Most days, Jonas Neubauer wakes up a little before noon and either goes to work as a taproom manager in southern California or to his other job where he helps run a recreational marijuana startup. But today the 37-year-old Los Angeles native rolled out of bed a little earlier, still groggy, to talk on the phone about his other life—his most prominent and public one—as the greatest Tetris player in the world.
It’s a title that grows more inarguable as Neubauer racks up championship after championship. Eight Classic Tetris World Championship (CTWC) tournaments have been held since the competition’s inception in 2010. Neubauer has won seven of them. On one hand, Neubauer is just a normal guy who works at a bar, drinks a lot of coffee, and plays video games in his downtime. On the other, he’s a niche rock star in a rapidly growing e-sports community that one day hopes to be represented at the Olympics—with Neubauer as its spokesperson. “It’s kind of a D-list celebrity,” Neubauer laughs. “But in a certain circle, you’re pretty popular.”
This weekend, the reigning champ plays for his eighth world title against the largest and most competitive field he's ever faced. Players from all over the world are traveling to Portland, Oregon, for the tournament, including the European Champion Svavar Gunnarsson, Japanese Tetris Grandmaster and renowned hyper-tapper Koji "Koryan" Nishio, and 16-year-old American prodigy Joseph Saelee.
"It’s basically the entire field vs. Jonas,” says Adam Cornelius, who organizes the CTWC tournament each year and directed the documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. For 362 days of the year, Neubauer may be a regular guy who wakes up late and works at a bar. But during the CTWC tournament, he's the most respected man in the room.
Most days, Neubauer goes to work and comes home without discussing his niche fame. It took some coworkers years to find out. Neubauer remembers walking into the taproom one day and hearing a teasing voice yell out, “You bastard! I saw a video of you playing. Why didn’t you tell me?” Some days, when his hobby does come up, he signs autographs, takes pictures, and humors challengers at the bar with a quick game, rapidly and effortlessly stacking blocks.
Neubauer uses a unique and chaotic approach to playing Tetris, stacking blocks high from left to right and quickly spinning pieces and tucking them into the right position at the very last second. It’s a hectic strategy that makes you believe he can’t find a way out, until he miraculously does.
“What makes Jonas so scary and dominant is that he is somehow the most solid, fundamentally sound player, and the most light on his feet and creative at the same time,” Cornelius says. “He's like Tim Duncan one minute and then Steph Curry the next.”
Neubauer likens his playing style to a jazz pianist: chaotic, unpredictable, and always improvising without much of a plan. His playing style echoes his personality, which his wife Heather Ito describes as interesting and quick-witted, yet ironically oblivious. When Neubauer asked Ito to marry him, she replied, “Are you sure?” just to make sure he actually thought about it beforehand. Ito’s watched him play Tetris nearly every day for more than half a decade. If anyone knows how spontaneous he can be with his decisions, it’s her.
“I actually got burnt out playing that way for a while,” Neubauer says. “It’s kind of a stressful way to play Tetris. Especially if you’re in a tournament and in front of a crowd, because it’s actively thinking with your front brain, and that’s the part that gets overwhelmed and distracted.”
When he plays, however, Neubauer seems as cool as a cucumber. He started streaming his games on Twitch under the username “NubbinsGoody” last year, drawing tens of thousands of viewers. As blocks rain down his screen, Neubauer laughs at comments and casually responds to questions from viewers, sharing tips and strategies as he goes. Oftentimes, he looks away from his screen to check on something in the room around him or chat with Ito, who’s also a highly proficient gamer. The two make an entertaining pair.
In the early days of the tournament, Neubauer would only play Tetris in the month leading up to the championship to dust off his skills. Now, between streaming on Twitch and practicing to take on more competitive challengers, “I’ve been playing pretty much nonstop,” Neubauer says. “[Tetris] used to not be a big part of my identity, but now it is.”
Streaming his practice sessions on Tetris also means sharing his playbook. “You can’t grow something when you have the same dude [winning] the tournaments each year,” the champion says. “I want to equip people with a more confident and stronger game so they can continue to come in every year and look forward to it."
Saelee, the 15-year-old prodigy making his first appearance at the CTWC this year, is one of the many new players who learned Tetris strategy by watching Neubauer play online. “I watch Jonas's Twitch channel every time I can,” says Saelee, who became the first player to ever reach Level 31 in Classic Tetris in late September—something even Neubauer hasn’t done. “I would say most of my gameplay is based off Jonas's gameplay. I try to play exactly like him for the most part.”
Neubauer and Ito often talk about how it would probably be best for someone else to win the tournament. Harry Hong is the only player to beat him in 2014. “They call it a ‘world championship,’ but really it’s just these two guys from LA who have won every year,” Ito says. “Now there’s people coming from Japan and Finland and Iceland, and if someone from the rest of the world could actually win it, it would legitimize the tournament in a really nice way.” It's clear talking with Neubauer that the future of Tetris is on his mind these days as much as his own future. He talks about transitioning to being a teacher and ambassador of the sport as if it’s his duty—giving back to a video game that, in many ways, has shaped his life and helped get him through the toughest parts of it.
Neubauer entered the 2010 tournament soon after his father’s death earlier that year. “It was this new adventure that I could embark on and try to make a positive trajectory out of a bummer situation,” he says. “Maybe I needed that first [win]. The ones that came afterwards were icing on the cake.” Neubauer describes navigating the roadblocks of life the same way he strategizes with the virtual blocks of Tetris. “You can’t control what happens to the people in your life, but you can control what comes after,” he says. As he puts it, the secret to playing the game is coming to terms with your decisions and making the best move based off your current situation.
“The way he plays Tetris, he never settles for a move,” Ito said. “There’s always more. There’s always some different way of looking at it, even if it’s always not necessarily going to work out for you. Even if it’s not the optimal choice, it’s still worth considering.”
Ito was drawn to Neubauer’s self-described “obsessive” personality when they first met. He is always curious, she says, and constantly engrossing himself in new topics and making an effort to learn as much as he can about his hobbies—which, recently, have included craft beer, hand-grinding coffee, and sourcing his own denim from Japan.
But Tetris has left Neubauer trapped in an unconquerable loop since he was about ten. “I’ll never have that kind of moment [of closure] with Tetris,” he says. “It’s a little bit of both a blessing and a curse. It’s put me on an adventure, that’s for sure.”
Neubauer has always been the best at Tetris, ever since he was a young kid playing against friends in his parents’ basement. By the time he was a teenager, no one wanted to play against him because they knew they'd lose. Neubauer kept practicing, however, pushing himself to the highest achievable level. His loss in 2014 was shocking. No one expected it. He'd become so good at Tetris, his defeat is a bigger story than any of his wins.
Last year’s tournament was the most nerve-racking competition Neubauer’s ever participated in. There's more pressure as his legend balloons within the gaming community. But no matter how long his reign as world champion lasts, Neubauer's influence will undoubtedly trickle down. It’s already evidenced in players like Saelee, who is one of 39 other competitors looking to dethrone him this weekend. The field’s getting bigger and better, and Neubauer knows it’s only a matter of time before he's eclipsed.
“I’ve found it easier to deal with what’s in and out of my control because of Tetris,” Neubauer says. “You get a certain sequence of pieces in Tetris, and that’s out of your control, but what you do with them is in your control. […] I don’t think there are a lot of regrets if you just trust that you’re doing the right thing and certain things are out of your hands.”
Update: On Sunday night, 16-year-old Joseph Saelee ousted seven-time Tetris world champion Jonas Neubauer, taking first place at the 2018 Classic Tetris World Championship. Watch Saelee's winning moment in the clip below:
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