Apple TV Plus film Tetris beat out Ted Lasso in the ratings charts the week it was released, which is no small feat considering Ted Lasso's popularity. Tetris tells the incredible real-life story of how a simple video game created in Russia during the Cold War became a worldwide phenomenon despite the odds. But how much of this thriller is actually true and how much was exaggerated for the sake of punching up the drama? Warning: there are spoilers ahead, so you might not want to read this until after you've watched the film.
Taron Egerton plays Henk Rogers, the Dutch-born American video game salesman based in Japan who discovers Tetris at the CES tradeshow in 1988. He sees its potential and sets out to secure rights to the game so he can bring it to the world. But first, he must go behind the Iron Curtain and navigate the complex and dangerous bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. He's also in competition with two other companies, Mirrorsoft and Andromeda software, for the international rights to Tetris, a fact that Russian company Elorg (Elektronorgtechnica) uses to its advantage. Who knew a movie about a video game would play like a spy thriller?
The over-the-top bad guys and fabulous car chase scene are fabricated
Much of the film's drama comes from its over-the-top bad guys. The menacing and violent KGB agents are important characters in the film. In real life, though the KGB was involved, they weren't quite as villainous as the film makes them out to be. The film's biggest baddie, KGB agent Valentin Trifonov (played by Igor Grabuzov) was entirely fabricated. Though KGB agents did indeed visit Rogers' office in Japan while he was in Moscow, they didn't overtly threaten Rogers' wife Akemi (played by Ayane Nagabuchi) as in the film. The exciting car chase and rush to get on the plane and out of the country safely never happened. In fact, Rogers' trip back home was completely uneventful and ordinary.
Unlike the film, Rogers knew that Sasha was KGB, and her name wasn’t Sasha
Henk Rogers arrived in Moscow without the ability to speak Russian. This was a time before smartphones, so he'd have needed a real life translator to get anywhere in his negotiations. There actually were a bunch of translators offering their services at his hotel like in the film.
But in real life, it was no secret that they were all actually KGB agents, including Sasha (played by Sofia Lebedeva.) Rogers wrote in an essay for The Guardian in 2014, “I hired an interpreter [whose name was actually Ola, not Sasha] from a booth in the lobby of my hotel. They were all KGB, but she was beautiful and very perky, when everybody else was doom and gloom. She took me to Elorg, but she wouldn’t take me in because I hadn’t been officially invited. I was breaking a cardinal rule – trying to do business on a tourist visa – but I told her I hadn’t come all this way for nothing.”
Gorbachev really was aware of the negotiations
Yes, the President of the Soviet Union at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev (played by Matthew Marsh,) was made aware of the negotiation for Tetris. Robert Maxwell (played by Roger Allam) head of British company Mirrorsoft is friends with Gorbachev, a fact which he repeatedly brings up in order to try and get his way in the negotiations for Tetris rights. Maxwell did actually go running to Gorbachev to ask him to pressure Elorg into giving the rights to Mirrorsoft. However, Gorbachev has bigger things to worry about, like the Soviet Union being on the brink of collapse, and declines to get involved in the negotiations for the game.
Rogers and Pajitov really did become close friends
Just like in the film, the initial relationship between Rogers and Pajitov is a bit chilly. Alexey Pajitov is the creator of the game, and as a citizen of the communist Soviet Union, he would never be allowed to see any profit from it. He can't have looked fondly upon this foreigner swooping in to try and get rich off of it. But over the course of the film, Pajitov warms up to Rogers, who genuinely wants Pajitov to profit from the game as well. Henk Rogers was true to his word: Just like in the film, he helps Pajitov and his family move to the US where the two men formed their own company and both became very rich. They still work together as co-owners of The Tetris Company and are close friends to this day.
The overall Tetris story and vibe is true
Crazy as it may sound, Tetris passes the vibe check. While of course there are alterations and exaggerations for the sake of drama, the salient points and the feel of the film are true. The film premiered at South by Southwest, and the real Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitov participated in a Q&A panel after the showing. Rogers said: “They captured what happened to me over a year-and-a-half in two hours,” Pajitnov expanded: “That was emotionally, intellectually and spiritually a very truthful movie.”
Totally random fun fact
Our very own iMore Editor-in-Chief Gerald Lynch is the Guinness Book of World Records holder for Highest Score on Tetris - Team of Two. And to think, Gerald's place in history could never have happened if it weren't for Alexey Pajitov and Henk Rogers.
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Karen is a contributor to iMore.com as a writer and co-host of the iMore Show. She’s been writing about Apple since 2010 with a year-long break to work at an Apple Store as a product specialist. She's also a contributor at CNET. Before joining iMore in 2018, Karen wrote for Macworld, AppAdvice, WatchAware. She’s an early adopter who used to wait in long lines on release days before pre-ordering made things much easier. Karen is also a part-time teacher and occasional movie extra. She loves to spend time with her family, travel the world, and is always looking for portable tech and accessories so she can work from anywhere.