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From The Wall St. Journal
Playing BrickBreaker Is Executives' Guilty Pleasure
When Richard Fuld, chief executive of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., couldn't control his addiction, he took drastic measures. In October, he had the game BrickBreaker taken off his BlackBerry.
"I was playing so much," says Mr. Fuld, who had used it to relax on the plane or in the car. He missed it so much he had it reinstalled, but it's no longer on the main menu. That removes the temptation, he says, "for the most part."
In this era of startlingly realistic video games, BrickBreaker is straight out of the Stone Age. Yet it has developed a cult following, not among the young Gameboy set, but with executives chained to their email. Players swap strategies in chat rooms, brag about their prowess and pay homage to BrickBreaker superstars -- a few with top scores of over one million.
BrickBreaker's premise: Move a paddle left and right with your thumb to bounce a ball so it demolishes "bricks" atop the screen. Most bricks earn 10 points. Clear a screen of bricks, and move on to the next level. Drop the ball too many times, and the game is over. Occasionally, "pills" appear containing bonuses such as a gun or laser, or an extra "life." There's also the deeply hated "flip pill."
Richard Handler, a former bond trader and now CEO of brokerage company Jefferies Group Inc., says he is constantly trying to beat his high score. He plays in elevators and on the way to meetings, or even in meetings.
"If I am on speakerphone on a boring call, yes, I have been known to play," he says. That can be risky. In December, Robert Davidman, who runs New York marketing company EarthQuake Media, recalls sitting around a table with several clients during a conference-call meeting, when one began repeatedly hitting the space bar on his BlackBerry -- a tip-off to Mr. Davidman that he was shooting bricks.
Soon, others started their own games and were paying little attention to the call. Suddenly, a question came over the phone, spoiling the mood. "Can you repeat that?" one of the men asked, adding, "The phone seems to have cut out."
Messrs. Fuld and Handler have high scores of 16,000 and 15,135, respectively. But they are rank amateurs compared to lawyer Gabriel Berger, who has a high score of 476,000. He's in the top ranks of BrickBreaker players. (Players with the latest BlackBerries can register high scores on a Web site sponsored by BlackBerry maker Research in Motion.) In general, a novice has no trouble scoring three or four thousand points. But as the levels get higher, things get tougher.
Mr. Berger took three lawyers to a Yankees game last fall, hoping to drum up business for his company. But the bonding didn't really begin until one of the men pulled out his BlackBerry.
Mr. Berger saw his opening: "What's your high score?" he asked. The lawyer brightened, instantly recognizing a fellow user. Now, Mr. Berger regularly asks the question as an icebreaker. "Everyone has played the game if they've got a BlackBerry," he says.
One thing that makes the game so addictive is that players can pause the action at any time, then resume it later. Skilled players can stretch out a game for days, weeks or months as they rack up points. Last year, Jed Wider, an attorney at Morgan Lewis & Bockius in New York, got a phone call from a hedge-fund friend in Nepal who had just finished scaling Mount Everest. "The first thing he said was, 'Level 24 calling from Everest Base Camp. Beat that!'" Mr. Wider recalls.
"I knew exactly what he was talking about," namely, BrickBreaker. The highest level in the game that Mr. Wider has reached is 22.
The current registered record-holder is Daniel Allen, a 34-year-old economist in Santa Monica, Calif., who has racked up 1,392,260 points. He started playing two years ago on a business trip -- and once he got on a hot streak, he just had to keep going. Mr. Allen estimates that he played a total of 90 hours, over the course of a year, on his record-setting run. He now fields daily emails from bankers, lawyers and financial executives asking for playing advice.
"I gave pointers to a Webmaster at an online-porn company, and he emailed a free password to the site" as a way of saying thanks. Mr. Allen says he declined the offer.
Mr. Allen's best advice: To stay sharp, don't play for more than 10 minutes at a time. And make sure to catch every falling pill, since they earn more points.
Brickmania has come as a surprise to RIM, the maker of BlackBerries. David Castell, vice president of product marketing, says it developed the game in-house in early 2002 for use in prototype BlackBerries. Then, in 2003 when RIM released its first color BlackBerry, the company decided it should include a game to showcase the new color screen.
Mr. Castell says BrickBreaker was chosen simply because it was the only game far enough along in development. "It was not like we gave a lot of thought to it," he says. "The game was just thrown in there." He says he rarely plays it. These days, other games, including Texas Hold'em King 2, can be downloaded to BlackBerries from magmic.com.
Top players report a frustrating tendency for the game to crash when they start flirting with astronomical scores. Jonathan Lane, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, swore off BrickBreaker after reaching 1,310,510, he says -- only to have the game suddenly freeze.
That freeze prevented him from registering his score online for public admiration. "I was crushed about that," he says.
Luckily, he took a photo of his game at 1,000,000. And he can produce witnesses, he says.
Some BlackBerry users resist the temptation. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, widely known in Wall Street circles as a BlackBerry addict (and also known as Wall Street's highest-paid CEO, earning $53 million last year) says he has played BrickBreaker just a few times.
He declined to reveal the high score currently displayed on his device. "It's less than 4,000," he says.