Tetris, the puzzle of real life

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While he wrestled with the financial difficulties of his San Francisco-based software company, Vladimir Pokhilko watched from the sidelines as business partners and friends readied the relaunch of Tetris, the world’s most popular video game. Apparently pushed to the edge, Pokhilko — president of AnimaTek, a San Francisco-based software design company — brutally murdered his 39-year-old wife, Elena Fedotova, and their 12-year-old son, Peter Pokhilko, before killing himself, police said. A business associate said that Pokhilko had been wrestling with company problems brought on, in part, by the current upheaval in Russia. Adding to those pressures, said Henk Rogers, who helped found Anima

Tek in 1988, was a push to get more financing to create software that would yield “Hollywood-type” computer effects. “We were in the middle of raising money,” said Rogers. “It was nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing that we couldn’t see past the end of.” But sometime Monday night, in the family’s home on the 400 block of Ferne Avenue, police believe Pokhilko killed his family and then himself. Pokhilko hit Fedotova, a popular yoga instructor, and Peter, a seventh-grader, with a hammer, and repeatedly stabbed them with a hunting knife, apparently as they lay sleeping. Then, he stabbed himself once in the throat with the knife, police said. “It’s unfathomable that someone would do this to themselves and a child,” said Palo Alto police spokeswoman Tami Gage.

A close family friend called the police at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, after he arrived at the family home, having failed in repeated attempts to reach the family by phone. The pyjama-clad bodies of Fedotova and Peter were found in their beds by police. There was no sign of a struggle, indicating they may have been sleeping when they were attacked. Pokhilko’s body was found in Peter’s room, with the hunting knife in his hand, police said. Along with the knife, police recovered the hammer believed to have been used in the attacks, and they found a note. Investigators would not release its contents.

“It is not a suicide note,” Gage said. “We don’t even know who wrote the note or how significant it might be.”

Wednesday, the community still was reeling from the horrific incident.

Flags at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School, where Peter was a student, flew at half-staff. And during the day, about 40 of his classmates placed a makeshift memorial on a poster board in front of the family house. The poster board carried messages such as “In loving memory of Peter” and was covered with signatures of classmates and teachers.

Meanwhile, more was learned about Pokhilko, 43, whose firm, AnimaTek, emerged from a partnership formed in Moscow more than a decade ago with Rogers and Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov, who invented the video game Tetris in 1985.

Pajitnov based Tetris, which entails lining up stacks of blocks as they drop to the bottom of a computer screen, on an ancient Roman puzzle called Pentomino. Pokhilko, a Russian clinical psychologist and a longtime friend of Pajitnov’s, had been experimenting with using puzzles as psychological tests when Pajitnov first showed him his invention, said Rogers.

Pokhilko immediately saw the mass appeal of the puzzle and convinced him it would make a great computer game. The two began collaborating to publish Tetris, but their plans were derailed by Soviet authorities, who in 1986 demanded that Pajitnov sign over all rights to the game. Later, Pokhilko and Pajitnov teamed to create digital diversions, including El-Fish, a virtual aquarium.

In a 1996 interview, Pajitnov said he had acquiesced to the Soviet demand to sign over the rights of Tetris because he feared reprisals. “I would have been in prison for sure had I gone directly to Nintendo,” Pajitnov said. “I would have had to be a dissident and possibly