Playing a game well is sometimes a matter of timing. When Soviet computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov dreamed up a computer game called Tetris in 1985, he had no idea that his country would soon open itself to commercial investment by the West. And he certainly didn't envision the day when his game an engagingly simple one that calls for players to stack shifting sets of squares in complete rows would sell 7.5 million copies in the U.S. (It's standard equipment for the Nintendo Game Boy hand-held unit.) ''Tetris,'' sums up Pajitnov in broken English, ''was lucky game.'' And the Russian's luck is about to get better: This spring he'll introduce his newest game for Nintendo fanatics, Hatris, in which players stack various types of headgear.
Gaming has changed Pajitnov's life. At the time he invented the game, he worked as a programmer for the Computer Center of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Now, at 35, he's a free-lance game designer with a bewildering array of business arrangements, working for the Computer Center, a Soviet-American joint venture, and a couple of American software companies. ''I'm like gypsy,'' he says. But Pajitnov isn't raking in the rubles. He signed over the Tetris royalties to the Computer Center, while retaining the rights to his subsequent games. ''I cannot say I am a rich man,'' he declares, ''but I'm okay.''
Pajitnov's two other games on the American market, Welltris and Faces, have sold well and received critical acclaim but haven't had the same impact as Tetris. Welltris involves stacking geometric shapes in simulated 3-D. Faces requires players to build complete visages out of chins, lips, noses, eyes, and pates that float downward.
Back in the USSR, Pajitnov's games aren't terribly well known. ''Computer is extremely rare,'' he says. ''It costs 40,000 rubles, which is 15 years of my official salary.'' Very few individuals have computers, but organizations with the technology are centers of intense game playing. When Pajitnov invented Tetris, his own computer center's work suffered because ''all my colleagues stopped and just played the game, even the people who hate games.'' Perhaps that was because in Tetris players must bring order out of a mild form of chaos. Because Pajitnov himself isn't very good at playing games and can ''see from the point of view of the usual player,'' he says he can create game puzzles that are easy to figure out.
But Pajitnov doesn't live on puzzles alone. Leading a team of 15 computer scientists, he has been developing a computer aquarium for the past year. The program, called Elfish, requires very expensive equipment to run, so it isn't close to being ready for sale. In fact, Elfish might never be as marketable as the technology created to run it.
But then, Pajitnov never saw the profitability of Tetris when he developed it. ''If I knew it would make big money,'' he says, ''I wouldn't have given all the rights.''