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How two men outran the KGB to bring Tetris to the world

An incredible story of subterfuge and dodgy deals – and the unlikely friendship that formed between two software geeks from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain

It’s the mid-’80s in Moscow. The communists have been in power for nearly 70 years. The Cold War is rumbling on, the threat of nuclear apocalypse feels very real. At the Moscow Medical Institute, they have a productivity problem – which, in a society where the state owns the means of production, is skating close to treason. Staff keep downing tools to play a game on the institute’s computers. It features falling blocks and is extremely addictive. Its creator, Alexey Pajitnov, calls it Tetris. And he already knows how compelling his creation is. 

Inspired by a life-long love of puzzles, Pajitnov designed Tetris in his spare time from his real job at the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. For weeks he pretended to himself that he was playing his prototype to check it for any niggling bugs. “But there’s nothing to debug any more,” he remembers. “So I’m just enjoying playing and can’t stop myself. At this moment, I realised there was something really charming in the game, and that is a reason to invest more time and more efforts.” 

It’s safe to say the Russian authorities do not understand Tetris. It is soon blocked from government computers; comrades go back to their patriotic duty. 

Skip forward half a decade to the start of the ’90s and Tetris is among the most played games on the planet. Bundled in with Nintendo’s brand-new handheld gaming device, its destiny is intertwined with the Gameboy revolution. There’s something about its deceptively simple concept that grabs everyone who picks it up. More than two thousand miles from Pajitnov’s hometown, in my family’s Belfast kitchen, a typical scene plays out: Mum, Dad and I are all waiting for a go on my wee brother’s copy of the game. None of us ‘gamers’, all of us captivated. 

Pajitnov with Henk Rogers in 1989
Alexey Pajitnov with Henk Rogers in 1989. Image: Supplied

More than 35 million units of the Tetris game were sold for the original Game Boy platform. Almost four decades later, Tetris has been released for over 50 platforms. You can play on your phone, your laptop, almost any console. It basically invented the idea of casual gaming and is still played every day in more than 200 countries around the world.  

But the story of how it gets into my kitchen, your living room, everyone’s pockets – that is a twisty, high-stakes tale of espionage, both industrial and KGB; of betrayal; of wild chances taken and deep friendship forged. Virtually none of the millions of Tetris fans around the world realise what it has taken to get that game into our hands. All these years later, that weird history is about to get a wide release as a movie from Apple TV+. Before the film hits our screens, the two men at the centre of the true story – Alexey Pajitnov and entrepreneur Henk Rogers – sit down with The Big Issue to give us an exclusive insight into their real-life escapades. 

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THEY LEAVE THE WEST BEHIND

Rogers enters our story in 1988. A Dutch-born US citizen living in Tokyo, he is in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. We find him in the queue to play a sample version of Tetris. It’s his fourth time round. “I was looking for games to publish in Japan at the time. And so here I am standing in line again, when I’m supposed to be looking at other games,” he recalls. “I’m trying to beat the high score of the guy who’s on there. I was just hooked on this game.” 

Rogers leaves the expo with the Japanese computer game and arcade machine rights to Tetris, and a demo copy of the game. He’s wagered everything he has on this game but, initially at least, it looks like a solid bet.  

“When I brought it back to Japan, oh, everybody was hooked. I mean, everybody,” he says. “I was not afraid of the game’s simplicity. I play Go – it’s a Japanese board game, that’s black and white stones. How simple can you get? But [it’s the] deepest of all games. It’s way more complicated than chess, which has all these little figures. Go is much simpler and yet more interesting. So Tetris is much simpler. And yet it’s much more interesting.” 

Rogers is a dynamic guy, a real charmer with a ready smile and great patter. He immediately fires off a fax to Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, the legendary businessman who transformed the company from a hanafuda card-making company into a multi-billion-dollar video game publisher and global conglomerate. In the movie, we see Rogers, played by Taron Egerton, pretend he’s going to the loo in the Nintendo building to sneak in and catch Yamauchi. Real Rogers isn’t quite that cheeky, but he does have some tricks up his sleeve. 

“The fax said, ‘By the way, I’m leaving next Saturday. I would like to meet you before I go.’ I didn’t say that I lived in Japan, and I was just going for a trip and coming back,” grins Rogers. “I got a fax back the next day saying, ‘Mr Yamauchi will meet you tomorrow’. That’s got to be the fastest anyone has ever gotten to see Yamauchi. It usually takes years.” 

Rogers doesn’t yet know that the Gameboy is in its final stages of development, but Yamauchi sees the potential in Tetris, and an agreement is struck. Rogers just has to get the handheld rights, and his games company is set to hit the big time. 

And that’s when the wheels come off.  

ogers with Pajitnov – and Tetris
Rogers (left) with Pajitnov – and Tetris – in the early ’90s. Image: Supplied

BACK IN THE USSR 

Little does Rogers know that Robert Stein, the guy he paid back in Las Vegas, has parcelled off Tetris rights to almost a dozen companies – including Henk’s BulletProof games; market leaders Atari and Mirrorsoft, owned by media baron, alleged KGB spy and soon-to-be disgraced fraudster Robert Maxwell. The licensing of Tetris is a tangled mess, made worse by the rapidly evolving gaming industry in which new platforms are appearing all the time – many of which could not have been named in earlier contracts, since they had not yet been imagined. Worse still, the Soviets have got wind of what’s going on… and they’re saying that Stein never owned any of these rights in the first place.  

Rogers is in too deep to quit now so, in the depths of the Cold War deep freeze, he does the unthinkable. He boards a plane to Moscow, planning to put that silver-tongued charm to work in persuading Elektronorgtechnica (Elorg), the Soviet Union’s central organisation for the import and export of computer software, to sign off on his Nintendo deal. 

“I had no idea what I was walking into,” he admits. “And so there was a bit of – how can I say it – hard-headed determination, combined with naivety. I was thinking that I was going to be able to charm my way through this. You don’t talk your way through anything in Moscow in 1989. My normal modus operandi wasn’t going to work. In fact, I learned very quickly in dealing with Elorg that I had to be very confrontational.” 

Incredibly, at the same time Rogers has shown up unannounced on Elorg’s doorstep, Robert Maxwell’s son and Mirrorsoft manager Kevin Maxwell has arrived for his scheduled appointment, secured with the backing of his father’s friend Mikhail Gorbachev. Desperate not to be left out of the running, Stein has also arrived for his appointment. None of them know the others are there.  

“I was sitting across the table from a whole bunch of guys,” says Rogers. “This team of people that were all suspicious: Who the hell are you coming to this country thinking that you could do something? I was being given the third degree.” 

Sitting with the Elorg officials is Pajitnov. It’s the first time the two men lock eyes. 

“I wanted to smile to him and be friends with him because he’s the creator of this great game,” says Rogers. Pajitnov is more wary. “Basically I was invited for a routine meeting with some kind of con artist, or adventurer who pretends to be a businessman for Tetris,” he says. “My first impression was rather negative.” 

Decades on, the two friends laugh at the memory. Pajitnov continues, “But what melted my heart is the moment when he said, besides the other stuff, that he developed a game himself. So he was a game designer. And that was the first game designer I had ever seen in this world besides myself. So it was a very rare opportunity to look [into the] eyes of a colleague. And that’s why we got together very quickly.” 

To Rogers’ surprise Pajitnov approaches him at the end of the meeting and arranges to meet in secret later. Though, under the rules of the USSR, Pajitnov knows he has “no chance” of personally profiting from his invention, he wants to see Tetris “published as much, as wide and as good as possible”. He decides Henk is the man for the job.  

The risk the pair face is real. Having arrived on a tourist visa, Rogers is prohibited from speaking to ordinary Russians, so any conversations between him and Pajitnov are illicit. Having raised the suspicions of the authorities, he is being tracked by the KGB. 

“My normal way of charming the police when I’m getting a speeding ticket wasn’t going to work in Moscow. I felt I could end up in a gulag,” Rogers remembers. “My brother, who I brought on my second trip, likened it to being in a prison. No colour anywhere.” 

If anything, Pajitnov is in even more danger. A Russian native, he has no friendly external government to appeal to if it goes wrong. What’s worse, his family – his wife and two young sons – live with him in his Moscow apartment.  

“You can’t imagine how much internal laws and instruction I overstepped during this time. It’s unbelievable,” says Pajitnov. “So if somebody would really look at me, I would be definitely in jail.” 

YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE, BOYS 

They have two things in their favour. First, that the Russian authorities don’t really understand the value of Tetris. “At the time, the concept of a computer game being worth something, that just didn’t cross their minds,” says Rogers. “So we were, on some level, outside of their mindset. Now, if we were working on a Kalashnikov, everybody would understand. Then it would have been very clear that we were stepping across these boundaries, because it’s something they understand. But computer games, how can this make money?” 

“And it had no ideology,” Pajitnov adds. “So they didn’t understand that. If it had been a character-based computer game, it would have really strong attention from Russians, from communists, on the terms of ideology. But that was abstract game, so nothing to worry about.” He shrugs, and chuckles.  

Secondly, there is the larger political climate. Few ordinary people in the West realise in 1989 that the Soviet Union is on the brink of collapse. The winds of change are blowing. “That was already the perestroika time,” says Pajitnov. “So it was a really strong underneath movement in all Soviet Union at that time. Those movements give me courage. I definitely was afraid because I was absolutely an outlaw in certain respects. But the time and the breeding of the future gave me some really good hope.” 

Eventually – thanks to Pajitnov’s manoeuvrings behind the scenes, and Rogers’ negotiations with Elorg on one hand and Nintendo on the other – the deal is done. The Maxwells are outsmarted, and Tetris is released to beguile gamers around the world. The two friends have triumphed. History is made. 

Taron Egerton as Rogers and Nikita Efremov as Pajitnov in Tetris
Taron Egerton (left) as Rogers and Nikita Efremov as Pajitnov in Tetris. Image: Apple TV

BEEN AWAY SO LONG, I HARDLY KNEW THE PLACE 

A couple of years on from Tetris’s release, Rogers helps Pajitnov and his family move to the US. Pajitnov continues to visit his motherland but sees the hope of perestroika start to curdle. Today, at war in Ukraine, and with a leader who yearns for the days of the USSR, Russia is once again in turmoil.  

“These times are much more dark than we had at the Tetris time,” says Pajitnov. He looks at Russia and can only hope that a movement will re-emerge to echo the changes of the late ’80s and early ’90s. “I really hope that maybe in a number of years, the same movement will be woken up in Russian people.” 

For now, Pajitnov has stopped visiting Moscow. “I have no idea when I will be able to go there again.” He is now a naturalised US citizen. In fact, both men now live in the States – Henk between Hawaii and New York, Pajitnov in Seattle. The day they catch up with The Big Issue, they’re both in Pajitnov’s home city. Still firm friends, the day before they’ve been out shopping for clothes for the premiere of Tetris, the movie of their lives. Preferring a comfortable aesthetic, Pajitnov is wearing a Tetris T-shirt on the call to us. It took some persuasion to get him suited and booted. 

“He’s such a pain in the ass,” Rogers exclaims, with the comfortable fondness that comes of many years of friendship. In the end, Pajitnov has been cajoled into an Armani jacket and Prada shoes, and the pair retired to his house with a bottle of wine.  

As the premiere approaches, how do they feel about the film? “When I went into the movie, I was terrified because I read the script. And the script is like, so Hollywood,” says Rogers. “And it’s like, this is gonna be terrible. They’re gonna trash this story. And then I saw the movie. Frankly, I cried a couple of times. The story isn’t perfectly the way things went down. But the feelings came through.” 

“I also did not expect too much,” says Pajitnov. “I think it’s [going to be] a next kind of Hollywood crap. But I was really surprised that the movie is really compelling. It’s pretty truthful on the emotional level. With some kind of exaggeration – that’s what happened. It was us, a long time ago.” 

Tetris is on Apple TV+ from March 31 

Read our interview with Tetris director John S Baird here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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