If you have 59 seconds to devote to pure joy, you won't regret watching this video clip of Justin “Fractal” Yu, an MIT junior who, on Oct. 15, became the top classic Tetris player in the world by winning the 2023 Classic Tetris World Championships.
The computer science and engineering major from Dallas, Texas, plans to double major in math with a minor in music technology. Despite his busy schedule, he still finds time to play the cello in MIT’s Videogame Orchestra, and to practice one very classic, very challenging Nintendo Entertainment System console game enough to become the single greatest player on the planet. Here, he describes his early experiences with classic Tetris, his training regimen, what he did to celebrate his big win, his vision for the future, and more.
Q: Tell us about when you first encountered classic Tetris.
A: The first time I heard of it was about seven years ago. I watched other players and championships on YouTube for about two years before starting to play myself when a friend got really into it. I wanted to beat his score, discovered it was really hard, and it all snowballed from there.
Q: How does classic Tetris differ from the Tetris you might find on your phone? Tell us about the physical game controller that we can see you manipulating in the video.
A: Any Tetris game that you’ll find nowadays has to obey a certain standard mandated by the Tetris company. Each piece has to have a specific color, you have to see three pieces in advance, you have to have a piece you can swap out at any time.
But classic Tetris, which came out in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), only lets you see one piece at a time. You don’t have the hold option to swap out a piece, and most importantly, you aren’t able to customize how pieces move left and right. We had to find a way around these obstacles, and this gets to the controller thing. In all the modern versions of the game, you can move pieces from side to side instantly just by holding a button — but that mechanic doesn’t exist in classic Tetris. So we had to work around this, and perfected this technique where we can mash buttons as fast as humanly possible, called “rolling.” You have to use all your fingers to push the controller into your hand. Since the game’s frame rate is 60 hertz, the maximum possible input is 30 hertz, and with this technique we’re able to get it.
The rules in competition are simple. You play on your own setup and get your own score. In the interest of fairness, we play with the same pieces on each side, so each player gets approximately the same amount of luck.
Q: What were your early impressions of the game’s difficulty and technique, and how did they change as you played it more?
A: The learning curve is very steep and punishing, because mistakes compound upon themselves. I would say there is a big, fundamental shift between when I was trying to learn what other people had done before me, to when I started trying out newer ideas on my own.
More importantly, when I started playing, the rolling technique didn’t even exist, so there were completely different ideas about the limits of the game. When we started learning rolling, we were all on our own. Each of us sort of had to try things by ourselves and figure out this new black box. There’s probably an analogy here to some major scientific discovery.
Q: Spatial awareness and geometric reasoning are a pretty big part of the game — are there ways Tetris has spilled over into other areas of your life? Are you really good at packing for trips?
A: The skills that I have learned from Tetris are pretty hyper-specialized, so no, I am not any better at packing. I will say, in somewhat vague terms, that my involvement with classic Tetris has gotten me an internship; as I wanted to learn more about it, that extends to how the game is programmed. I had to learn assembly and then ROM hacking — which I used in projects that I talked about during interviews.
Q: How does one actually train for a classic Tetris competition?
A: The best way to practice is to just play the game a lot! There is a reinforcement learning analogy: you’re employing a lot of brute force, but always analyzing yourself and your areas of weakness.
Q: One of the most touching moments of the video was when, immediately after winning, you embraced the runner-up — you both looked so genuinely happy for each other. Have you developed many relationships through Tetris, and is it common for competitors to become friends?
A: In the really huge competitive video gaming tournaments, with hundreds-of-thousands or million-dollar prize pools, friendships are less common, because those are essentially businesses competing against each other. Classic Tetris is a small community; I know just about everyone who competed in this last tournament. Sidnev, who I played in this final — we’ve played together many times, and this is the culmination of all that.
Q: Now that you’re the world champion, what will you do to celebrate?
A: Nothing really feels different! I may use this as closure for my experience with the competitive side of the game. I’ve been liking the idea of moving towards the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, like running classic Tetris websites, or running tournaments.
Q: Does that mean you won’t be defending your title next year?
A: Oh, I absolutely will! There’s still a lot left in the game that I want to accomplish. One achievement I’m chasing is the “game crash.” It’s a very difficult goal. You have to play the game for longer than anyone has ever played before, eventually getting to a point where the loops that calculate your scoring take too long. We’ve known about the possibility of game crash for around a decade, but no human has ever gotten there — the current record is around 1,400 lines, and you reach the crash at 1,490 lines. Arguably, I would be the person most likely to get to game crash because almost two years ago, I became the first person to achieve the glitched colors levels.
Q: How do you feel the process of working to become the best in the world at something has changed you?
A: Playing Tetris has helped me understand myself more. A lot of people who play tend to struggle with keeping their mental health consistent because it’s a really hard, punishing game. I’ve been lucky to avoid this, and I believe it’s because I’m able to focus not on the big picture, but instead on the little things — for instance, making this next placement as perfect as possible. I’m able to forget about the whole competition, and focus on playing my favorite game in front of a bunch of people, and showing how cool it is.
I think a lot about something said by Jonas Neubauer, who was arguably one of the greatest Tetris players of all time. It’s engraved on the CTWC trophy: “If you're a high visibility player, it's on you to move the community in a positive direction.”