Being Good at Tetris Is My Most Useless Skill

Ryan Fan

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I can play Tetris Marathon on my phone for hours on the highest level and not lose. I love Tetris, and have considered my aptitude at the game my most useless skill.

When I was about 11 years old, I spent a lot of my time on Facebook. I tried to find games that would entertain me that summer on Facebook, and discovered a game called Tetris Battle that seemed fun at the time.

When I first started playing Tetris Battle, I was pretty bad at Tetris. I just didn’t understand mechanics and conventions and didn’t have enough practice. It would take a long time before I got one of the Z-horizontal pieces and I would be able to figure out how to clear it.

The premise of Tetris Battle was that you played against an opponent (a pre-recorded game) and tried to clear lines that would send over to the opponent. You wanted to overwhelm the opponent’s screen to “KO” the opponent, or you just wanted to get more lines than the opponent.

I soon became pretty good at what I was doing. I would advance very far in Tetris Battle and at the time, the best level was 100. Within a couple months, I would hit level 60. Within a year, I would hit level 100. Although Tetris Battle closed down on May 31, 2019, I found some Tetris alternatives to record a video of myself playing the game (the first time I’ve played in a while, so pardon me for being rusty):

From author on YouTube.

Once I got to the highest level on Tetris Battle, I moved onto its parent game: Tetris Friends. I would play in many different modes and advance. It wouldn’t be a linear advance into being good at Tetris, but rather a lot of failures and a lot of “meh” type games.

I would have a straightforward strategy: stack my pieces four pieces high and then use an “I” piece to send four lines at once. I was able to do this relatively quickly, and I learned not to stack my pieces too high for the double because of the risk of just being destroyed by a single big move by my opponents. My opponents not only knew how to T-spin, but they knew how to double T-spin. I had to play aggressively but also carefully to clear the lines they would send me.

Tetris Battle became more than just a hobby, but a mode for which I learned many life lessons.

The foremost of these lessons was to just not give up. There were many battles where I was utterly overwhelmed by an opponent at the start and considered throwing in the towel very early. Even though they would overwhelm me, I would always make it a rule to play the whole two minute intervals of the games.

Barry Davret has written about the Fabian strategy to become a thriving artist, which meant staying in the game and outlasting your opponent. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would follow the Fabian strategy in Tetris. Just because my opponent had an overwhelming initial barrage of attacks didn’t mean I couldn’t claw my way back. The last 20 seconds of every game would give me a sudden rush of adrenaline where I could send a crazy amount of lines, while my opponents seemed to slow down.

Earlier on, I would also make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes in Tetris, as a beginner, can be completely demoralizing. You wonder how you’re going to clear the lines that you just made for yourself during your mistake, and as I started playing more, I still made mistakes (albeit less of them) but I would quickly find ways to make up for them.

Another big rule was to not try to do too much. Somewhere in the middle of my Tetris journey, I would try to send my opponent eight lines at once, which meant I would stack up eight lines. That was a strategy for an absolute disaster. With one barrage of attacks, my opponent could KO me very fast.

That meant that I always had to not stack too high — and the life analogy for that is always assessing risks. Huge acts of bravado, like trying to send eight lines at once, could make you lose. A steady, consistent attack in Tetris ended up being far more effective than an all-out charge.

As a runner, I can say that Tetris was more like a marathon, not a 100 meter sprint.

Lastly, I learned early on that you should always play to win, not to avoid losing. I would always stare at my opponent’s screen and see how well they were doing, only to be overwhelmed to know that they were crushing me by sending more lines. I made it a rule very early on: stop looking at the opponent’s screen. I would only look at my own screen and play my own game, effectively running my own race.

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Playing Tetris would end up being what most regard as a time-waster and my most useless skill, but I would disagree with that assessment. Tetris taught me a lot of ways to tackle running marathons. It isn’t uncommon in marathons or big races to see particularly younger runners sprint out in front of you, just like in a game of Tetris. I learned not to go with them. I would catch them about one or two miles down the road and then never see them again.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and in a marathon, it’s better to be steady and consistent as a tactical strategy than brazen and bold early on. In every marathon I have run, I have also hit the point where my legs build up with lactic acid, where I slow down dramatically, where every step feels like a step of excruciating pain. Part of that is just a lack of training beforehand, but those experiences taught me to do whatever I could to keep going and not give up until the race is finished.

Lastly, it would be incredibly important to run my own race, and follow my own training plan instead of emulating or following what someone else was doing. Every runner early on in their careers feels a need to respond when someone passes them. In long races that I run, this is a recipe for disaster — if you respond to every move, where’s your energy for your final move at the end?

Tetris, in a lot of ways, is like a sport. Since I never played games like League of Legends or Dota, Tetris is the closest I’ve ever come to playing an e-sport. Sure, it might have no real-life utility, but it had utility in its lessons for me.

Originally published on August 2, 2020 on SUPERJUMP.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD
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