Thinking outside of the box (and inside of the cube)

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7.96 seconds is the amount of time it might take you to tie your shoes or put on your pants — but to Rowe Hessler, that’s the amount of time it took to solve a Rubik’s Cube in Sudler Hall last Saturday.

Hessler is the winner of the three-by-three Rubik’s Cube Speedsolve at Yale’s Fall Open Rubik’s Cube Competition. Anthony Hsu ’12, Dennis Mou ’13 and Kevin Zhou ’15, the primary members of our campus’s relatively new Bulldog Cube Club, organized the tournament — the first ever at Yale.

As late as 3 p.m. (the competition started at 9 a.m.), Sudler was still buzzing with excitement. Chatter bounced off the walls as competitors shared tricks, caught up with friends and family who had come to observe, and practiced, hoping to shave mere milliseconds off of their times — milliseconds that could win them the tournament. The huge lecture hall was a mess, scattered with empty pizza boxes (the event’s $10 entrance fee for non-Yalies went almost exclusively to food) and piles and plastic boxes of Rubik’s cubes.

On closer inspection, these weren’t just stacks of normal three-by-three gridded games — everyone seemed to have at least one eight-by-eight cube (intimidating), pyramid (weird), dodecahedron (what?), or maybe even a cylinder (wait … what happened to the dodecahedron?). Cubing is some serious business.

Rubik’s Cubin’ — Like a sport, but for Caltech nerds

And serious business it is. Competitive speed cubing is regulated by the World Cube Association (WCA), which offers registration to large cubing tournaments like Yale’s.

Cubing club President Hsu explained the fascinating history of cubing competitions both in the U.S. and around the world. The cube was invented in Hungary in the 1970s but wasn’t mass-produced until the early ’80s. With the cube a massive craze, Hungary held the first world championship in ’82. But once this ended, cubers were scattered to the ends of the earth, left to fiddle with their games in the privacy of their own homes. With no way to contact each other, they set aside their timers and began treating the cube like any other puzzle.

But then the Internet happened. One curious Caltech bro got on the web and met fellow cubers from the Netherlands and Japan. Fast forward to the WCA and nationally advertised cubing competitions at Caltech. Soon students at Stanford, Berkeley and MIT joined in, creating two hubs of cubing in America — the Bay Area and New England.

I peel off the stickers (or, what are algorithms?)

So how do people go from abandoning their first cube after a day of frustration to rocking competitions on both coasts?

“Before I figured out how to solve the Rubik’s Cube properly, I would just pop the pieces out and put them back together in a solved configuration,” Hsu reminisced. “I had never even given any thought to the fact that it could be solved in a regulated way.”

Hsu went on to describe how he learned that some people solved their cubes by just playing with them, turning the dials in random directions until they happened upon the magical combination. After trying and failing at this, he figured there had to be some other way and went on Google, discovering his first algorithm that day.

“At the time, I was in eighth grade and had a five-minute homeroom period,” Hsu described. “My goal was to solve the cube during that class every day until I got even faster. After middle school, my personal record was one minute and three seconds. I was sitting in the back of the bus and the whole baseball team was timing me. Everyone was so excited.”

Kevin Hernandez, a 16-year-old from Eastchester, NY, found out about Yale’s tournament through the WCA website. Hernandez had just gotten into cubing relatively recently based on a friend’s ardent recommendation. After teaching himself beginner’s methods, he naturally fell into speed solving.

Hernandez described to me the appeal of being this intense about something most people consider just a casual game.

“Well, it’s just fun. It’s something to entertain you when you’re bored, and it keeps your mind working,” Hernandez explained. “And people are always so surprised by it — they have this unbeatable ‘wow’ reaction.”

Hernandez added that cubing skills have had a positive impact on other areas of his life, improving hand-eye coordination (since competitive cubers go so fast, they don’t even look down) and his ability to memorize things in school.

But cubing is not only exciting; it’s also addictive. Rick Donati, an 11-year-old from Williamstown, MA, said that his dedication to cubing has only built on itself as he’s gotten more involved, remarking that after his first competition he got “way into it” and was immediately beyond simply timing himself at home.

The Culture of the Cube

A relatively new invention, speed cubing and the Internet have grown hand-in-hand. SpeedSolving.com, an online resource for both aspiring and advanced cubers, allows competitors from around the world to connect and share techniques and advice in a forum setting. According to Hsu, the forum’s scope ranges from the mathematical (what algorithm should I use?) to the consumer (what lube should I put on my cube?).

“I don’t like oil-based lube, but silicon is great,” Hsu said.

Chang Kim, whose 11-year-old son participated in the competition, agreed that the Internet has been vital in the development of the cubing community.

“They all go online and contact each other,” Kim said. “It’s a great networking group and has been a really good experience for my son.”

Kim added that he thought one of the distinguishing factors of the cubing community was the atmosphere of kindness and openness, and that competitors even teach their opponents techniques between events.

Hsu agreed, saying that the atmosphere is different from other competitive events he’s attended.

“Even the top two people will be chatting between rounds, showing each other an algorithm and cheering when people break records,” Hsu said.

Whether as a competitive sport or a fun pastime, cubing can become a great, low-maintenance activity; all you need is a cube and some lube.

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