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How I became one of the worst of the best at Tetris

Commentary: CNET's Danny Gallagher buries himself under digital blocks while battling some of the top players in the country, and himself, to qualify for the Classic Tetris World Championship.

CNET writer Danny Gallagher vies for a spot in the Classic Tetris World Championship.

Screenshot by Danny Gallagher/CNET

Playing video games is not unlike having children. Kids can produce happy, beautiful moments, and also some of the most hair-pulling and anger-inducing ones imaginable.

The only difference is you can turn off a game and take a minute to collect your sanity. If you're still angry, you either have some serious issues or you bought the latest version of Star Wars: Battlefront.

The classic block-dropping puzzle game Tetris is one of the few titles that's actually fun even when it's frustrating. So when I tried to qualify for the Classic Tetris World Championship, an annual tournament in Portland, Oregon, I knew I'd have a good time no matter what.

The tournament, which takes place in October this year, holds regional qualifiers across the country. One took place on Saturday in Plano, Texas, at the Let's Play Gaming Expo. I signed up to compete even though I was woefully out of practice. I was pretty sure I wouldn't come close to qualifying for a contest that attracts hundreds of the top Tetris players in the world. Instead, I wanted to push myself to do something seemingly impossible -- and I live to humiliate myself for your entertainment.

Players in the qualifying tournament compete on an NES console. Each player who scores 500,000 points in a single game that starts on Level 9 moves to the finals, where the highest score wins a spot in the world Tetris tournament. The highest possible score anyone can achieve in a single game is 999,999 points, and only eight confirmed players can boast such a score, according to Twin Galaxies, a source of video game records and player rankings.


Jake Stein of Austin finishes his very first round of Tetris with 888,690 points.

Danny Gallagher/CNET

The tournament looks nothing like the epic video game showdown I imagined. There are no large screens to broadcast my failure. There are just four TVs, each with an NES console sitting on a plastic folding table. We also don't play in front of a crowd, unless you count the volunteers and the people playing other games like Tecmo Bowl and Mario Kart: Double Dash in the spacious but average-looking convention center meeting room.

The tournament starts. Almost 30 minutes after we've begun, Shane Rinicker of Texarkana, Texas, becomes the first to pass the 500,000 threshold. I couldn't score more than 12 lines before topping out and making a face that looked like I was trying to eat my chin. So I turn to him for advice.

CNET writer Danny Gallagher gets mad at a video game, because that's what he does sometimes.

Danny Gallagher/CNET

"I realized that I started screwing up because I used to panic when the game gets faster," Rinicker says. "I'd get to Level 10 and then I wouldn't get any farther because I lost my ability to think."

I try to relax, but I'm Type A (I'm referring to the personality type and not the Tetris game mode) and my natural instinct to rage against a machine in a non-metaphorical way is hard to resist. My highest score after 64 games is just over 15,000 points and it feels like I'm being lapped by the pace car at the Indianapolis 500.

After a short break, I come back to the tournament refreshed and ready to have fun again. At first, the break seems to have helped. Two games into my second run and I've doubled my personal high score. I finally catch my first glimpse of the animated scene of a rocket launching next to the Kremlin that shows up when a player scores more than 30,000 points.

But things steadily decline from there, and I set a new personal low of 11 points. I'm still not sure how such a score is possible without just putting tape on the down button on the D-pad and setting it in front of the TV.

Secrets of champions

Clearly, the only way I'm going to win this tournament is on my own terms. So I set a goal for myself: just get past Level 9. A far cry from Jake Stein of Austin, who first breaks the 500,000-point mark with 888,690 points and eventually wins the top spot at the regional qualifier with a score of 932,974 points.

Stein graciously gives me his secret: a trick he calls "the staircase method." He stacks up blocks high on the left side of the column and lower on the right so there's just a sliver of space between both sides. This makes it easier to eliminate four lines at once, which awards the highest amount of points.

"So when get your long bar, you can get your Tetris," Stein says. "It seems funny at first but if you stick with that strategy, it will help you out in the long run."

I follow his advice and my score starts to improve. I eventually beat my personal best with 32,343 points. Even though that number doesn't come close to Stein's impressive achievement, I find a way to let go of my frustration and focus on the things I can control in order to get past that three-headed hell hound I call Level 9.

I press down while holding Start at the start screen. Cheat codes are in my realm of control.

Danny Gallagher/CNET