It's almost 9 p.m. when I hear Jesse call my battle name, Drewstroyer, from across the room. Immediately feeling sick to my stomach with first-time anxiety, I set down my second can of Olympia and wade through the crowd of fifty or so competitors and spectators. As I take a seat on the leather couch, my hands go clammy beneath the gray-and-purple Super Nintendo controller handed to me, so I wipe them on my brown cargo shorts, crack a few knuckles and prepare to embarrass myself.
Miraculously, I don't. In fact, I win easily, 17 to 7. To say that I breathe a simple sigh of relief would be like saying I only sorta like to drink beer or think The Little Prince is just an okay book: a gross understatement. No, I feel sheer fucking elation. After all, I'm way out of my league — Tetris League, held every last Wednesday of the month at Forest Room 5 (2532 15th Street) — among the seasoned veterans and unabashed Tetris nerds who have not only been coming to this tournament since it began a year ago, but spend hours practicing online or otherwise. Already my $5 entry fee and upset stomach have been worth it. I celebrate by ordering two more beers.
Under ideal circumstances, double-elimination Tetris League tournaments work like so: Two Super Nintendo systems loaded with the 1990 bundled Tetris & Dr. Mario cartridges are projected onto a wall-hung bedsheet and a pull-down projection screen, respectively. Competitors (who sign up at 8 p.m. and are entered into a computerized bracket program that randomizes match-ups) go head-to-head for three minutes, vying for most lines. Tetris League T-shirts are awarded to the best-dressed and rookie of the month, while the champion takes home a $50 cash prize.
Forest Room 5
But no more than five minutes into tonight's tournament, one of the projectors gives out, and emcee Jesse is forced to cut all match-ups down to two minutes instead of three. This upsets some players who are used to employing specific strategies based upon three-minute games. (The most obvious strategy contingent on more time is setting up and waiting for tetrises — four lines eliminated simultaneously — which is both an offensive and defensive move because it sends four lines to the bottom of the opponent's screen.) Disgruntled vets and ringers grumble to themselves, boo loudly and make symbolic dust-kicking gestures at Jesse, who can't do anything but apologize.
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Game play resumes quickly and is much livelier than I expected. The small back room of Forest Room 5 is electric with excited energy, with spectators screaming, taunting, jumping to their feet in moments of down-to-the-wire suspense and counting down the last ten seconds of every match in unison. Jesse offers feverish commentary, yelling phrases such as "This is a marquee match-up, people!" "We have a tied motherfucking game here" and "You absolutely can not hesitate in Tetris when it's all about the lines!"
Three more Olympias go by before I play again. While I wait, I watch every match with the rapt intensity of a toddler watching The Lion King; even when I step outside for cigarettes, I stand by the door and gawk at the screen from a distance. It's hotter than a Honda Civic without air-conditioning in August rush-hour traffic, so of course I sweat. A lot. I'm just plain greasy all over by the time I find myself back on the couch squaring off against Justin, a longtime competitor who beats me 23-21.
Between 11 and 11:30 p.m., one by one, everyone I know is knocked out. Curt (battle name: Dewey Decimator) goes first, then Sam, Maggie, Suzanne (battle name: Suzaster) and finally Tammy. I'm seven beers deep by the time my final match commences, against another first-timer named Kevin. It's times like these that I wish I knew my own beer strength better, because while playing Cricket, Silver Strike Bowling and bean-bag toss, for example, I often kick more competitive ass when I've had a few too many. Other times (Guitar Hero II, anyone?), I just don't. And while I'm not drunk-drunk during my elimination match, neither am I sober enough to be operating any heavy-duty machinery — such as, say, a Super Nintendo controller. Still, I put up a serious fight, taking our two-minute match into thirty seconds of overtime before losing 22-21 to Kevin, who ends up winning the Rookie of the Month Award. Fact is, I spend way too much time trying to build tetrises and waiting for the perfect piece to fall.
And in Tetris League, it's all about the lines.