Eli Markstrom is an old high school friend turned SF-drinking-buddy. Moreover, Eli is a master Tetris player, who has competed with some of the world’s best players in international tournaments. That’s right. Tetris. For the Nintendo. A 30-year-old game for a (nearly) 30-year-old gaming system has international tournaments. And to a micro-culture of literally dozens, it’s apparently a big deal. Over the weekend, I happened across an FB post of Eli’s, where he linked to the livestream of a World Championship of Tetris competition in Portland, Oregon that he was competing in. And I’ll say, as I watched the quarterfinals, it was pretty intense. Sadly, Eli, got knocked out in the semis. I wanted to ask Eli about Tetris, the competition, and having a hobby that is a little bit weird. So I did.
YR AN ADULT: So, first of all, you’re a serious Tetris Player, right?
Eli: Yeah. I’ve been playing for my whole life.
YAA: And would you say it’s your favorite video game?
Eli: Yeah. It’s the only game I play. I don’t even really like video games.
YAA: So then why do you like Tetris over regular video games?
Eli: Because it’s primarily a strategy game. And it’s high-pressure. I like pressure and having to think clearly in tough situations and Tetris exercises that.
YAA: How long ago did you find out that there was a world of competitive Tetris?
Eli: Well, the thing is, the world itself is only three years old. Before then, it was just people trying to max out (get 999,999 in points) and you’d look on YouTube and see people posting their results and their recorded games. So there was just a bunch of guys who were trying to get that score and that’s all there was to it. But then, these filmmakers made this movie called Ecsatcy of Order, and as part of the movie, they created the first tournament.
And I didn’t know about that at that point. But after that, as they were promoting the movie, I found out about the next years tournament, and that’s when it started for me. About a year and a couple months ago, that’s when I started playing with two ambitions. Playing to win a championship and trying to max out the score.
Eli: Yeah, like two days before.
YAA: How did that feel?
Eli: Oh man. It was amazing. It was kind of like a big relief. It’s such a stupid thing to try to do, because you can put a lot of time into it, and the success is meaningless. That fact, that even when you do accomplish it, only, like, 10 people care, makes it even worse then, to not accomplish it. So to get that done, it was a validation of a ton of wasted time. It felt like it’d been slightly less of a waste of time. You can score 998,000 or 990,000, but if you haven’t maxed out, you’re not seen the same way. You’re not a legend in the Tetris world.
YAA: You’re not quite a Tetris master until you’ve done it.
Eli: You have to have a perfect experience to max out and everyone that plays knows that. So to be close doesn’t really count.
YAA: So do you consider yourself a master Tetris player now?
Eli: Absolutely. I considered myself a master before, but now I definitely do. Did you see the tournament?
YAA: I watched the quarterfinals on the livestream, so I didn’t see you lose in the semis. How did you lose?
Eli: I was playing the guy who won it. He’s probably the second greatest player of all time. I’m probably the third or fourth. I would say I’m fourth.
Eli: There’s one guy who is, like, the god of Tetris. He’s so good he won’t even play anymore. He’s gotten to level 30, he’s maxed out from level 19. He’s just absurd. But he’s a weird story, because he doesn’t compete anymore. But then the other two, Jonas and Harry, are the other two that are legendary. But I think me and Harry are pretty close in terms of skill level, but Jonas, the guy who beat me, is just a little above both of us.
YAA: Has losing this last tournament focused you more on Tetris or are you gonna take a break?
Eli: That’s so funny that you ask. I was intending to win and quit, give my Nintendo back, like, “I’m a world champ, I maxed out, and I don’t need to do this anymore.” But now, I don’t know. I’m a pretty competitive guy. Like, in high school, I ran sprints in track. And in the 100 meters, I got second place by 1/100th of a second in the state final. And watching the guy who won celebrate just lit a fire under me. I was so focused for the next year.
And it was almost the same experience this time. Watching this guy celebrate again, knowing I could have beat him, I’m actually probably going to get more focused. I’ll take a little bit of time off and then just play only level 19, which is the fastest level you can start on. I’ll play that for a month, so the game will slow down for me. I just want to win. I want to be the champion at something.
YAA: Do you ever feel like this is a silly thing to want to be the best at?
Eli: Absolutely. But how many times can you even have a course towards being the best at anything?
YAA: I mean, most people don’t get a shot at anything.
Eli: Exactly. Like, right now, there’s poker. Lots of people can get lucky for a week and say they’re the best. But most things are heavily influenced by your genetics, in terms of your physical or mental abilities, and then your willingness to work your ass off. So, a lot of people don’t have a maximum that would put them at the level to be number one at anything. So right now, even though it’s an arbitrary, stupid pursuit, it would still be cool to say I’m the best in the world.
YAA: How many hours do you think you’ve spent playing, since you’ve found out about the world of competitive Tetris?
Eli: A rough estimate would be an average of five hours a week. I play about an hour and a half at a time. But there are some days where I don’t get the chance to play. Because I don’t play in suboptimal situations, like when I’m tired or hung over or in a rush. There’s only certain blocks of a time that I can do it. So it probably averages about four days a week, for about an hour and half.
YAA: Most people don’t even HAVE any sort of hobby that they take as seriously as you take Tetris, much less the goal to be the best at it. Do you feel like this helps you as a person.
Eli: It’s a reflection of how I am as a person. So, I come up with something I’m going to do, and then I just go for it endlessly until I do it. Like, I’m trying to start this fitness website. Most people would have given up. But I’m going to keep pushing and get it done and be successful. And that’s my approach to everything I do in my life. So this just happens to be the thing I do. But I don’t think it helps or is detriment.
YAA: So is there’s anything you’ve learned from it, besides just how to be really good at Tetris?
Eli: I can pack the shit out of a suitcase. I can put stuff in my car. I was visiting my girlfriend’s family and her cousin came, and she was leaving the country for two years and had all this stuff that needed to go into a Camry, along with 3 people. And I was like, “Oh, Jesus.” So then I wrapped my head around it and then got it done in 15 minutes.
YAA: That’s a skill.
Eli: Yeah, I’m good at organizing stuff and Tetris helped with that.
Photos provided by Eli Markstrom.