Forty years on, and the cube still fascinates and draws people, even enough to take part in championships!

On a low stage, a young man examined a Rubik’s Cube, as an audience watched him. 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 travelled to Bangkok from his native Melbourne to attend the biennial World Rubik’s Cube Championship for the first time, where he made it to the finals. 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.

Now, two years later, in Las Vegas, Zemdegs exhaled and closed his eyes. Two solves down, three to go.

The Rubik story

When, in the spring of 1974, Erno 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 Centre, 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 centre of a competitive sport in which the top performers can re–solve it in less time than it takes to read this sentence aloud.

Competitive cubing

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. Most cubers, as competitors are known, are 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.”

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.

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.

Solving the puzzle

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.

When Rubik invented his cube, he had little idea how to solve it. No matter which way he turned the puzzle, the colours seemed only to get more mixed up. Still, he refused to believe that it couldn’t be solved. 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.

The biggest factor in the speed of today’s cubers has more to do with practice than anything else. 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. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

Keywords: Rubik's cubeRubikcubing

More In: Signpost | In School