Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Tetris

I am not an aficionado of video games, so I had little interest in watching Tetris, the story of the origin of the game and the determined effort of Henk Rogers to secure rights to distribute it in a number of countries. However, the quest to acquire PC, handheld, and arcade licensing rights to the game proved fascinating. The narrative begins in Las Vegas.

In 1988, Henk Rogers, owner of Bullet-Proof Software, is trying to sell his own video game to investors at the Consumer Electronics Show. While there, he becomes enthralled with the game “Tetris,” which was created by a Russian programmer, Alexely Pajitnov, who works for the conglomerate ELORG in the Soviet Union. Hank discovers that the licensing rights have not been definitively sold to anyone. This opens a window of opportunity for Henk, who decides to attempt to buy them himself and sell them to investors such as Nintendo. This could exponentially monetize the profits of Tetris and make Henk a major beneficiary of the deal.

Things do not go smoothly for him. Many convoluted machinations are required for Henk to succeed. He even puts up his house for collateral in order to secure the transaction.

Tetris is more than a game for many fans. It is a passionate metaphor for leading a productive life. For example, Tor Bair, a web developer and IT specialist, writes about the life lessons one gleans from playing Tetris. For him, Tetris is a representation of life, unlike chess, which for Bair is only a silly war game. Bair observes: “In Tetris, you’re only playing against time and the never-ending flow of pieces from top to bottom. The mindset is internally focused — you are challenging yourself to correctly manipulate a random stream of inputs into an orderly configuration. There’s no final boss. No blame to assign.” This is Henk’s mindset as he, of necessity, finds innovative ways to deal with the uncertainties of his negotiations and the time limitations that continually confront him.

Another lesson. In life, you can’t control the board as in chess. In Tetris, you cannot see the future. Bair remarks: “Tetris? You only know what the next piece is. You play for the present moment, trying to construct the best possible configuration of pieces, knowing that it is impossible to predict the situation even two pieces from now. You don’t get fooled into thinking you can control the future.” Henk has no illusions about the future. He is extremely flexible and willing to change course if in the end he will be successful.

A subtext of the movie is the conflict between capitalism and communism and how human greed influences both. Dr. Yvette Alt Miller, a Jewish educator, in an article about the salutary leadership of Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev, notes his openness to change, his honesty, his willingness to be flexible and respond creatively to the growing Western influence in Russia. Behind the scenes, his positive attitude works to Henk’s advantage.

Gorbachev responded to present challenges, which changed the world for Soviet Jews. In his own words, he states: “I see myself as a man who started the reforms that were necessary for the country and for Europe and the world. I am often asked, would I have started it all again if I had to repeat it? Yes, indeed.  And with more persistence and determination.”

Henk Rogers changes the world of video games with the marketing of Tetris in Japan and the United States. His determination in the face of adversity and his willingness to “fail forward” and create new realities on the ground is reminiscent of the Jewish approach to adversity. Proverbs (24:16) tells us: “the righteous fall seven times and each time they get up again.” Henk Rogers is an emblem of this Jewish response to adversity. He does not give up.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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