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In which John examines what's driving the improvement in scores among high-level players of the 1989 Nintendo Entertainment System's version of Tetris. (And also what we might learn from the Tetris community.)

You can now join Life's Library, our new book club:

If you want to learn more about Tetris (AND YOU DO), enjoy the incredible drama of the Classic Tetris World Championships:

Tetris players featured in this video include:

The seven-time champion Jonas Neubauer:

New world champion Joseph, whose video of getting to Level 31 is one of the single most beautiful things I have ever seen on YouTube:

Hypertapper extraordinaire Koryan, seen here playing Jonas:

As you might be able to tell, I am a huge Tetris fan. It is the most perfect video game ever made don't @ me.
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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

So this is Tetris, a video game developed by Alexey Pajitnov that arrived in the United States in 1989 for the Game Boy and the Nintendo Entertainment Systen, AKA the NES. Tetris became a phenomenon, in fact it is still the best selling video game of all time.

And lately, I've been wondering, why are humans suddenly getting much better at Tetris? First, a little background. There are two, like, great white whales of NES Tetris.

The first is a max-out score. If you get 999,999 points, the game stops being able to count your score. The second is level 30.

So, in NES Tetris, the blocks fall faster as you level up, and once you get to level 29, they drop so fast that it's almost impossible to move them left or right, making level 30 seemingly impossible. Back then, there was only one player, Thor Aackerlund, who claimed to have achieved a max-out score and level 30, and lots of people thought he was lying, which, as it turns out, he wasn't. We now know that Thor was just like, much better at Tetris than all other humans.

Anyway, the weird thing about NES Tetris in 2008 is that far fewer people were playing it than played back in 1990, and you would think a larger player base would mean higher top scores. Like, in 1990 hundreds of millions of people were trying to solve the problem of getting to level 30. By 2008, very few people even still has a Nintendo Entertainment System, let alone regularly played Tetris on one.

But a few people never stopped playing NES Tetris, and, as tends to happen when you do something for 20 years, they got pretty good at it. Also, by 2008, the world's Tetris players were much better connected to each other than they had been back in 1990, partly because the Internet has connected all of us. And partly because smaller communities can be more tightly knit.

Like when a hundred million people are talking, its hard to hear anything but noise. So Tetris players started to learn more from each other. Together they figured out that you should always build your well of empty space on the right side of the screen, except as you approach level 29, when you should build it in the middle.

Also, some of them developed a new strategy for moving pieces called hyper tapping. And then in 2010 a tournament started, the Classic Tetris World Championships, which brought the best players together in real life, and motivated them to improve via competition. The quality of play at the tournament has improved every year, like this year several people achieved max-out scores in qualifying.

And eventual champion Joseph became the first person ever to reach level 30 in front of a live audience. And then there's live streaming. Tetris players around the world now share their games on Twitch and YouTube, which allows other Tetris players to learn from them.

Even people who've been top level Tetris players for decades are changing their play style to reflect new discoveries and strategy. And as a result, dozens of people have now maxed out. And Joseph recently made it to level 31, a land previously only visited by the legendary Thor.

Now, I want to be clear that getting a max-out in Tetris is still, like, ridiculously hard, but it's possible. So why is humanity suddenly getting better at Tetris? Because a group of enthusiasts built spaces, both online and off, that allowed people to connect with each other over what is usually a very solitary hobby.

And because small groups of deeply passionate people can often be more productive than large groups of casually interested people. I've been thinking a lot about that, which is one of the reasons Rosianna and I ended up starting the Life's Library book club, which thanks to your overwhelming response is now open for enrollment, link in the dooblydoo below. But more generally, I know it's fashionable these days to say that the Internet is a festering cesspool of toxicity, and, you know, it is.

But the Internet is also many other things, including one of the primary drivers of humanity's improved performance at a 29 year old video game. Really, there is no "The Internet", especially in the era of personalized feeds. There is only for each of us "Our Internet".

I don't labor under the delusion that I can make "The Internet" better, but I do want to make "My Internet" better, and on that front I think Tetris has a lot to teach me. Hank, I'll see you on Friday. 

P.S., next week, Pizzamas is coming. You know what that means.