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From Issue #7 January 3, 2013

Playing to Lose

How competitive Tetris players approach an unwinnable game.

By Chris Higgins Twitter icon 

“Three, two, one, GO!” I yell, and Ben Mullen and Bo Steil are off, playing a game of Tetris on their NES consoles almost faster than I can follow. I have to stay focused, as I had volunteered to referee at the 2012 Classic Tetris World Championship. My own history with Tetris involves flop sweat and throwing the controller in frustration; now my task is to observe pairs of Tetris players as they zip through the game. It takes all of my concentration to monitor the action — and I’m not even playing.

Dual ironies compete. Mullen and Steil are tight friends in the competitive Tetris community, although I didn’t know that as I watched them last September. They also rank among the top NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) Tetris players in the world. Mullen chooses to begin play on level 18, the highest allowable starting point. At “GO!” the pair press START on their NES game controllers — which are nearly as old as they are — while a crowd looks on, clustered behind a line of blue masking tape on the concrete floor of the Oregon Convention Center.

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