7 Nov 2016

Cracking the Cube

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:09 pm on 7 November 2016
Rubik's Cube

Photo: Flickr.com / Steve Rhodes

The humble Rubik’s cube is no longer quite so humble. Ever since a Hungarian professor of architecture created a 3-D puzzle in the 1970s, players have been trying to figure out how to solve Rubik's Cube as fast as possible.

Speedcuber Ian Scheffler shares the rise of this pop culture phenomenon in his book, Cracking the Cube: Going Slow to Go Fast and Other Unexpected Turns in the World of Competitive Rubik's Cube Solving.

“The world of speed cubing is a very open and welcoming community. The cube itself crosses all borders, all nationalities. You don’t have to be from any particular place or have any particular interest or gender to get into it,” Scheffler says.

As Scheffler speaks down the line with Jesse Mulligan, a new world record for speed cubing had just been set earlier that day. Mats Valk, 20, of the Netherlands managed to solve Rubik’s cube in 4.74 seconds, breaking the previous record by 0.16 seconds.

Speedcubing competitions are like prize fighting, Scheffler says. Competitors come out to entrance music, have signature moves and wear jackets covered in as many sponsorship names as a NASCAR driver.

Scheffler knew he needed to write a book about the world of speedcubing after attending his first competition and being struck by the noise.

“I was at this competition and from the other side of the door it sounded like a hurricane had entered the building and I opened the door and I didn’t know what I was seeing. There were hundreds of people solving Rubik’s cubes blindfolded, one handed, with their feet, they were solving bigger puzzles, pyramids, and dodecahedrons… it was really overwhelming. I didn’t know how they were doing anything and I wanted to find out.”

When he approached the event’s organiser asking to write about it the organiser – an old friend who had taught Scheffler the basics of speedcubing at a summer camp years earlier – asked Scheffler how he could write about it if he wasn’t going to compete.

So, Scheffler picked up the Rubik’s cube again and gave himself a goal to solve it in less than 20 seconds. It was while he was training that he realised that solving Rubik’s cube is about much more than maths or logic.

“It’s more like a performance art or sport or music where you have to really go inside yourself, you have to go to a very unique place in your mind to process things that quickly, because I guarantee you when [Valk] solved Rubik’s cube in four seconds today, I guarantee you it felt a lot longer than that because he did 50 different things in those four seconds, meaning he was doing about 10 things a second. That is the state you have to get to, psychologists have called it the flow state to solve Rubik’s cube fast.”

Cracking the Cube

Cracking the Cube Photo: supplied

Scheffler spent two years tracking down Erno Rubik, trying to convince him to do an interview for the book. The Hungarian inventor is considered a national treasure in his homeland, but he is notoriously reclusive. Ian eventually managed to secure an interview while he was in Budapest.

“I tried collecting all these impressions, figuring if I never met him I would at least triangulate a portrait, make a mosaic sort of like his own cube. But I learned he is very much like his puzzle because if you talk to different people they will tell you different stories about the same thing.

“For instance some people say that he invented it to teach his students about geometry, but then other sources say that he disavowed the idea that he wanted to use it as a teaching tool. When I asked him about it he said, well one of its applications was about teaching.”

When he’s at home, Scheffler's often no further than arm’s reach from a cube and will absentmindedly pick one up. He describes it as a meditative practice, like passing rosary beads through your fingers.

“Ironically when you are on stage in front of hundreds of people and you have to use your fine motor skills, the last place you want to be is this calm, meditative internal place but that is where you have to get because you sort of wind up losing time in the best solves. And with the best solves, the faster you go the slower it feels.

“I had people tell me that over and over and I didn’t really believe them until I finally took their advice and I didn’t really pay any attention to the clock and it was my first world championship. I was not doing as well as I wanted and I did this solve very slowly, very consciously and when I finished it it was a personal best by about 10 seconds.”

He says the key to solving Rubik’s cube is to take cues from the cube itself.

“Each piece wants to go in a certain place, is what I was taught, and you have to follow it to that right spot.”