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Tetris prodigy Joseph Saelee talks Classic Tetris and defending his championship

As the 2019 Classic Tetris World Championship rolls on, 17-year-old Tetris prodigy and defending world champion Joseph Saelee took some time to chat with Shacknews.


The best player in the Tetris world is getting ready earn his crown, as the 2019 Classic Tetris World Championship enters its final day. The field started at 32 on Sunday and is slowly whittling down to just a select few and there have already been some big-time casualties. Seven-time champion Jonas Neubauer was eliminated in the round of 32, while legendary Tetris pro HarryHong was eliminated a short time ago. But one of the top names is still alive. It's last year's champion, 17-year-old Joseph Saelee.

In 2018, Saelee went from a young unknown to one of the faces of competitive Tetris when he defeated seven-time champion Jonas Neubauer in the finals. He's sprouted a fanbase, some of whom even stopped to ask the young competitor for pictures prior to meeting with yours truly. Moments prior to competing in the Top 16 of the 2019 Classic Tetris World Championship, Saelee took a moment to speak to Shacknews about his performance at last year's tournament, becoming a competitive Tetris superstar, and the pressures of repeating his performance.

Shacknews: You've been a relative new face on the Tetris scene. How long have you been playing?

Joseph Saelee, 2018 Classic Tetris World Champion: I've been playing, around this time, about two years ago. In 2017, I picked up this game and I've been playing on and off ever since.

Shacknews: Everyone learned your name last year when you won the whole thing. What was your mindset when you faced off against Jonas in the finals?

Saelee: I went there just to qualify. I remember, I just wanted to give a good show for Twitch, for YouTube, just for the people watching there. I had no intentions of winning. But rather, I just wanted to give a good show for everyone to enjoy.

Shacknews: You were setting records even before last year's competition. I remember watching you hit Level 31 on one of your YouTube videos. Did you feel nervous at all after reaching the finals last year?

Saelee: No, I was actually feeling really good. I'm actually feeling more nervous now than I was last year.

Shacknews: That brings me to... you're more of a known quantity now than you were last year. We just saw people come up to you and ask for pictures! Do you feel like there's more pressure on you this year now that everybody knows what you can do?

Saelee: Uh-huh. Well, of course, I have some people rooting for me, but I know they will respect me if I cannot repeat or get as far as last year.

Shacknews: How much has your Twitch and YouTube audience grown since last year?

Saelee: It's grown so much. I used to be in the hundreds, now I'm up in the ten-thousands.

Shacknews: You maxed out more than once on Saturday. Is this game starting to feel more natural to you now?

Saelee: Yeah, I guess it's always been natural. You know, on Twitch you usually want to be able to expand your knowledge and growth. You want to be able to grow and become a better player. Here, a max out is just required. You can kind of do what you've been taught to, instead of just trying to go for world records on stream. It's a different vibe.

Shacknews: Are you surprised at the level of competition this year?

Saelee: I'm real surprised, but I'm also glad that it's been growing and that it's this big now. We got our room to ourselves now. The competition is so great. I see a lot of young competitors coming out and I feel like, hopefully, I contributed to that just a little bit.

Shacknews: How do you approach Tetris? What do you feel personally gives you an edge against the rest of the field?

Saelee: I guess just the strategy of hypertapping, as opposed to just holding left and right. I feel like that just gives me an advantage. Whatever strategies hypertappers use, I'm just using that.

Shacknews: Is Tetris something you see yourself doing for a long time? Are there any aspirations to try and break Jonas' record of seven championships?

Saelee: No, not currently. I just plan on playing, coming out hopefully every year, so that I can financially be stable and get out here. That'd be sweet.

Shacknews: Lastly, you're still in it! How are you preparing for the final rounds?

Saelee: That's a hard one. I'm just going to go with the flow, see what I can do. If I can't do it, I'll be perfectly okay, as long as I'm having a good time.

The 2019 Classic Tetris World Championship is going down right now, live on Twitch.

(Disclaimer: Shacknews is one of the sponsors of this year's Classic Tetris World Championship.)

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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