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Posted on November 16, 2011, 1:16 am

"Mastering The Stacks

UW student holds title of grandmaster in Tetris, along with three other competitors in the world

Tetris grand master Kevin Birrell has a portable joystick for when he is not playing at his arcade-sized system.

Tetris grand master Kevin Birrell has a portable joystick for when he is not playing at his arcade-sized system. Cassie Czarnetzke

When he was 7 years old, freshman Kevin Birrell played Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) for the first time at a friend’s birthday party. The game ignited a competitive fire within him.

“He’s not interested in playing something unless he can be the best. Like the best,” said junior Zach Amador, Birrell’s friend and Tetris enthusiast.


Cassie Czarnetzke

Birrell is currently a freshman majoring in computer science and engineering.

Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, Birrell played DDR and other similar music-based games, competing and regularly winning tournaments. Recently, he has become enthralled with competitive pinball.

But both his pinball and DDR experiences pale in comparison to Birrell’s Tetris track record. He remembers first encountering the game as a youngster, stacking the colorful puzzle pieces on his Gameboy. It wasn’t until his freshman year of high school, though, that Birrell truly became interested in Tetris. Birrell recalled first seeing a clip of competitive Tetris on a video-hosting website.

“It was a video of a Japanese dude going ridiculously hardcore on this Tetris game, where the blocks just fall instantly to the top of the stack,” he said.

Birrell was hooked. One of the things that captivated him was the combination of an easy entry barrier and extremely high ceiling. He loved that anybody could pick it up and play, but that it took both dedication and skill to truly dominate. Once reeled in by the game, Birrell naturally applied his incessant drive to this new medium of competition.

“He just took off,” said Amador, who began playing competitive Tetris at the same time Birrell did. “It was very impressive considering how little time, in terms of months, that we put in.”


Cassie Czarnetzke

The computer version of Tetris: The Grand Master has the same gaming interface as the original arcade set-up, allowing Birrell to practice on-the-go.

Birrell and Amador became focused on a particular version of the game called Tetris: The Grand Master (TGM). Because TGM is only available in Japan, the two had to import the hardware and the joysticks — typically seen at an arcade — and then hook it up to a television monitor.

After honing his skill for more than four years, the shaggy-haired Birrell says the key to success is relying on ingrained reflexes. When beginning a game of Tetris, Birrell thinks about anything but what transpires on the screen in front of him.

“If you’re consciously thinking about every move you make, you’re not going to be able to go fast enough,” he said. “You just have to know it; it’s just given that you do.”

The key to his game, he said, is focusing not on what has happened or is happening, but on what is oncoming.

“It’s kind of like chess, in a way,” Birrell said. “You have to think way ahead.”

Birrell’s Tetris skill-level can be understood in a few ways. One would be to log onto YouTube and watch the videos on his channel, “KevinDDR.” Another would be to fully appreciate his current label of grandmaster in the latest incarnation of TGM — one of only four people to earn that title, and the only one outside Japan.

Such success didn’t come easily for Birrell. After beating the first 999 levels of TGM to reach grandmaster status, he had to survive another full minute of a furiously fast version of the game dubbed “Invisible Tetris.” It’s called this because, in this mode, only the piece that is in descent is visible. The rest of the piled-up Tetris pieces are hidden from view.

“I’m No. 1 outside of Japan in pretty much every mode,” Birrell said. “There’s maybe 10 or so people in Japan on my level.”

Birrell has made sure to avoid playing in binges, which is when little improvement is made, he said.

“If you have zombie practice, you’re not really learning anything,” Birrell said.

He dedicates roughly 10 hours a week to the game, playing anywhere from half an hour to three hours a day.

Birrell’s skills have taken him around the world. He played with Tetris gamers from around Europe in the Netherlands, has competed in France and, most recently, went to Los Angeles, where he competed in the second annual Tetris World Championship.

On Oct. 16, Birrell participated in two of the four tournaments hosted at the University of Southern California campus. Because the Tetris Company sponsored the event, the game modes did not include TGM; they were limited to the Playstation 3 (PS3), Nintendo NES, and board-game versions.

Birrell competed in the one-on-one and two-on-two PS3 brackets. On a platform to which he has not dedicated much time, Birrell lost in the quarterfinals of the singles tournament.

In the doubles event, Birrell and Alex Kerr — his teammate from San Jose, Calif. — defeated a team in the semifinals in a match that, at nearly 11 minutes, was more than 10 times the length of an average match. They went on to lose in the championship game.


Cassie Czarnetzke

Birrell has been competitively playing Tetris since his freshman year of high school.

The tournament, comprised of more than 200 players from across the country, offered $5,000 in prizes. Vince Clemente, the tournament director, said there was a flurry of interest in the Tetris scene.

“Everyone was excited to see all these great players at once,” he said.

After competing in the tournament, Birrell admits his competitive interest these days has increasingly shifted from Tetris to pinball.

“The pinball scene has really blown my mind since I’ve joined it,” he said.

Birrell has applied his fiery, competitive drive to pinball — just as he did to Tetris.

“He’s playing the hell out of it,” Amador said.

While he is unsure if he wants to pursue a career related to gaming, Birrell hopes to apply his impressive and incessant drive to whatever professional path he chooses.

Reach contributing writer Holden Taylor at"


Comment by Chopin on November 16, 2011, 2:00 am
This is the most sporatic write up I have ever readed

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