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Automobile chases, KGB honeytraps and a furious Robert Maxwell… the astonishing tale of Tetris

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A quick-paced Cold War thriller featuring sinister KGB agents, Muscovite boffins, powerful U.S. capitalists and a raging British media tycoon. 

All of it seems like the plot of a pc game. Actually, it’s — the astonishing tale of Tetris.

Thousands and thousands of us have played Tetris. It’s the straightforward but beguiling game of falling bricks of assorted shapes, which need to be speedily rearranged to form a solid wall.

It’s utterly addictive and stays a industrial phenomenon, easily the best-selling video game of all time with greater than half a billion downloads on mobile devices alone.

Tetris has even been the topic of scientific studies, certainly one of which found that playing the sport will help fight off cravings for food and even drugs. 

Alexey Pajitnov (right)  was a Soviet computer engineer and programmer and the developer of some of the popular computer games in history – Tetris (pictured in Moscow in 1989)

A new film, Tetris, starring British actor Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers (pictured), best known for playing Elton John in Rocketman, brings the complex saga vividly to life

A recent film, Tetris, starring British actor Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers (pictured), best known for taking part in Elton John in Rocketman, brings the complex saga vividly to life

While its Nineteen Nineties heyday has passed, when people dream or hallucinate in regards to the games they play on screens, it remains to be often known as ‘the Tetris effect’.

But hardly anyone who has played Tetris knows that, after being conceived in 1984 by an obscure computer scientist in Moscow, it was fiercely fought over by the world’s biggest video-game corporations, media mogul Robert Maxwell and the KGB in a tangle of corporate chicanery, greed and ineptitude.

A recent film, Tetris, starring British actor Taron Egerton, best known for taking part in Elton John in Rocketman, brings the complex saga vividly to life. 

There are automotive chases, violent assaults, KGB ‘honeypot’ traps, and an enraged Maxwell (brilliantly played by Roger Allam).

The tycoon was so eager to obtain the lucrative rights to the sport — which he hoped would help to rescue his ailing empire — that he threatened to appeal personally to Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

The film, out this Friday on streaming service Apple TV+, tells the story of the Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov, who named the sport after the Greek word for 4, tetra, combined along with his favourite sport, tennis.

By the early Nineteen Eighties, Pajitnov was working within the cramped computer centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. 

But within the evenings he found time to work on games, certainly one of which was inspired by ‘Pentominoes’, a puzzle he had loved as a toddler. His stroke of genius was to get the pieces to drop from above, then make the finished rows vanish to make room for more bricks.

Tetris was born.

By 1986, it had grow to be an obsession across the Soviet Union. ‘It was like a wood fire,’ Pajitnov later recalled. 

While the price of computers put them beyond the reach of most households, ‘everyone within the Soviet Union who had a PC had Tetris on it’.

While the cost of computers put them beyond the reach of most households, ¿everyone in the Soviet Union who had a PC had Tetris on it¿ (a scene from the Apple TV adaptation)

 While the price of computers put them beyond the reach of most households, ‘everyone within the Soviet Union who had a PC had Tetris on it’ (a scene from the Apple TV adaptation) 

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in Apple TV's Tetris which will premier on March 31

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in Apple TV’s Tetris which is able to premier on March 31 

But its success was largely unknown within the West. It was in Budapest that London-based software salesman Robert Stein (played by Toby Jones) first set eyes on the sport.

Recognising its potential, Stein telexed Pajitnov and asked if he could buy the PC rights for £10,000, unaware that in a Communist regime (where all mental property was owned by the state) they weren’t Pajitnov’s to sell.

When Pajitnov telexed back that he could be completely satisfied to speak, Stein wrongly took it to mean the Tetris rights were his. 

It didn’t stop him selling them on to Mirrorsoft, the software arm of Maxwell’s vast (but already crumbling) publishing empire, which in turn sub-licensed them to Atari, the American video-games giant.

That might need been that, were a good mightier giant not waiting to pounce. In 1988, a charismatic but down-on-his-luck Dutch entrepreneur Henk Rogers (splendidly played by Egerton) spotted Tetris at a Las Vegas trade show.

He snapped up the PC and video-game rights for Japan and joined forces with Kyoto-based Nintendo, persuading the highest brass that with the ability to play Tetris on the Game Boy would make their intoxicating recent product a good larger hit.

The situation was by now chaotic: Atari thought Tetris was theirs, Maxwell believed it was his and Nintendo wanted it.

The fixation helped the Russians realise its value. Aware Communism was on the snapping point, they saw a possibility to play the ‘greedy’ capitalists at their very own game by selling different rights to different buyers.

This job was handed to Nikolai Belikov, recent to government agency Elorg, chargeable for the import and export of software. Belikov arranged a gathering with Stein, while Maxwell dispatched his son Kevin to Moscow.

Rogers checked right into a hotel overlooking Red Square, also aspiring to see Belikov.

This was when the KGB leapt into motion, bugging rooms and telephones to search out out what the Westerners’ intentions were and planting certainly one of its own operatives as Rogers’s sexy interpreter.

In the wonderful forthcoming film, directed by Scotsman Jon Baird (with Glasgow and Aberdeen convincingly doubling as Nineteen Eighties Moscow), she even sets up a blackmail sting by attempting to seduce him.

That was a flourish of artistic licence, but in real life as within the movie, Stein, Rogers and Kevin Maxwell coincidentally converged on Elorg’s office on the identical day.

Belikov knew they mustn’t meet. Rogers was effectively interrogated for 2 hours. ‘I assumed they were attempting to determine whether or not they were going to send me to Siberia or not,’ he later recalled.

Within the event, it was Rogers and Nintendo who emerged with the important prize: the ‘console and hand-held’ rights to Tetris, in exchange for $500,000 and a 50-cent royalty for each game sold.

When Robert Maxwell came upon his son had lost out on the coveted hand-held rights, he was apoplectic. He threatened to contact Gorbachev personally, which put the wind up even the KGB.

The Soviet Union was still intact, nearly, and its premier wielded enormous power. The KGB didn’t want him turning on them.

So that they told Belikov he should fly to London, get down on his knees before Maxwell — and beg him to not confer with the Soviet leader. Because if that happened, Belikov was told menacingly, he ‘would not exist’.

Togo Igawa, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton. In the event, it was Rogers and Nintendo who emerged with the main prize: the ¿console and hand-held¿ rights to Tetris

Togo Igawa, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton. Within the event, it was Rogers and Nintendo who emerged with the important prize: the ‘console and hand-held’ rights to Tetris

As for the game¿s inventor, Alexey Pajitnov, he became close friends with Henk Rogers, who, in that same eventful year of 1991, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, helped him to move with his family to the United States

As for the sport’s inventor, Alexey Pajitnov, he became close friends with Henk Rogers, who, in that very same eventful 12 months of 1991, following the autumn of the Berlin Wall, helped him to maneuver along with his family to the US 

In 1996, Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov right) and Rogers (Taron Egerton left) founded the Tetris Company, to handle licensing. And in 2005 the Tetris Company bought Elorg, by then a private rather than state-owned company, giving it control of all Tetris rights worldwide

In 1996, Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov right) and Rogers (Taron Egerton left) founded the Tetris Company, to handle licensing. And in 2005 the Tetris Company bought Elorg, by then a personal slightly than state-owned company, giving it control of all Tetris rights worldwide

The Atari executives were already manufacturing the sport under their agreement with Mirrorsoft, nevertheless it was arch-rival Nintendo’s to sell, not theirs. Atari sued Nintendo, and in 1989 conclusively lost.

The sport was up.

Infamously, on November 5, 1991, Robert Maxwell’s body was found floating within the Atlantic Ocean.

No person knows whether it was suicide, murder or an accident, only that to maintain his beleaguered empire above water he had looted a whole bunch of tens of millions of kilos from his employees’ pension fund.

As for the sport’s inventor, Alexey Pajitnov, he became close friends with Henk Rogers, who, in that very same eventful 12 months of 1991, following the autumn of the Berlin Wall, helped him to maneuver along with his family to the US.

This is why the original film title, replaced by the more straightforward Tetris, carried an ingenious double meaning: Falling Blocs (film poster)

For this reason the unique film title, replaced by the more straightforward Tetris, carried an ingenious double meaning: Falling Blocs (film poster) 

In 1996, Pajitnov and Rogers founded the Tetris Company, to handle licensing. And in 2005 the Tetris Company bought Elorg, by then a personal slightly than state-owned company, giving it control of all Tetris rights worldwide.

It was the collapse of the Communist Eastern Bloc that enabled all that to occur, meaning that Pajitnov (now considered value £4 million) could finally receive royalties for the sport he had created.

For this reason the unique film title, replaced by the more straightforward Tetris, carried an ingenious double meaning: Falling Blocs.

Tetris is in chosen cinemas and on Apple TV+ from March 31.

sportinbits@gmail.com
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