How to Improve at Tetris
Tetris teaches you to relax and compensate for your mistakes, and have a lot of fun doing it
I got into Tetris by complete accident — I was spending way too much time on Facebook. Some of my friends from elementary and middle school were playing a game called Tetris Battle, a game on Facebook where people could play Tetris against each other in a competition format.
I would eventually get hooked and sucked into it, so while I didn’t immerse my whole life in Tetris, I would eventually be good enough to be able to beat Tetris Marathon on the highest level indefinitely without losing. I got to the highest possible level in Tetris Battle, and rank gold in Tetris Friends, an extension of Tetris Battle. I’ve started playing Tetris again after a long hiatus and scored 1 minute and 21 seconds for Tetris 40 line sprint, which is considered a decent time on Tetris Reddit. I’m hoping to get down to 1 minute soon.
However, I don’t think my bragging means anything to anyone who doesn’t play Tetris. Instead, here’s a video to see my playing speak for itself (I don’t actually think I played that well, but it’s alright for a demonstration):
So how did I get to this point? And what’s even the point of getting good at a dumb game like Tetris? The reality is that improving at Tetris was a long process that taught me many lessons, but Tetris is more than just a game — according to Tom Stafford at BBC Future, Tetris is a game that continually creates unfinished tasks in a puzzle format. Since you’re filling up rows and filling them in for them to completely disappear, your mind looks for ways to find potential solutions to the blocks falling at any given time. Since it’s a whole game of unfinished tasks, Tetris follows the Zeigarnik Effect, named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, a phenomenon where people remember unfinished tasks better than completed tasks.
“Tetris creates a world where action is quicker than thought,” Stafford says. “Tetris makes an immediate connection between our insight into how we might solve a problem and the means to begin acting on it.”
Stafford calls the game brilliant since Tetris is pointless and has no tangible benefit. However, people keep coming back for more. Brian Resnick at the Atlantic says Tetris reduces cravings for addiction by providing a distraction to the brain’s visual and spatial systems. These are systems of the brain most associated with cravings. Researchers found that playing Tetris for three minutes a day reduced cravings for addictive substances by 13.9 percentage points compared to a control group.
Tetris is becoming more and more of a research tool in mental health. It’s been useful in other studies for blocking painful memories for patients with PTSD, which other games have not been able to do. Other studies have shown Tetris may aid in the brain development of young people. One neuropsychologist said playing more Tetris is linked to more gray matter in the brain.
Above all, Tetris is fun
While all that’s great, there’s one other big reason to play Tetris — it’s fun. And it’s most fun when you’re playing against other people since they challenge you more than a computer tends to.
But I wanted to improve for one reason — I was competitive. Without the competition, I wouldn’t have improved. I’m the kind of person that makes lots of things competitions, so beating more of my competition meant improving.
This is how you can improve at Tetris, and why you should play it more if you’ve been wanting to. While my previous forms of competition in Tetris Battle and Tetris Friends are no longer available, I’ll still occasionally play on Jstris to compete against other live players.
While I consider myself good at Tetris, I don’t consider myself great for one reason — I can’t T-Spin well. I can’t send lines to an opponent through a double T-Spin. In Tetris, a T-Spin is when you rotate the “t” piece into an enclosed gap. My preferred method of sending lines is the Tetris line clear method, which is stacking four lines and then using the “I” piece to send four lines to the opponent. It is also called “Tetris.” If I’m feeling particularly risk-taking, I’ll stack eight pieces high and then send two consecutive “I” pieces to go for the kill. However, that’s risky since Tetris clear from an opponent can take me out.
Tetris is not fun if you’re always losing — it’s great that it’s challenging, good for you, and helping build a skill. But let’s be real — Tetris is most fun when you win and feel a strong sense of accomplishment.
This is how I improved at Tetris, and how you might be able to have fun in the game and get better as well.
Before you even start playing modes of Tetris at high speeds or in competition, the best thing you can do is practice. My favorite athlete of all time is Allen Iverson, who is famous for his rant lambasting journalists who question him about practice. But practice makes perfect. Practicing means not playing going against a blank 10x20 board.
There are two ways to drop your pieces once you start playing: the soft drop and the hard drop. The soft drop is letting your tetromino fall on its own, without interference. The hard drop is forcing your pieces to fall in the desired location. You want to get to the point before you get into the competition where you hard drop every single one of your pieces. On most modes, letting your tetromino fall down naturally tends to be very, very slow, and you’re racing to clear as many lines as possible, even if you’re pulling the tetromino down. This demonstration shows how much faster the hard drop is from the soft drop:
When I first started playing, what held me back was a desire for perfection. Sometimes, you’re going to have a piece that doesn’t fit comfortably with your existing set. You just have to keep playing and move on because those gaps you’re building are easy to compensate for. I particularly hated the “z” tetromino because it would create a gap or line I couldn’t clear early on in the game.
Every time I made a mistake, I would get flustered and start making more mistakes. The truth is that everyone makes mistakes, but it’s how you react to it that determines your play level and how the game goes, not your ability to stay clear of mistakes in the first place.
Jeff Ramos at Polygon notes that you should also know the scoring for Tetris — scoring a “Tetris” is 800 points, a 3xline clear is 500 points, a 2xline clear is 300 points, and a 1xline clear is 100 points. Jonas Neubauer, the seven-time winner of the Classic World Tetris Championships, recommends “playing flat.” Playing flat is a strategy that creates the flattest top row of pieces, which means having more options to place pieces.
“A general rule: Never stack pieces more than two blocks high or create a hole more than two blocks deep,” Ramos says.
As an addendum to Ramos and Neubauer’s advice, you want to rotate a piece as little as possible to maximize your time.
There are different modes of Tetris you can play with different accessories. Some allow you to use items to derail your opponents. And not to mention you have to play differently for each mode of Tetris you play. Yes, Tetris has evolved significantly since Alexey Pajitnov first created it in 1984. Marathon is seeing how long you can last as the game gets harder, sprint is a competition to see who can clear the most lines (usually 40) in the shortest amount of time, and survival is seeing who can survive the longest as more lines get thrown at you. Since I came up playing Tetris through Tetris Friends, the game also had an Ultra Mode, which challenges players to score as many points as possible in two minutes.
Again, each game and mode of Tetris is very different. Since Tetris Friends is no longer around, I now play with Jstris. Tetris Friends and many more modern Tetris variants have a “hold” option where you can hold a piece to swap out later. That allows you to go for the kill shot when you're ready.
Jstris does not since it’s a more old school version of Tetris, but the lesson in practicing is that it’s the transition to adapt before you play competitively. It’s also a very different game depending on what platform you’re playing it — it certainly doesn’t feel the same on the phone versus the computer, and I doubt Tetris would feel the same on a console. I prefer the computer.
At the level I am, I still need to practice a lot. In more modern versions, I still need to learn how to do a double T-Spin, for example. And there are other forms of practicing on Jstris to get me more comfortable with the platform and more old-school versions of the game. Just because I can easily line clear doesn’t mean I’m not rusty.
However, when you’re just at the beginning, it’s hard to play fast. It’s hard to recover from mistakes. The more practice you have, the better your muscle memory. Morgan Shaver argues in the Tetris website to practice, practice, practice, since “repetition and memory are essential to mastering the game.”
This is the fun part, and maybe practicing and competing shouldn’t be in two separate sections. To a large degree, competing is practicing. Since I’m relatively new at Jstris, I realize that for competitive Tetris, I’m just average. But like The Queen’s Gambit popularized chess, I hope to contribute to popularizing Tetris more and more.
As a runner, the competition part of Tetris reminds me of running. You are trying to play faster and better than your opponents. You’re trying to get better times. You’re trying to race to the finish. It’s a funny juxtaposition between trying to outlast your opponent and trying to be the first-past-the post.
Good competition is well-known to improve your performance. If all you’re doing is trampling on an A.I. or easier opponents, you’re not getting better. Firas Kittanah notes that competition can improve your business because it helps you avoid complacency, and develop self-awareness of the flaws in your own game. Not only that, but you can learn watching opponents play after you lose, and learn from them.
Not only that, but Dr. Sander van der Linden at Psychology Today says competition isn’t fun when it’s a zero-sum game of win or lose, but an opportunity to grow and be challenged. And it’s best when the competition is used for pro-social goals and for ultimate collaboration. Competition in Tetris is a form of collaboration because everyone is there to show you how you can improve and get better. Overall, it’s an extrinsic incentive to build skills and help your brain — what else can you ask for?
Watch competitive Tetris players play
I admit this is something I can do better. Most of us would much rather be in the action than watch other people play — it’s just a lot more fun. However, watching other people play is also a lot of fun. Watching the Classic Tetris World Championship, for example, could have taught me to T-Spin.
But there are also close things to notice from the world’s best Tetris players. Watch how they stack. I notice that most don’t stack past halfway on the board, while they are masters at getting at playing flat. Maybe it’s just a sign of my level that I notice they’re masters of the basics, including very minimal rotations.
With Tetris, you have to see at least one move ahead. If you make one piece fit to your needs and your board, your next one can’t just be stranded and out of fit — they taught me that. When I played Tetris Battle, I watched other elite players play, who taught me that survival was better than the flashing double I-drops. There are things you will notice as well watching the pros play.
Once you really get into Tetris, it starts to get really addictive. In the process of writing this article, I got really sucked into playing competitively on Jstris and trying to outlast and destroy all my opponents to win a best of 50 matches in Fortnite-like fashion. Since I’m rusty and because there are a lot of people still better than me, the best I came was 15th, and I said to myself to just play “one more game” until I stopped. I looked at my watch and an hour had gone by without me even noticing, and I had a lot to do on that day.
For me, however, the reason why I take long breaks is also utilitarian. Tetris is a very mentally demanding game. It’s not easy and challenges you in a unique way. If you play too long, your play will start to deteriorate, or at least mine does. I give it 10 games max before I start to make mistakes I wouldn’t have normally made.
There’s a better rule than 10 games — stop once it stops getting fun. Once every game is not enjoying the process and just an assertion to prove yourself, stop. If all you’re doing is getting frustrated, you’re losing your passion for the game. There’s a whole life outside of Tetris — it should just be an accessory, not a replacement addiction.
When I first started playing Tetris, I panicked when I made mistakes. I threw in the towel and even quit some games because I misplaced a piece and put in a three-line gap. I was a beginner, inexperienced, and naive. However, some of the oldest adages are true.
The game is not over until it’s over. Until you see all the lines pile up to the top of your screen and make you lose, you are not done. Until the time is over that you’re allotted, you are not done. Until you lose, you lose. And because of that, never, ever give up in a game of Tetris, either competitive or practice.
I will admit I get bored during long games of the marathon — but I say with each game that I play it and give it everything I can. I’ve come back from games I thought I never would have come back from, and never giving up is the way I did, even when I thought I’d lose.
At the end of the day, play every game until the end. We can use cliches and adages all day, but Tetris also taught me resilience for that reason. A lot of opponents watch you while they’re winning and will think they have you beaten — don’t give them that satisfaction.
At the end of the day, Tetris has been more than just a game to me. It’s a competitive esport, a large analogy for life, and much more. To improve at Tetris, the holy grail is practicing but competing, watching competitive players play, and not panicking and giving up are ways to up your game and have more fun.
Musician Ezra Koenig once said “playing Tetris for 15 minutes is like meditation,” and those words are very true to me. Tetris teaches you to relax and compensate for your mistakes, and have a lot of fun doing it.