Seeing the World in Cubes This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

August 4, 2016
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My hands slide over the smooth plastic surface. A steady stream of clicking resonates in my ears. Welcome to the world of competitive Rubik’s cube solving. You may chuckle when you hear it, but to some, it’s a blood sport.

Suddenly my movement stops, and the cube falls to the table. Hands jolting to the timer, I clock in under two minutes. It’s just not fast enough. Fifteen-year-old Jay Ni agrees. He currently holds the eleventh place world record in 3X3 blindfolded solving, and is a close personal friend of mine.

“The highest I ever got was ninth on the chart. As of today, I got pushed down to eleventh with a time of 26.71 seconds,” says Ni, resigned.

As I begin to scramble my cube again, I can only dream of making the international leaderboards. Yet, where does one start in such a small activity, learn the ropes?

“I actually don’t remember,” Ni says, trying to think back. “I started cubing around the summer of 2012, however I wasn’t really cubing. I looked up one video. I hated the video and tossed my cube, but I did solve it before I put it away. It wasn’t until a year later when I really tried to get faster that I became a cuber.”

I fidget with my cube as he speaks, loosening edges, applying an algorithm here and a shortcut there. These concepts are greatly misunderstood, because of their function and use. Ni and I meet with odd questions from beginners every day, such as, “Do you just memorize the colors?” It’s much more mathematical than that.
“An algorithm is a combination of written moves to move multiple pieces at once. There are thousands of algorithms out there, all for a specific purpose,” says Ni.

A clean solve, as any cuber will tell you, relies on algorithms. With 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possibilities, these equations represented by letters are the only possible way to return your Rubik’s cube to its original state. No one solves the cube by luck. The lottery proves easy in comparison.

Some people maintain the concept of a simple pattern, but that’s just not realistic. Even its roots are complex and mathematical. Created by Erno Rubik in 1974 as an architectural teaching tool, Rubik wasn’t even aware he had made a puzzle until he was unable to return his creation to its original state.

I lace my cube with specially made speed lubricant, and move it in a set pattern (R,R,U,U,R,U,R’,U’,R’,U’,R,U,R’). Each letter and symbol means something vital to a final solve, involving a direction and number of turns. While I finish up, Ni talks through a competition day, and how fierce it can really get.

“On cubing day, you walk to the place where you will register, you give them your ticket, and they let you continue. You walk into a packed room of people who are just like you, with the same interest and hobby. You receive time slots for your competitions. My first time, I only signed up for 3x3. I solved an average of five cubes and my score was based on my times. After competing, there are tons of workshops and other stuff to do. Often you make friends and stick with each other. Cubing can get very competitive, but it’s all in fun. Believe it or not, people almost always respect each other in the world of cubing. However, when competitions start, it gets pretty heated.”

A small kid walks by us, seeing the movement of our hands, and his jaw drops. Obviously I don’t cube for the attention, but it’s still nice. Almost all beginners or outsiders to the world of cubing react in this way.
“When you pull your cube out of your bag, the first person who walks by it asks if you can solve it, and to show them. When you solve it quickly they respond with praise. People look at the cube as impossible. Cubers see it as a joy and a passion.”

Obsession might better describe cubers in a platform that has come to include foot solving, blindfolded solving, one handed solving, solving marathons, and a variety of cube types. Devotees like myself and Ni are all too happy to share our pastime with people.

“If I have time, I tell people to grab my cube, and I’ll teach them how to solve. I’ll tell them the basics of sides and algorithms, and in at least one hour, anyone can solve it.”

Ni pulls a case from under the table, and adds a few exotic cubes to the pile I started. Despite the name, it’s a little known fact that Rubik’s cubes are the least preferred brand in the competitive cubing world. Most people aiming for speed purchase Asian brands such as ShengShou, or Dayan, which improved upon the original design, adding plastic “torpedo” features for easier torque and cornering. Lives are devoted to tweaking these small cubes, and happily so. Yet, the cube can only take you so far, and the training is far more important.

“I think cubing has gone to a point, or will get to a point, where the fastest time will be the fastest a person’s fingers can possibly move. I believe that there will be a point where there are no world records because people would achieve that time,” Ni says.

He lays out his cubes in a line, each one increasing in size. He lists times for each, for a standard two-handed solve.

“Two by two, 4.05 seconds. Three by three, 12.75 seconds…” he continues, all the way up to a seven by seven cube. His absolute highest time is a mere four minutes and 16.56 seconds. Each time is only made official after meeting a barrage of standard procedures and rules. A scramble, solve, recording, inspection time, and method must all be up to the World Cubing Association’s codes in order to count for the record books.

With hundreds of methods in existence, creativity also factors in greatly toward a stellar time. Mathematics professors, architects, and obsessed fans spend endless hours searching for new solve methods in order to shave off mere seconds. They share these configurations with the cubing community for the most part, and Ni, with the rare exception here and there, knows them all.  I note the pride in his voice, but it doesn’t come across as bragging.

This dedicated subculture is slowly making its way into the mainstream. A United States national cubing team has been established, with cubing conventions springing up in droves around the world while leaderboards grow in size. “Nerd” morphs into an endearing term.  Watch one or two videos online, and you can see every possible nationality, age group, and sexuality toying with the same six colors together.

“Cubing has become more cool over the many years. When you pull out a cube and solve it, people will be amazed,” Ni says. 

I nod in agreement. While solving the cube may not exactly win you a girlfriend, it usually elicits a gasp or two. Reasonably so, considering the fact only 35,000 people have the ability to solve it, according to the World Cubing Association.

“The craziest thing I’ve ever seen at a cubing convention is cubing mosaics. People use hundreds of cubes, and line them up with a specific color and pattern on top to create a giant picture. I did thirty cubes for a mosaic at the US open competition, then I got bored,” Ni says, a smile playing upon his lips at the memory. It’s this kind of unity he speaks of that keeps me coming back for more puzzles.

As the interview wraps up, we begin to banter like usual. A girl walks by and spots our mountain of cubes.

“Is that a Rubik’s cube?”

We affirm in unison.

“Can you solve it?”

Ni turns around, hopeful.

“Sit down.”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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