Playing to Lose: Special Features

You know how DVDs have all that extra stuff, including "animated menus" and director's commentary? That's what this page is, for my article Playing to Lose in The Magazine. Want to see Ben Mullen's max-out? How about four hours of Bo Steil playing Tengen Tetris? It's all here.

NES Tetris cartridge - from Russia with fun!

Videos and Things

Questions and Answers

How did you become interested in competitive Tetris? It's all thanks to Adam Cornelius, a friend from college. A few years back, I was working on a piece for This American Life while Adam was working on what would become Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. Adam told me about this community of Tetris players who were performing at extremely high levels, many of whom had been playing for decades — and most of whom didn't know the others existed. After seeing an early version of the film and working with him on some writing bits, I knew that there were many more stories within that community that I could cover on my own. So here we are.

Why is NES Tetris used in the Classic Tetris World Championship? Is it the canonical Tetris? In short, NES Tetris is really hard and reasonably cheap. There are many Tetris variants out there. The CTWC needed a familiar, hard game that was also cheap and readily available (and it helped to have that game on an NES console, which is capable of outputting simple RF video as well as RCA composite video...send one signal to a TV, the other to a projector!). NES consoles and NES Tetris cartridges are all over the place — so it was reasonably easy to put eight of them on a stage (this wouldn't be as easy with arcade game cabinets, for example). NES Tetris is only canonical in the sense that it's the focus of the CTWC and Ecstasy of Order. But it's just one of many Tetris implementations; competitive Tetris players typically play multiple versions.

Why were there referees at the CTWC? The referees were there to observe technical glitches (rare but possible with old equipment), players pausing during play (grounds for disqualification — I didn't see this happen), or a few other rare conditions that could involve human judgment. The other job is writing down scores, as the NES console doesn't track them particularly well. The actual experience of watching the games is absurd; it's mentally taxing in a way that you can only understand if you watch some of the aforelinked YouTube videos of these high-level games. Then imagine you're watching two of them at once and trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Are you a competitive Tetris player? Nope. I'm awful at it. It stresses me out way too much and I don't have room in my life to devote time to training. Having said that, if I can make it to next year's CTWC I will attempt to qualify. I expect to fail miserably, but maybe that'll be a fun thing to write about.

Why did you write about Bo Steil and Ben Mullen specifically? I volunteered to referee at the 2012 CTWC, and it was the luck of the draw that I oversaw the match between Steil and Mullen (among others). In looking for a subject, I looked for someone who was close to a max out (in the hope that I could be following that player when the max out was achieved) — and in late 2012, that was either Bo Steil or Louie Skouie. Because I had the referee experience with Steil, I picked his story. The next max out is really anyone's game; Skouie recently put up a near max out score on his birthday.

Are Steil and Mullen competing publicly any time soon? I'm glad you asked, fake question-asker. They'll be at the Midwest Gaming Classic in late March 2013. Steil told me that the Tetris tournament there will crown the "Tetris king of the midwest."

Why do these players use old CRT TVs? NES Tetris for the US market was designed to work with an NTSC analog TV set. The frame-rate and responsiveness of an analog TV differs from those of most modern LCD/plasma/projection systems (modern TVs do various image processing and have other issues with lag even while in "game mode"), and when you play Tetris at such high speeds, the tiniest of performance changes in the hardware matter.

Do you have a financial stake in Ecstasy of Order? You sure seem to talk about it a lot. Nope, I get no money from EOO, am not an investor, have zero financial relationship with it — unless you click the affiliate links above to buy it, in which case I get a few percent of the sale like any other off-the-shelf product. I talk about EOO a lot because I love it and think more people should see it. If you've read this far and have not given it a peek, you really ought to go watch it.

More Stuff By Chris Higgins

I write for Mental Floss and The Atlantic and even This American Life this one time.

The Blogger AbidesI just wrote a book about freelance writing, in case you want to be like me and make the big bucks rent money. The book's cheap. It's Kindle-only for now. If you write in any medium — online, on pieces of trees, book reports for school, reports at work — I think I can help you. (Note: this book contains dramatically fewer footnotes than Playing to Lose. You're welcome.)

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