Putting the pieces together
Meet Justin Yu ’25, Tetris world champion
Name and Class: Justin Yu, Class of 2025
Areas of Study: Major in Course 6-3, Minor in Music Technology
Living Group: Next House
Home State: Dallas, TX
Activities: Video Game Orchestra, Tetris
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Justin Yu ’25 has recently become just the second person ever to beat Tetris and is the reigning champion of the Tetris World Championship. Justin sat down with The Tech to discuss strategy, math, Tetris variations, and the future of the world’s most famous game of colorful blocks.
Justin didn’t become the best just by luck; he put in the hours.
How long have you been playing Tetris?
This version of Tetris [Classical Tetris], five years. Random versions of Tetris, I played many for many years before, but never for more than an hour at a time.
But that was before I started playing seriously. Now, it’s like, three or four hour sessions.
How would you explain your Tetris strategies to the average person?
Contrary to what most would believe, the goal is actually not to make the board look as nice as possible. Essentially, the game of Tetris is just to survive as long as you can while simultaneously looking for tetrises, which occur when you get a long, straight block that wipes out multiple rows in one single drop.
What’s the difference between Classical Tetris and Modern Tetris?
So, Modern Tetris gives a lot of quality-of-life things that can be used to make the game [streamlined to user experience]. The stuff that Modern Tetris gives is like more depth, but it also makes the goal of survival easier. So, NES Tetris is a game all about survival, so you aren’t given as many tools.
What tools am I talking about? For example, if you don’t like the piece you don’t have right now, in Modern, you have the opportunity to hold it. That’s not an option here [in Classical Tetris]. However, in Modern Tetris, you’re often given three or four pieces that you can look at in the future. And in Modern, they have this special randomizer that’s meant to be really fair, but this concept was not figured out in 1989, so we don’t have that. Thus, pieces are a little more chaotic and the challenge of surviving is a lot greater. Every time this comes up, I want to stress that I don’t think Modern is easier or worse because it has, like, all these extra mechanics.
How can you explain Classical Tetris strategies? Like the rolling technique, for example?
Rolling is kind of out of necessity for the game because the game doesn’t give great movement options out of the box. So, being able to wait for pieces is maybe the most important part of the game. And just basic probability, the longer you’re able to wait, the more likely it is that there’s a piece that you want.
What this means is that being able to move left and right as fast as possible is extremely important, and the game gives you a really slow auto-repeat mechanism that only goes like 10 frames per second, which is decent, but not great. The way we get around this is this technique that presses the button as many times as possible. We split the load over all five of our fingers, and we use the back of the controller because it has a wider surface area than the actual button itself. So, if we do that, it creates this rolling motion where you’re getting all five of your fingers on the controller, that’s where it comes from. We can reach up to 30 frames a second.
How do you apply the principles of mathematical solving to a game like Tetris?
I did a lot of math competitions in high school, so I think having that brain has helped me here. The main skill I think I have over my competitors is that I’m constantly analyzing every single placement, just this idea of self-evaluation and always considering the best decisions. On the whole, I think that kind of helps when it comes to problem solving.
For something more technical, I kind of see improving in Tetris as basically performing reinforcement learning on yourself, but that’s another rabbit hole.
What advice would you give to someone trying to get into Tetris?
The most important thing is to ensure you actually enjoy the game. I see plenty of people start getting into Tetris and decide they want to be competitive just for the sake of competitiveness, not out of enjoyment. As for a sort of training regimen, I mainly recommend practicing the slower levels. Just like anything else, getting good at Tetris is just a matter of practice and dedication. Another tip that’s gone a long way for me is watching Tetris streams — being involved in Tetris as much as you can is the key to improving.
How do you balance your Tetris life with other commitments like Video Game Orchestra?
I think it’s just a matter of making sure that I get all the essential stuff done first, so then I can play Tetris afterwards if I want. I think this most importantly comes up whenever I have to travel for world championships because this means I’m missing several days of school. I always make sure that I’m completing my homework for that period well in advance, so that I don’t have to worry or stress about it.
Does this mean you solved Classical Tetris? Do you think you’ll still be able to top your score skillswise?
So, you can crash the game by playing a single at 1489 lines. But as we saw — that’s the one I did, at E89 except it’s single — it’s also possible not to, like any other line clear. It turns out, by making sure that you’re clearing a different amount of lines than the ones that have a chance of causing a crash, you can just avoid it. So, you can play forever or you can play on a special mode we made that actually fixes the crash, and this means that we can just worry about scoring.
Would you describe yourself as competitive? Did the recent news of someone beating Tetris inspire you to do the same?
Technically, I inspired [Willis Gibson]!
Editor’s note: Gibson was the first person to beat Tetris at the age of 13.
I think competition helps me make less silly decisions just because there’s an actual threat of somebody else getting to the goal before me, but in general, I like to go for categories that I make up and just play at my own pace. When it comes to chasing the world record, for competitive head-to-head competitions, it’s different.
How do you expect the Tetris community to improve skillswise? Do you think we’re reaching the skill ceiling?
I think people have been thinking we’re gonna die off and have peaked for the past few years; I don’t know, it's kind of difficult.
One thing I would say is that getting to the game crash and getting beyond the game crash, I don’t think I’ve actually tested the skill ceiling that much. What I find more interesting is playing shorter games, but going for more Tetrises, and taking more risks in the process. That is the kind of format that the head-to-head competitions are going to be using, and that is still extremely far from being optimized.
I think we still have a bit of life in that department.
Do you think you integrate your Tetris skills into your everyday life?
Tetris has had a major impact on how I think about randomness. For example, it’s very hard for humans to estimate when things will occur, and a big part of that is recognizing that things are actually independent. Like, if there is an event with two outcomes of equal probability and the event has occurred as just one of the outcomes the past ten times, the probability that the next event will have the opposite outcome is still just 50%, not any greater.
You mentioned in previous interviews that your future goal is to help run Tetris websites and tournaments instead of participating in them. What inspired this change of pace?
Nothing really specific. I have just been to a bunch of live events over many years of playing, and I love meeting people there, and I love playing Tetris there. And that’s all because of the work of people who are always working in the background, the stuff behind the scenes.
There’s this massive control center with all these wires connecting TVs and game cartridges and just keeping all of that running, and making sure people show up on time to big efforts, and this one that I think goes unappreciated.
Actually, a couple of weeks ago, I had my chance to host my own event here.
Was that Tetris event publicized? Would you say there’s a lively Tetris scene at MIT?
It wasn’t actually publicized. We still ended up having like 50 to 60 people show up by word of mouth and getting friends to attend.
I would not say that [there is a Tetris scene at MIT]. It was mostly people coming in from the outside, but maybe there could be.