By Clementine Ford

Speed-cubing — the “sport” in which nerds solve Rubik’s cubes as fast as humanly possible — has become so elite that serious competitions are now regularly held around the world. And when I say “competitions” I don’t just mean some fatboys who meet on the internet to compare times.

2006 alone saw competitors flock to the Spanish Open, the German Open, Japan Open, Canadian Open, Idaho Open, Florida Open, the Osaka Rubik’s Cube Contest, the French National Championship, the US Open, the Swedish Open, the Italian Open, the Wroclaw Open and then the mother of them all: The World Rubik’s Cube Championship (WRCC).

Marking the 25th anniversary of the first WRCC held in 1982, WRCC 2007 revisited Budapest, Hungary — home of the cube and its erstwhile creator Ernö Rubik. The difference is that in 1982 only nineteen cubists took part, with the world record clocked at 22.95 seconds. WRCC 2007 registered competitors from more than 30 countries. The Spanish Open 2007 established a world record of 9.86 seconds set by France’s Thibaut Jacquinot.

9.86 seconds, people. That’s less time than it takes me to pick my jaw up off the floor after watching one of these feats of improbability. Ironically, it’s about the same length of time it took me to do my year twelve maths exam — but then, I did fail utterly and completely.

Of course, the phenomenon of speed-cubing would be but a flutter in a matethematician’s eye, were it not for Tyson Mao and Ron van Bruchem. In 2004, Mao and van Bruchem founded the World Cube Association, the organisation behind all the international championship events. Despite being a world record holder himself, Mao prides himself more on his role in developing the sport into a regulated competitive event than being an elite cubist.

“The Rubik’s Cube was just a toy before the World Cube Association. Now people fly all over the world for competitions. So many good ideas are already taken in this world. It’s difficult to find something unique that catches on with a large population.”

With 43 quintillion (that’s 43 with 18 zeroes) possibilities of cube arrangements, the idea of solving what has become ubiquitously considered impossible, even by those who have contradictory proof, is rather astounding. And not only is Mao’s fastest time in official competition registered as 12.89 seconds, this veritable Tony Manero of the cubing world works best without lights. That’s right, Mao does this shit blindfolded.

“My fastest time solving the cube blindfolded in an official competition is one minute, 29 seconds. That includes the time it takes to memorise the cube, and then solve it without looking at it again.”

Competitors are allowed 60 seconds to look at the cube, identify and then memorise the complicated algorithm (sequence of moves) required to solve it, and then away they go.

It wasn’t always so easy for Mao though. “The first time I picked up a cube, I was far from solving it at lightening speed. My father came home one day in 1988 with a Rubik’s Cube. I was four years-old, and liked how it looked. I would make two turns, and then reverse them because I didn’t want to destroy the solid colours on each face. My father decided this wasn’t enough. He took the cube, scrambled it, and that was the end of my interest in the Rubik’s Cube for about eight years.

“On and off, when I was in middle school, the thought of the Rubik’s Cube would cross my mind, but I never really got around to figuring out how to solve it. It wasn’t until 2003, when I was nineteen-years-old, and my younger brother, fourteen at that time, showed me how to solve the cube.

“I see my progress with the Cube as an evolving beauty, just as Rachmaninoff weaves interlacing themes to create a conversation between the cellist and the pianist [in the fourth movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata]. In my life, the conversation is between me and my aspirations.”

But there’s one thing that every nerd is wondering: what are the chances of romance emerging between two competitors? Does love spring eternal in the belly of the cubing community? Could cubing be the one mating game where speed really IS everything?
“Sadly, there are very few female speed-cubers in the top ranks”, Mao says. “It’s simply a social phenomenon that I believe will gradually balance itself. I must say, however, that I would probably prefer to be in a relationship with someone who didn’t speed-cube. I don’t need to date myself.”

Well, quite.

Personally, if I was some insanely amazing speed-cube-solving evil genius, I’d be using my powers to hustle bar-room bullies and trick my way out of paying video fines. Mao disagrees.

“I’ve considered it, and I’ve decided not to. I don’t want to abuse my ability to solve the Rubik’s Cube. Furthermore, I feel there is a lot more to me than my ability to solve the Rubik’s Cube. The Rubik’s Cube is something I do, and I’m moderately good at it, but at the same time, I enjoy many other things in this world, and I don’t want to misrepresent myself.”

I’d say that being able to solve the cube in less than thirteen seconds moves you slightly further towards the “recognised bad boy of cubing” category, but that’s just me.

What about other ladies though? Because I would totally go out with someone who was even moderately good at the solve. Mind you, my last boyfriend just got arrested for stealing kitchen knives so my standards are pretty low.

“I have a very strict rule with myself not to use the Rubik’s Cube as a tool to pick up girls. The Cube is simply an aspect about me which she can discover if she so chooses, and she can be a part of is she chooses, but by no means would I force that part of my life onto anyone else.”

Mao is clearly more principled than myself, which is probably why he’s been blessed with extremely dextrous fingers and an enormous brain. With absolute power and all that jive. Live by the cube, die by the cube.

Which leads me to wonder — are people like Mao the cube’s master or its slave? After all, cubers dedicate (at least part of) their lives to the pursuit of shaving time off their personal bests. But given that the cube exists as a physical object requiring physical manipulation to solve, there is only so far one can go. What does a cuber do when he has literally gone where no man has gone before?

“The cube and I have an understanding for each other. We are in a state of mutual respect. I take care of the cube and the cube treats me well. We get along. Last week we had an argument over what colour the drapes should be, but I realised that sometimes I need to consider its feelings over mine.”

I think we can all take away a little something from that.

As for solving the cube, it’s still got me stumped. Obviously it can be done, and even learnt. The most popular method was pioneered by Jessica Fridrich, currently a research professor at the State University of New York. Considered one of the pioneers of speed-cubing, Fridrich placed tenth in the first WRCC in 1982. Nearly all of the fastest recognised speed-cubers in the world have based their methods on the Fridrich CFOP algorithm (cross, first two layers, orient layers, permute last layer). Her method involves solving the cube in a layer-by-layer fashion, starting with a cross on the bottom face. From this, a particular sequence must be followed to realign the cube to its solved position.

But herein lies the difficulty. See, it’s not enough to just solve a face and then go on to complete the bottom two layers. The colours have to be aligned in such a way that makes orienting and permuting the layers at the end possible without messing up the whole thing. It’s this added knowledge that makes speed-cubing so amazing to watch. To be able to study a cube without making any moves on it, identifying all of these different variables, is pretty astounding.

Like I said, it IS possible to learn the method. After all, Daniel Hop has just become the youngest recorded person to solve a 5x5x5 cube. After practising with the method for a week, his first solve took him 35 minutes. He’s five.

This article can be found snugly tucked away in issue 2.1.