World Tetris Championship brings together nation’s top-ranked players

Keith Graber remembers when Tetris was released in 1989 — and how he quickly became addicted to the Nintendo sensation.

The video game is still one of Graber’s favorites. So when he heard about the Classic World Tetris Championship in downtown Los Angeles, he had to check it out.

He was one of hundreds of spectators and participants who attended the all-day event Sunday at the Downtown Independent Theater. The championship — with a first-place prize of $1,000 — brought together many of the nation’s top-ranked Tetris players in a competition played before a live audience on a gigantic movie screen.

Graber, 34, entered the tournament with his younger brother Anthony, 14, who was visiting from Philadelphia. Both crashed out after one round, but that failed to dent their enthusiasm for the game.

“It’s a classic; a puzzle game that’s a way of testing your brain,” said Graber, who also likes more recent games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. “Compared to those, this is Zen. And I’ve read it can improve your mental capacity, so that’s a bonus.”

Tetris is similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, with players manipulating rapidly descending pieces consisting of colored squares into horizontal lines, leaving as few empty spaces as possible. Players rack up points by clearing lines.

Created in 1984 in the then-Soviet Union by scientist Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris was licensed for Nintendo by video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers, becoming one of the most popular electronic games in history with hundreds of millions of copies sold and an appeal that crosses generations and genders. The game is now available as a mobile application.

“It’s a pop culture game instead of a hormone-imbalanced, teenager game,” said Rogers, who attended the championship. “Young kids switch from musician to musician and game to game so quickly, but Tetris is something you play before and after everything else. .”

On Sunday, men and women were equally out in force, including Dana Wilcox, who has recorded some of the highest scores in the world. Wilcox began playing when she was about 12 years old.

“You need good hand and eye coordination, the ability to strategize and to take risks,” said Wilcox, 29, who tends bar in Oakland and is training to be a paramedic. “I’ve had a couple of opportunities to play in smaller tournaments, but I’ve never been around so many people who are better than me. It’s kind of awesome.”

Robin Mihara, who helped put together the tournament, said organizers chose Los Angeles because the city is home to several highly ranked players. Sunday’s winner was Jonas Neubauer, 29, a mortgage loan coordinator from Redondo Beach.

The tournament was being recorded as part of a documentary about the game. Director Adam Cornelius has spent the last eight months interviewing top players and said he believed Tetris would become even more popular than it is today.

“I think inside the next decade it could become a spectator sport like Texas Hold’em,” he said.