‘The popularity has just completely exploded’: Rubik’s Cube’s second coming

一种 stranger visiting Feliks Zemdegs’s home might mistakenly accuse him of hoarding Rubik’s Cubes almost as fast as he solves them. “I’ve never counted them,“ 他说. “Probably over the years I’ve owned like 500 或者 600, but at any given point in time probably only about 100 or 150.” The number still sounds ludicrous but the reality is more akin to Nike sending Rory McIlroy polo shirts and Head supplying Ash Barty with tennis rackets than an inclination towards the superfluous consumerism of multi-coloured 3D objects.

Zemdegs is a two-time world-champion speed cuber, which makes him a prime target for companies with new wares to spruik. The Australian receives so many he gives them away. He has his own sponsor, 反正, and competes with the top-of-the-range Gan 356 XS. The model is the crème de la crème of the symmetrical six-sided enigma, a global pop-culture icon up there with comic books and Homer Simpson but less one-dimensional.

When used for sport every millisecond counts and Zemdegs, over the course of his career, has held 121 world records across the 3x3x3, 4x4x4, 5x5x5, 2x2x2, one-handed 3x3x3, 6x6x6, 7x7x7, and blindfolded 4x4x4 categories. In the blue riband event, the 3x3x3, he has broken his own record 13 次, and thus been crowned the Usain Bolt of cubing. 现在, 在 25 and with a career in finance, he is winding down. “The truth is I am extreme veteran,“ 他说. “I’m gradually, not so much getting slow, but there’s a lot of kids who are getting really, really fast.”

So fast, 实际上, that all of his records have been broken (his personal best is still a cool 4.16 秒). This has occurred over the course of a decade since 2010 什么时候, as a 14-year-old Melbourne school student, Zemdegs completed the three-layer configuration in a world-record time of 6.77 seconds and suddenly found himself under such a glaring spotlight that his parents became his default media managers. As fans lined up for autographs, he didn’t get what all the fuss was about. “The way that it was pitched to me by dad and others was that if I did it [媒体], it would raise the profile of speed cubing and more people will get into it,“ 他说. “That has really played out … the popularity has just completely exploded.”

This is the Rubik’s Cube’s second coming. Invented by Hungarian architect Ernő Rubik in 1974, its initial craze lasted several years, a period during which about 100 million authorised cubes had been sold and many millions more cheap knock-offs. Books explaining how to solve it flooded the market. But the obsession with the equal parts alluring and exasperating contraption fizzled almost as soon as it started, and by the mid-1980s the pastime was considered passé. Even the converted consigned it to relic status. The media wrote obituaries – in 1986 the New York Times declared it “retired to the attic, the garbage heap”.

There it remained until the noughties, when a new generation picked up the artefact and twisted it back into vogue. 在 2004, the inception of the World Cube Association formalised speed cubing and from there, with help from the worldwide web, the 21st-century revival bloomed. And as its popularity went up, the times went down – the current 3x3x3 world record is held by Chinese 22-year-old Yusheng Du, who clocked 3.47 seconds in 2018.

The competitive disciplines and sub-disciplines are seemingly endless. Single, 平均数, blindfolded, one-handed, solve in fewest moves. Until recently the WCA recognised a category called “with feet”, which is exactly what it sounds like (American teenager Daniel Rose-Levine holds the Guinness World Record of 16.96 秒). 在一月 2020, it was removed from the WCA’s list of official events because “with feet remains the least popular speed solving event by a significant margin, and concerns from organisers about hygiene and logistics remain”.

At last weekend’s Rubik’s Cube World Cup, there were head-to-heads and a section requiring competitors to rescramble a cube into a certain configuration. Because of Covid-19, 这 2020 和 2021 editions were conducted virtually using digital cubes; smartcubes, if you will. Bluetooth connects the cube to an app on contestants’ phones, which allows officials to accurately time results and online viewers to watch a floating interactive showing each progression live.

Such an environment, 尽管, requires adjustments to preparation. Zemdegs, who narrowly missed out on a podium place in the mixed speed cubing, spent the preceding weeks practising only on the cube sent to him by organisers. “Because the bluetooth cube has some electronics and stuff in it, it’s heavier than what people would usually use,“ 他说. “It’s a bit slower. The times are maybe a little bit worse than what I would do on a standard cube, but it’s probably pretty immaterial.”

There is a clear chasm between the casual novice cuber and one serious about completing the puzzle in any sort of respectable time. The former group can solve the first one or two layers intuitively but will know well that, at some point, moving any further pieces will mess up what’s already been done. 后者, more elite group, will learn up to hundreds of algorithms made up of steps that look a bit like ‘F2 U’ R’ L F2 L’ R U’ F2’.

“If I see a pattern and I want to get to the next stage of a solve, I know to do eight specific turns, and that will get me from that specific pattern to a more solved state,” Zemdegs says. “If you’re a beginner you might only need five or six to solve the cube, but people who want to get under 10 seconds will learn potentially hundreds.”

As with most challenging endeavours, the key is patience and practice. Rote learn the algorithms and allow muscle memory to do its job. “Even the intuitive parts, you’re not thinking too hard during the solve, it’s mostly subconscious,“ 他说. 换句话说, it’s the all system one mode of thought – the fast and instinctive part of the brain which does not pause for deliberate thought.

The common misconception is that, in order to achieve such mind-bending speed, one must be a genius. In film and television, the Rubik’s Cube has often denoted intelligence in characters. Think Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness and Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) using one to smuggle a micro SD card full of NSA files. But the reverse might actually be true – an exercise of this nature could help develop cognitive skills. 在中国, they are included in some school curriculums.

It is the case for Zemdegs’s all-time rival and fast friend, Max Park, 谁是自闭症. After being diagnosed as a small child, his parents tried almost everything to develop his stunted fine motor skills. One day he picked up a Rubik’s Cube lying around the house, and it was manna from heaven. The couple took him to competitions as a means of teaching him social cues such as pointing, standing in line and waiting his turn. “It was a giant playdate situation that we were going to exploit for Max’s social development,” Park’s father said in the 2020 Netflix documentary, The Speed Cubers.

Park entered the scene when Zemdegs was at his peak. He had comfortably won the 2013 和 2015 world championships, and by the time 2017 rolled around was practically begging for a challenger. Around that time he found a YouTube video of a 16-year-old Park completing a one-handed 4x4x4 solve and tried but failed to beat it. Park was crowned 2017 world champion.

Last month he set the world record for 3x3x3 average (from five solves) 在 5.32 秒, bettering the 5.48 seconds set in June by China’s Riuhang Xu – the only time this record has been broken by someone other than Park and Zemdegs since 2009. Park, who is currently world No 1 in all disciplines except for the 3x3x3 single, is Zemdegs’s biggest fan.

“We were competing together in China, America and Europe,” Zemdegs says. “Because we were going to all these places I would spend a lot of time with him and his family. There’s a relationship or a bond between two people competing against each other at the top. You kind of have a rivalry, but it brings you together as well. 还, with the pressure you’re under, there’s a lot of empathy.”

Much like Park, Zemdegs did not find cubing; cubing found him. 在 2008, the then 13-year-old was perusing YouTube and happened upon a Rubik’s tutorial. “I didn’t know if you could solve that cube at all, let alone in 10 秒,“ 他说. “I decided to buy a cube and learn from tutorials more advanced methods and techniques and algorithms. I went down that rabbit hole of practising and learning and improving.”

That included committing the cardinal sin of bringing his new toy to the family dinner table “all the time”. It took his mother Rita a while to understand just how good he was. “He’s got a serious addiction – obsession,” she said on The Speed Cubers, “but also an amazing talent.”

Zemdegs himself recalls becoming mesmerised by “a very self-reinforcing cycle … probably for most of my school year I would have been doing two or three hours a day of practice.” Can such a heavy training load give you RSI? 他笑了. “I think it’s pretty rare. You would think so, but it’s not common at all. Over the years I have had sore forearms and been to the physio for massage. My forearms are really, really tight, but I just stop until they feel better.”

Modern tournaments are bustling environments of mostly young spectators with smartphones and guileless commentators exclaiming “holy guacamole”. At the 2019 Red Bull World Cup in Moscow, 24-year-old German twins Sebastian and Philipp Weyer faced off on on stage and were separated by 0.001 秒. An Instagram video of the solve has been viewed more than 3.3 million times. For some reason or another, cubing is a space mostly comprised of males. There are females trickling in, 尽管, and French 20-year-old Juliette Sébastien is ranked 11th in the 3x3x3.

In all it is elite but also inclusive. One is not a cubist in the way one might be a capitalist or a communist, but it is a sort of ideology nonetheless – with an emphasis on thinking not so much outside the box, but inside it.

Rubik himself struggled with that notion for an entire month back in the ‘70s before finally completing his eponymous invention for the first time (he can now do it in roughly a minute, which he is not especially proud of but figures is relatively nimble for a 77-year-old). Originally made of wood, it was solid but yet also so incongruously malleable he was unconvinced it could ever be solved. Mathematicians later calculated there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible arrangements, of which only one is correct.

在一个 2020 interview with the Guardian, Rubik described the puzzle as “contradictory, a mix of simplicity and complexity”. “The Japanese slogan for it goes: ‘A Minute to Learn, a Lifetime to Master.’ You never finish it – there will always be new challenges/discoveries,“ 他说. “The design was also important, a good example of having everything you need and nothing more.”

Rubik, a quietly spoken recluse, did not name the cube after himself – the manufacturers did that. Does he find that everlasting association burdensome? “It’s not like being known as Jack the Ripper,” he responds, presumably meaning no.

He is just as philosophical about the digital age. “People say young people lose contact with the real world,“ 他说. “But while there are so many applications for the cube – 3,000 or more – they can, interestingly, play with these applications with the cube in their hands.”

The pandemic has disrupted competitions – and the several days of socialising that come with them – but Zemdegs does not predict it will adversely affect the sport long term. “Once everything gets back to more normal we’ll see that it’s vastly more popular than it ever was,“ 他说, “Because people would have picked it up in lockdown.”

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