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In speedcubing, competitors square off over Rubik’s Cubes

The year was 1980. Arcades were filled with youngsters hoping to play a round or two of Pac-Man or Space Invaders. NFL star Joe Montana was receiving praise from all around the world as the best to ever play the game. Music stars like Queen and Michael Jackson captivated everyone who heard them.

As great as these were, one invention stood out as an iconic symbol of the ’80s. The Rubik’s Cube, internationally launched in 1980 by Ideal Toy Co., became the best-selling toy in the world.

Surprisingly, the cube wasn’t meant to be a toy at all. In 1974, Hungarian architect Ernö Rubik was trying to build a working model that could help explain three-dimensional geometry. After putting some stickers on it and turning it, Rubik realized he could not return it to its solved state. Hence, the Rubik’s Cube was born.

The goal was simple: turn the six sides in any order to scramble them up. Once scrambled, use those same six sides to rearrange the colors, putting them back in a solved state. Easy, right? Almost. There’s one catch: the cube has over 43 quintillion (43 followed by eighteen zeroes) combinations.

To most people, it’s a miracle that anybody can solve it at all. However, mathematicians, teachers and others have found that through the use of algorithms (certain sequences of moves that, when applied to the cube, change it in a specific way) the cube can be solved no matter what scrambled state it starts in.

In the ’80s, once it was noticed that people could solve the cube, it became a matter of who could solve it faster. Shorter algorithms and more efficient moves would allow the cube to be solved more quickly, but by how much?

These ideas led to the sport known as "speedcubing." To determine who the fastest "speedcubers" are, competitions are held at various venues (schools, community centers, etc.) around the world.

The first competition was held in 1982. Known as the World Rubik’s Cube Championship, this competition consisted of the top 19 speedcubers from around the world. It was held in Budapest, Hungary, where Rubik was born. Being the first of its kind, it was televised for all to see.

The winner that year was American speedcuber Minh Thai, who clocked in at a world record time of 22.95 seconds.

Back then, each competitor was given three attempts to solve their cube as quickly as possible. The fastest time of each person was then compared to determine the winner.

Today’s competitions are run a little differently. The World Cube Association manages and runs Rubik’s Cube competitions all over the world.

The goal of the WCA is to have more fun competitions under fair and equal conditions.

Tim Reynolds, a delegate of the WCA who has been cubing since 2003, helps plan and organize WCA competitions in the northeast U.S.

"During WCA competitions, it is my job to ensure that the regulations are followed correctly, and that the competition is fair for all competitors," he said.

In addition, there are other speedcubing-related organizations that help run and sponsor competitions. Reynolds is an important part of one of them, called CubingUSA, a nonprofit organization that organizes the U.S. National Championship every summer.

"I work on many parts of the competition, including finding a venue, scheduling, building our staff, and day-of logistics," Reynolds said.

As a WCA delegate, Reynolds has helped run countless competitions. He explained that most competitions are run by breaking the work up into separate jobs and using the help of some cubers and non-cubers.

Judges and runners can be anyone, cuber or not, but a scrambler has to know how to apply a specific sequence of turns (the "scramble") to the cube.

"Judging involves watching the competitor’s solve and making sure everything follows the regulations, then writing down the time at the end. Running involves transporting cubes between the scramblers and the judges," Reynolds said.

However, the annual U.S. National Competition is a little more demanding and difficult to piece together, Reynolds said.

For example, a good venue might be difficult to find because it has to be large enough to support hundreds of competitors and their family members, all while staying within budget and considering other factors such as lighting.

"Once we have the venue, we work on the details such as how many people we’ll be able to accommodate, how many staff members we need, and what the schedule will be," Reynolds said. "We also need to coordinate equipment, staff, hotel arrangements, awards, arrangements with the venue, signage, sponsors, vendors, printing scorecards, and numerous other things before the competition starts."

Many events are run on separate stages throughout the room(s), and staff members are always available to keep everything moving smoothly.

One reason why these competitions have become so involved is because the speedcubing community has grown exponentially over the past decade. Reynolds has been part of it throughout all of it, going to his first competition in 2005.

"The size of our community has grown more than tenfold since I started, and there’s tons of new competitors showing up at every competition," he said. Despite the negative effects this may have on the organization of competitions and the community, Reynolds thinks that the way competitions are run has only been improved.

As for the future of cubing, it is unknown how fast the world records will become. The current official world record for a single Rubik’s Cube solve is 4.73 seconds, by Australian speedcuber Feliks Zemdegs.

At every competition, timers known as SpeedStacks are used, measuring each time to the thousandth of a second. The thousandths place is only used if necessary.

The previous world record for a single Rubik’s Cube solve was 4.74 seconds by Dutch speedcuber Mats Valk. Obviously, every hundredth of a second counts.

There are other events for speedcubers at competitions as well. From 7x7, a seven-layer cube (larger than the regular three-layered one) to pyraminx, a pyramid- shaped twisty puzzle, there’s something for everyone. There are also options for people who like the 3x3 cube, with events such as one-handed and blindfolded contests.

As speedcubing continues to evolve and grow, people will inevitably become faster and faster. However, that shouldn’t prevent new cubers from giving it a try.

"The speedcubing community has thousands of members, many in middle and high school, and it provides them with great social and educational opportunities," Reynolds said.

Reynolds agrees that cubing, no matter how fast you actually are, is an enjoyable experience for all. He said, "There’s something really fun about beating your personal best, and this is something that everyone gets to experience."

Bryan Renzoni is a freshman at Clarence High School.


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