Life gets pretty chill after creating 'Tetris' and escaping the KGB.
I'm at the wheel of a Tesla with a license plate that reads, simply: TETRIS. Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of that legendary video game, rides shotgun.
"Push the gas, push the gas!" whoops Pajitnov, bearded and jean jacketed. "Faster!"
Earlier that day, after lunch at a mutual friend's house, Pajitnov, 58, was eager to have us take turns driving his Tesla through the placid suburbs of Bellevue, Washington, where he lives, urging us on to bursts of acceleration that left momentary feelings of weightlessness in my chest every time the road dipped.
Over lunch, we had discussed Russia's fight against the Nazis in World War II, Pajitnov's longstanding love for classic puzzler game Lode Runner, his time developing artificial intelligence and speech recognition platforms during the Cold War, and the many other games, such as Yoshi's Cookie, he's worked on that aren't Tetris. Among other things.
A quick web search for "Alexey Pajitnov" brings up pages of articles and interviews that fixate only on his creation of Tetris—a work that remains, far and away, the best selling video game of all time. Meeting Pajitnov himself led me to wonder about, well, everything else. What was the Tetris-less life of Alexey Pajitnov?
He drove like a madman
If there's one constant to his story, it's a penchant for hauling ass. Sheila Boughten, president of Tozai Games, gave me some insight regarding the psychology of Pajitnov's motor vehicle operation. Boughten entered the video game industry through the now-defunct Bullet-Proof Software, where her very first task was to coordinate with American and Russian immigration in the early 90s so that Pajitnov could move to the US and join the team at Bullet-Proof, which sponsored his work visa.
"Everyone drove like mad people," Boughten told me of her experience at the time in Moscow, riding white-knuckled with Pajitnov in his Soviet-era Fiat clone. "And Alexey was not excluded. He drove like a madman. I was fearful. I said, 'Alexey, I don't want to die in Russia. Be careful.'"
"Sheila," he said with a laugh, "I can tell you that you would prefer to die. You don't want to be in a Russian hospital."
Things were grim and grimy back then, particularly to Westerners visiting for the first time. When Boughten and her Bullet-Proof colleague, Scott Tsumura, needed to go to the Moscow train station for a side trip to St. Petersburg, Pajitnov insisted on escorting them to the station and seeing them off over their protests.
Boughten remembers people trying to pry away their luggage as Tsumura, Pajitnov, and herself moved through the station. "Everything was chaos there," she said. "They saw Americans with suitcases and knew there was stuff inside they wanted. Alexey fought the path between us to the train, literally fending off swarms of people and shoving our stuff on the train."
"You don't understand," he told them.
Days after our Tesla joyride, I asked Pajitnov about his current workload.
"I'm not overloaded," he said.
Compare this to his working life in the days of the former Soviet Union. Working at the state-run Academy of Science in Moscow, Pajitnov would wake up between 7:30 and 8 AM. "Maybe later," he explained, "because I worked until midnight every day."
He'd eat sausage, eggs, and cottage cheese for breakfast. Then he would run some errands or do chores, before showing up at the office around 10 AM. The tiny space he was assigned to work in "was extremely crowded." It was a room built for four or five people seated at desks. On most days it had to accommodate 15 researchers.
"We didn't have any room at all," he said, laughing. "I shared my desk with three other people. So I'd leave my work for late hours, because my desk would be vacated." Then, in relative peace, he'd get to work developing artificial intelligence and automatic speech recognition, a field he says is, to a certain extent, "still very primitive."
In a word, he found the work "heuristic." But he grappled with the reality that his experiments were primarily military-based. Although the Academy scientists didn't always know precisely how their fundamental findings would later be applied, there were rumors. "Legends," as Pajitnov puts it.
One such legend that circulated among Academy scientists was that the automatic speech recognition tech—he likened it to a proto-Siri—was being applied to fighter jets operating in high Gs. Pilots would be able to operate aircraft by voice if doing so by hand proved impossible. So the legend goes.
There was, however, a very real, "sad application" of Pajitnov's work by the KGB, who on several occasions sent representatives from their R&D wing to the cramped office he shared with over a dozen other Academy researchers.
Pajitnov explained that while the KGB was ever keen to eavesdrop on people for information, it was difficult, given the state of technology at the time, to be continuously recording. The KGB, then, was heavily interested in applying Pajitnov's speech recognition experiments to an audio system that would start recording automatically if and when certain keywords, deemed dangerous to the state or incriminating to the speaker, were uttered.
This was work that Pajitnov said he his fellow Academy researchers "tried to avoid, obviously."
For his part, at least, Pajitnov was markedly apolitical. But he was also uneasy with the sort of nationalism expected of any Russian native in that era, let alone a guy employed by the Computing Centre at the Academy of Science.
Boughten told me about the time she and Pajitnov went to the Kremlin to see Vladimir Lenin's body in repose.
"Alexey had a hard time walking through, past Lenin," Boughten told me. She remembers asking her friend and colleague, as they waited in line, if he'd ever gone to see Lenin as a youth.
In decades past, Russian children went on mandatory field trips to the Tomb, to behold the despot's ennobled corpse. But Pajitnov had found a way to avoid that. "I was always sick that day," he told Boughten.
"He could never be open about that, of course," Boughten said, referring to Pajitnov's discomfort with the tyrant, "because he might not have lived. But he had a hard time, even going through the tour that day."
Eventually, at the Academy of Science, Alexey was given access to his own personal computer that he could use "with no one behind my shoulder." Since he had to run tests on the AI and speech recognition software and programs he was working on anyway, Pajitnov performed them by playing video games. He experimented on and tested this new computer by developing games on it in the Pascal programming language.
Some of these earliest video game experiments he developed on this personal computer were later published as Microsoft Entertainment Pack: The Puzzle Collection. Upon its release, there was no mention that the games were created on the down low during long hours inside the Soviet central nervous system.
But it was also under those circumstances, with later help from a friend, Vladimir Pokhilko, a Russian clinical psychologist interested in human-computer interactions, that Pajitnov ultimately created the most successful video game in history.
Tetris was formally released in June 1984 by the Academy of Sciences, after initially spreading among academics and the computer literate by way of copied floppy disks. As a tile-fitting puzzler, Tetris captivated these members of intelligentsia. After all, here was a game constructed of pristine shapes taken straight from Platonic idealism.
The game was later discovered at the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by Bullet-Proof Software founder Henk Rogers, who, to make a complicated story brief, spread the gospel of the tetrominos to a world ripe for fresh addiction. Bullet-Proof released the game in America in 1989. It's estimated the franchise has gone on to sell over 70 million physical copies, plus an estimated 100 million mobile downloads of the game worldwide.
Because it was made during work hours on a government computer, the Soviet government claimed all rights both to Tetris and to the untold millions in royalties that eventually rolled in. So, despite his sudden international recognition as a developer, Pajitnov remained essentially a working Joe when he joined up with Rogers and Bullet-Proof, immigrating to America in 1990 on the work visa they sponsored. Six months later, Pajitnov brought his wife, Nina, and sons, Peter and Dmitri, to Bellevue, Washington.
Around the same time, Vladimir Pokhilko—with whom Pajitnov had, the previous year, formed a Moscow-based startup software development company called AnimaTek—also immigrated to the US, settling in the Bay Area. Notably, Pokhilko is sometimes credited as being the co-creator of Tetris, and he at least encouraged Pajitnov to further develop Tetris into a marketable product.
The two would meet up at CES 1990 in Chicago, where Boughten was an exhibitor with Pajitnov, and where Tetris got its first big break outside Russia. She remembers Alexey and Vlad drinking and dancing each night of the trade show. They had a hit.
"That was the thing about Pajitnov," Boughten told me, and it was something that befits a man whose globe-striding creations are only possible to play well in a state of total mindfulness. "He was very present. He is very present."
Still, the shift to life in the West took time. Boughten remembers how blown away Pajitnov was when she brought him to an American grocery store for the first time. "He was so amazed," she said. "He was really taken by how many things you could buy."
It was Boughten who further helped Pajitnov acclimate to his new life. She set up his dentist appointments. She helped him understand the reasoning behind a hefty ticket he found under his wiper after he'd left a rented Cadillac parked at a fire hydrant for three days. She helped him rebut a plenitude of fast-talking businessmen drawn to the heat of his fame.
And then one day, while Pajitnov was working at the Bullet-Proof Software office, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed up, wanting to speak with him "about any KGB pursuits."
"Having a conversation with the FBI in flesh and blood" left an impression on Pajitnov. The agent even arranged a follow-up appointment, at which his wife Nina, an English teacher, was similarly questioned about clandestine ties with Soviet intelligence.
But the Feds quickly realized they were wasting resources by investigating a happy-go-lucky developer who spent all his time thinking about puzzle games, and who bore no KGB secrets. Besides, in those fresh-from-the-USSR days, as Scott Tsumura recalls, "Alexey's Russian greeting-hug was very tight." He would kiss women and men square on the lips.
I stop my work and play a game a little bit. Then I realize I need to finish my work.
By 1996, the same year that the Tetris rights, through a complicated legal process following the death of the Soviet Union, were finally given to Pajitnov, he had begun designing games for a pre-Xbox Microsoft.
His routine at Microsoft remained "basically the same" as it had been in Soviet-era Russia. He'd roll up to the office each morning between 9 and 10 AM, and work until around 1:30 PM, when he'd take lunch. He'd call it a day around 10 or 11 PM.
"That's the way I got used to working," he told me, "and I continued for all my working life. It's kind of a lifestyle."
I expressed some amazement at working 12 to 14 hours day in, day out, even in America, but then Pajitnov said he did take breaks throughout the day. To play video games, naturally.
"Sometimes I'm tired," he admitted. "I stop my work and play a game a little bit. Then I realize I need to finish my work. I come back to my work and go forward."
Pajitnov was in charge of designing his own projects at Microsoft, an idea man. "Basically, I don't need to code anymore," he said.
Then Microsoft started developing the Xbox. "That was very unfortunate for me. I'm interested in puzzle games. And Xbox wasn't for puzzles," he said. "I tried to find as peaceful a title as possible to work on. I don't like shooting games."
But according to Alexey, Microsoft was far from being the slick console maker it would eventually rise to become.
"Microsoft wasn't very good with games, generally," he said of the early days. "They didn't understand the essence of it. They didn't have enough specialists. Somehow they didn't hire the right people. So, I felt a bit alien. The first couple of years [of the Xbox development era] it was a complete disaster. They started and canceled so many good projects, bad projects. It was like being in a blender."
He found himself struggling in the groups he worked in. "Nobody wanted me on their projects. And I didn't want anybody on my projects either," he said.
Puzzle games for the PC were swept aside as Microsoft armed itself for the console war. "All my projects were a low priority now. 'We need to work on Xbox! Xbox!'" he said, mimicking the battlecry heard around the Microsoft campus. By the time Halo saw light, in late 2001, Pajitnov said that Microsoft "had figured things out."
"I was in the initial period," he went on, "when there were lots of mistakes and bad moves."
While Pajitnov settled in at Microsoft, the life of his old friend and business partner, Vladimir Pokhilko, turned tragic. In 1998, Pokhilko killed his wife and son, and then himself, for reasons that are still not entirely clear. What happened that night in southern Palo Alto, at the Pokhilko residence, shocked those closest to Pokhilko. The sheer brutality of the murders made it all the more unconscionable.
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time, "Pokhilko hit Fedotova, a popular yoga instructor, and Peter, a seventh-grader, with a hammer, and repeatedly stabbed them with a hunting knife, apparently as they lay sleeping. Then he stabbed himself once in the throat with the knife."
"It's unfathomable that someone would do this to themselves and a child," said then-Palo Alto police spokeswoman Tami Gage.
"As far as Vladimir is concerned," Pajitnov later wrote me over email, "I can say that we [were] always friends, colleagues, and partners with good and warm relations."
When the dot-com bubble burst just after the turn of the millennium, Pajitnov had netted enough royalties from Tetris that he didn't need to sell his stock options. "Basically, I became wealthy enough out of just Microsoft stocks, besides my royalties. I somehow felt I was done with Microsoft." So, he quit.
But in 2005, Pajitnov returned, albeit briefly, as a Microsoft contractor to port Hexic, a tile-matching puzzler, to the Xbox 360. "Hexic was pretty good," he said. "It was an interesting title. But Microsoft sits on such a heap of intellectual properties. They don't have any brains or hands to really benefit, to give them a second or third life, which could easily be done."
"That's unfortunate," he continued, "because there are some of my titles there [at Microsoft]. And lots of my colleagues who worked there had their work wasted. It's a pity."
As we were wrapping up, I couldn't help but ask about the recent announcement that a Tetris movie is in the works. It seems to me like a missed opportunity—a story based on falling blocks, rather than one about the man who made the game in secret while working for the Soviet government. Did Pajitnov ever imagine a story for Tetris?
"No, and to be frank, I don't think they have yet either. They are just brainstorming. They have several good ideas," he said. But recently they, "tried to see how responsive the whole idea was to the media."
Today, when he's not driving around Bellevue in his TETRIS-plated Tesla, Pajitnov only works on his own "crazy titles or projects." He does some pushups and sit-ups in the morning, eats a bowl of cornflakes. Then, he goes into his daily gaming routine, checking in daily with several mobile games to collect in-game coins.
"In order to not pay for it, you need to check in at a regular time," he said, referring to two games he's taken a liking to, Gems With Friends and Arcane Battles.
From there, Pajitnov hops on a few Skype calls, for business or to catch up with friends. He checks his email, and then he reads fantasy or contemporary nonfiction books (always in Russian, and by Russian authors), or watches TV. Other times, he plays games.
"After lunch I start seeing what I have to do project-wise," he explained. "Come up with the next several levels, or something like that." Although, at the moment he isn't actively working on a proper gaming project. "I have a project in the back of my mind that I am thinking about, but I'm not literally doing it."
When he does sit down to design, Pajitnov doesn't need a computer. "I usually use a notepad and pencils to design something," he said. "Then the evening comes. I either go play tennis, or go work out at the club, or sit at home and either watch TV or read books. And that's my day. Nothing very exciting or exceptional."
With additional reporting by Brian Anderson.