I discovered the computer game Tetris – and I was deemed a spy and faced torture in a Soviet labour camp because it it
SNEAKING into one of Soviet Russia’s most secretive and guarded buildings, Henk Rogers’s heart pounded as he became increasingly aware of the danger he was in.
The Dutch businessman, then 35, had no right to be there, had incorrect travel documents and if he had been deemed a spy he could have faced decades of torture in a gulag.
But he was desperate to cut a business deal with shadowy figures in the Soviet government that could make or break him.
This high-stakes gamble sounds like an 007 plot but it is the true story behind block-locking puzzle Tetris, one of the world’s most successful and timeless video games.
Since its invention in 1984 it has sold more than 520million copies worldwide — and is now set to become a real, ahem, block-buster with a new movie about its origins.
Called simply Tetris, the film stars Brit actor Taron Egerton as Henk and was filmed in Glasgow, which doubles for the bland brutalist structures of Soviet-era Russia.
The film is not the usual Hollywood fare but Henk says his risky dalliance behind the Iron Curtain has all the makings of a spy thriller.
He told The Sun: “It’s an exciting story. It’s like if I went into North Korea today and snuck into the ministry. It was dangerous.
“It was generally a really stupid idea. But no guts, no glory.
“Looking back, I’m a bit like James Bond. He does some pretty stupid things and Henk Rogers did too.
“But if James Bond was caught, he would have ended up in some gulag and been tortured for years and years as they yelled, ‘Tell me your secrets!’
“Thank God, for me, I didn’t have any secrets.”
The story starts in 1988, when Henk visited a Las Vegas trade show and discovered Tetris, a game designed by Soviet-born Alexey Pajitnov, where players race against the clock to slot square-based shapes into lines to gain points.
He was immediately hooked, and brokered a deal with the game’s apparent licensee to sell the rights to Nintendo for its first hand-held console, the Game Boy.
But the arrangement was never approved by Pajitnov, nor its Soviet state-owned software developer Elektronorgtechnica, or ELORG, which was prohibited from selling Soviet software.
The President of Nintendo America, Minoru Arakawa, called Henk and voiced his doubts about the rights after being offered it by another salesman, who also presumed they had an agreement to sell it.
Henk says it was the most stressful moment of his life, as he had already had millions of game cartridges manufactured, using land owned by his wife’s family as collateral.
He recalled: “I told him, ‘I’m about to get on a plane and go to Moscow. Give me a shot’.
“He said, ‘OK. I won’t make a deal with anybody else, you go for it’.”
In 1989 Henk flew to the Soviet Union to visit ELORG. It was two years before the regime collapsed, and outsiders were deeply distrusted.
Indeed, soon after his arrival in the country an issue with his passport threatened to curtail his visit, but after pleading with the authorities he was allowed to continue.
Henk headed for the Ministry of Foreign Trade to try to persuade ELORG to rubber-stamp what he believed were his rights to the game.
It was high stakes. He had raised millions of dollars to bankroll the project, despite being refused loans by the banks.
As he entered the imposing building, he cautiously approached a Soviet army soldier at a window, knowing he was not supposed to be in the Government building.
Henk, now 69, recalled: “No one wanted to talk to me but eventually ELORG director Nikolai Belikov came down, looked at my pass and said, ‘We never license this for console in any country’.
“I said, ‘No, no, no! Look here, the copyright notice goes from you to Bullet-Proof Software, my company’.
“‘No, we never licensed this’, he replied. I said, ‘Oh my god’. I had $2million worth of cartridges in manufacture in Japan.
“That was the highest-stress moment of my life. If somebody else had swooped in and got the console rights
“I couldn’t have released those cartridges. I would have been fed.”
Henk and Belikov adjourned to a meeting room with a team of Russian negotiators where the Dutchman recalls being “given the third degree”.
Desperate to get the contract signed, he resorted to risky tactics to speed up the Russians’ negotiations.
Henk recalled: “They thought I understood Russian because when they started arguing I would say, ‘Gentlemen, stop. The answer is yes’.
“I didn’t know what they were talking about but I knew where they were in the contract. It was risky.”
In the Russian team was Tetris creator Pajitnov, and luckily the pair “connected immediately” through a shared understanding of game design, despite their vastly different lives.
Henk recalled: “After the meeting, he wanted to talk outside.
“I thought, ‘This is dangerous, is he allowed to meet me?’
“We struggled at first because of the distrust. Russians were not allowed to talk to foreigners but eventually became life-long friends.
“There was this whole foreboding thing where I didn’t know what was going to happen and if I was going to end up in the gulag.”
It was one of many blurred lines that Henk crossed in the Soviet Union and despite clear risks, he said: “I wasn’t worried for my safety.
“I could have ended up in a Russian jail for f***ing ten years but I wasn’t going to get beaten up or killed. I was more worried about not being able to go home.
“That was the real worry. What lines was I crossing, who could I trust
“So I tested the water by standing across the road from the KGB building, took a picture — and nobody bothered me.”
Eventually, Henk secured the rights for Tetris and licensed it to Nintendo, which sold more than 35million copies by bundling it in with the Game Boy, which launched in 1989.
While Henk was victorious in securing the deal, his battle with the Soviets was far from over.
Tetris creator Pajitnov had not received a penny from the game’s sales, and the ministry kept all the proceeds, so he asked Henk to help him win back the rights to his game.
In 1991, after the Soviet Union was dissolved, ELORG became a private company and the same year Pajitnov moved to the US and later became an American citizen.
In 1996 he and Henk founded The Tetris Company in a bid to reclaim its rights.
In 2005 they bought out ELORG’s 50 per cent share for a reported $15million (£12million).
The game enjoys enduring success, including 425million paid mobile downloads in 2014 and a Guinness World Record the same year as one of the top-selling games ever.
Henk and Alexey remain close friends and enjoy getting together to share a bottle of wine and chat.
Henk is a little more used to the limelight, having switched his focus to ending climate change through the Blue Planet Foundation, which was founded in 2007, and Blue Planet Energy, which creates green energy storage systems and infrastructure.
He said: “I’m finally working on my life’s mission.
“When I die, I want to be known for fixing climate change, not the whole Tetris thing, but I keep getting dragged back in.
“It’s funny, people call me Mr Tetris but I say, ‘No, I’m not him.
“Mr Tetris is the guy who created the game.
“I’m Doctor Tetris — I kept Tetris alive for all of these years.’”
- Tetris is released on March 31 on Apple TV+. Read more about Henk’s work at henkrogers.com.
TETRIS BLOCK NAMES
TETRIS was named after the block shapes used in the game, called tetrominoes.
There are technically five but you can make an additional two with the mirror images of the Z and L shapes.
Tetris producers gave the seven individual blocks quirky names, which they spelled out in the original gaming manual – but it’s a mystery as to what they mean.
And the “L” shapes, Orange Ricky and Blue Ricky, come in other colours too.
It just doesn’t stack up. Unlike the game.