Beyond the Rubik's Cube: inside the competitive world of speedcubing.
Forty years after the Rubik's Cube was invented, competitors from around the globe still gather to solve the puzzle.
On a low stage, a young man examined a Rubik's Cube. Around him, an audience stood, precariously, on tables and chairs, or peered down from skyboxes. In one fluid motion, he activated a timer on the table before him and his fingers disappeared in a blur of activity. When he set the puzzle down and stopped the timer, just seconds later, the audience erupted, nearly drowning out the announcer: "Feliks with a 7.95!"
Feliks Zemdegs had been here before. In 2011, when he was 15 years old, he traveled to Bangkok from his native Melbourne to attend the biennial World Rubik's Cube Championship for the first time. The year before, he had become the first person to solve the puzzle in fewer than 10 seconds on average. As a result, he was something of a celebrity, at least in a certain world. On the online forums where competitive Rubik's Cube solvers congregated, he had been compared to Usain Bolt. In Bangkok, at the Championship, he was asked for autographs and pictures. And, at first, he seemed ready to justify his fame. In the early heats, he blew past the field. But, in the finals, his nerves betrayed him.
Now, two years later, in Las Vegas, Zemdegs exhaled and closed his eyes. Two solves down, three to go.
When, in the spring of 1974, Ernő Rubik, a Hungarian professor of design, invented his eponymous cube, he had no idea that it would become one of the world's best-selling toys. Nor did he envision that it would impact fields as diverse as science, art, and design – the subject of "Beyond Rubik's Cube", an exhibit at the Liberty Science Center, in Jersey City, New Jersey, that opened 26 April to celebrate the puzzle's 40th anniversary. And he certainly couldn't have imagined that, one day, his puzzle would be at the center of a competitive sport in which the top performers can re-solve it in less time than it takes to read this sentence aloud.
The first Rubik's Cube competitions began in the early 1980s and were largely a promotional affair that vanished with the collapse of the initial fad for the puzzle. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Internet allowed hobbyists around the world to find each other and run competitions of their own. More than 1,700 competitions have taken place in 66 countries since the 2004 founding of the World Cube Association, a governing body modeled after FIFA, the arbiter of international soccer. (Unlike, soccer, however, there is no qualification for any of these tourneys, including the World Championship: anyone can sign up.)
Most cubers, as competitors are known, are, as you might expect, young, male, and have an aptitude for math and science. And yet, as Mats Valk, the Dutch teenager who currently holds the world record for a single solve – 5.55 seconds – insisted at the most recent World Championship last summer, "If you look at the top, there are actually, like, no nerds at all. Like, me, Feliks, Cornelius – we are not nerds."
And it's true that Valk, Zemdegs and Cornelius Dieckmann, an 18-year-old from Berlin, all appear to be well-adjusted teens. Valk, who is tall and lanky with sandy blond hair, has an easy smile and outgoing demeanor. Zemdegs, whose dark hair and angular features recall the tennis player Novak Djokovic, recently entered Melbourne University, one of the most prestigious schools in Australia, where he is pursuing degrees in engineering and business. Dieckmann, who plays classic rock and blues guitar, has a passion for British and American fiction, and would probably fit right in at a party in Brooklyn.
But hand one of them a Rubik's Cube and you will see a seemingly normal person transform into a being capable of prodigious feats. Jeannine Michaelsen, a German TV presenter, came to the 2013 World Championship to film a segment for SportXtreme, a newsmagazine produced by ZDF, one of the country's most popular channels. "We all think, 'Oh, this looks amazing,'" she said of the sports she typically covers, like Base jumping and big wave surfing. "But, of course, we know they can do it. But this? If you see this in person, it's, like, 'How the fuck do you do that?'"
The World Cube Association, the governing body of speedsolving, speedcubing or cubing, as it is variously known, requires competitors to attempt five solves, the best and worst of which are eliminated, and the other three times are averaged to make sure that nothing is decided by chance. Before each solve, puzzles are scrambled according to a computer program, to ensure that all competitors begin from the same positions. Zemdegs had likely never seen the particular scramble he had just undone: any single Rubik's Cube can be arranged in more than 43 quintillion different ways.
In real time, what a cuber like Zemdegs or Valk is doing is almost impossible to make out. At times, it looks like the pieces fall into place as they shake the puzzle vigorously. The blur is due in part to advances in puzzle technology; hardly anyone actually uses a Rubik's Cube in competition anymore. Most cubers employ models designed in China in which the interior mechanism that Rubik originally designed has been revamped to minimize friction. (Occasionally, faster puzzles pose problems. An overzealous turn can cause them to misalign or, in extreme cases, explode.)
When Rubik invented his cube, he had little idea how to solve it. No matter which way he turned the puzzle, the colors seemed only to get more mixed up. Still, he refused to believe that it couldn't be solved. "It was a code I myself had invented!" he wrote in an unpublished manuscript, quoted in a 1986 Discover profile. "Yet I could not read it."
Eventually, Rubik began to develop sequences of moves that would allow him to rearrange a few pieces of the puzzle at a time. First, he aligned the corners. Then, he attacked the edges. After about a month, he could resolve the puzzle at will.
Rubik's solution – known, for obvious reasons, as the "corners-first" method – is only one of several ways to solve the cube. You can assemble it layer by layer, like a baker putting together a cake. Or you can build blocks of matching pieces and then connect them, as if you were playing with Legos. The most popular method among cubers is an advanced layer by layer method called the Fridrich Method, after Jessica Fridrich, a professor of engineering at Binghamton University and the 1982 Czech National Champion, who helped to develop it. It's known alternatively as CFOP, an acronym for the steps involved: cross, first two layers, orientation of the last layer and permutation of the last layer.
"It's the same house, perhaps," Fridrich told me last year, "but with completely different furniture." She devised all of her algorithms – sequences of moves with a discrete effect on the puzzle – by hand. Today, cubers can generate dozens of alternatives using computers. Fridrich laments that so many cubers now use the same method – "It's all been optimized to death," she quipped – but is astounded by the speed of her heirs. "I always thought that the limits of speedcubing were, like, at 13 seconds," she said. "And what's happening today is just nothing short of a miracle."
A Rubik's Cube solved using the CFOP method
The biggest factor in the speed of today's cubers has more to do with practice than anything else. Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, could famously predict where the puck would travel before it arrived – a skill he attributed not to innate talent, but simply to his father's coaching. The same principle applies in cubing. Having solved the puzzle so many times, elite cubers like Valk, Zemdegs, and Dieckmann are able to visualize what it will look like several steps in advance – an ability known in the sport as "look ahead"– so that, once the solve begins, they rarely have to pause to figure out their next move. "Look ahead is the biggest part," Dieckmann says. "It's even more important than turning fast."
Looking ahead requires enormous concentration, and can be easily derailed by anxiety. So cubers have come up with various ways to calm their nerves. Some don the sort of industrial-grade earmuffs worn by airport personnel. Andy Smith, a teenager from New Jersey, carries a handkerchief – on which his mother embroidered a Rubik's Cube – to wipe the sweat from his hands before he begins solving.
When it works, though, look ahead has an uncanny effect, allowing cubers to link moves so seamlessly that their reflexes seem superhuman. On average, CFOP requires 56 twists to solve the Rubik's Cube. During the fifteen seconds in which competitors are allowed to inspect the puzzle, most are able to plan out a handful of moves. The best never stop looking ahead, and can sustain speeds of nearly ten turns per second. Look ahead demands such concentration that, some cubers say, it alters their perception of time. "In an ideal solve," says Stefan Huber, the top-ranked cuber in Austria, "you don't have the feeling that you were turning fast. You were just turning at a comfortable pace, and, in the end, sometimes I have the experience, when I watch the video, I have the feeling, 'Oh, it really looked fast.' But I didn't have the feeling that it was that fast." Hardly any of this is conscious. "I don't know how to explain it," Zemdegs says, "but you don't, you don't really think. You just do it."
"Oh that's shit, that's shit," said one cuber of Zemdegs' last solve – 9.12 seconds, his slowest of the finals at the championship in Las Vegas. But it didn't matter. Zemdegs had won the title, with an average of 8.18 seconds.
Zemdegs was immediately surrounded by a scrum, while Valk, who came in second, stood off to the side. Although, in some ways, victory was beside the point – for many of the nearly 600 cubers in attendance, a record, the World Championship was more about hanging out with other cubers, some of whom they had never met offline. But Valk was nevertheless disappointed. On his final solve, he had been penalized two seconds because his puzzle had been misaligned by slightly more than the allowable limit.
Still, before Zemdegs accepted his prizes – $3,000 for winning, and hundreds more for the other contests in which he had placed, including solving the puzzle one-handed – Valk seemed to cheer up. In the makeshift green room, moments before taking the stage, he had given encouragement to a pale and nervous Zemdegs.
"We can do this," he said. "No, you can do this. Seriously, you deserve to win."
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