king of a game created 30 years ago?
No. I’m a total ham. I get asked about it at least five or six times a weekend at the taproom. No embarrassment whatsoever. In Call of Duty, you’ve got people yelling at you online. I used to play Halo and it was such a bummer. With Tetris, it’s a positive thing.
How long before you tell potential dates you are the Tetris champion?
They usually find out through other methods. That’s how you want to do it. You never want to be that guy with the Tinder profile with the Tetris trophy
What’s the best thing about being the Tetris world champ?
I lost a bunch of weight since I first won. Anytime you win a championship, you lose about 40 pounds. It’s something fun to tell at parties and stuff.