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I once had a close personal encounter with one of my idols, Hungarian professor Erno Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s Cube.
I was in New York to run the marathon. He was there to promote what was being billed as the world’s most expensive toy, a Rubik’s Cube made of gold and adorned with precious gems instead of plastic stickers, valued at more than $1-million.
When I met the professor, I immediately felt compelled to show him that I knew how to solve the cube. As I did so, I couldn’t help noticing a look of profound disinterest on his face. I’m sure he’d had to endure so many of these impromptu demonstrations over the years that he could only hope never to see another one.
Still, Prof. Rubik’s own apparent lack of enthusiasm for the cube seemed to accurately reflect the mood of the general public at the time. I sometimes felt as if I was the only person in the world who still cared about it. Yet a decade later, there I was, competing in the Canadian Open, an international speedcubing tournament.
Like two puzzle pieces stuck together, the Rubik’s Cube and I have always been inextricably linked. The year I was born (1974) is also the year Prof. Rubik invented the cube. Some of my fondest childhood memories are from the early 1980s, when the cube was the most popular toy on the planet. My awkward teenage years were a difficult time for the cube, too, which went from cultural phenomenon to unfashionable relic like so many fads that preceded it. For a time, cubes were no longer being manufactured.
Yet it was during this dark period in the cube’s history that I first developed my passion for “cubing.” Through many hours of practice, I learned to solve it in under a minute. I would have loved to enter some of the speedcubing competitions that had been commonplace in my youth, but they had gone the way of the hula hoop. It was a lonely time to be a cubist.
But in recent years the cube has enjoyed a renaissance. Brought together by the Internet, cubists who had felt like social outcasts discovered there were many like-minded individuals who had shared the same childish indulgence. In 2004, an international governing body was formed, and it began sanctioning dozens of official speedcubing competitions around the world. A few years later, the Canadian Open was added to the circuit.
As soon as I learned of this event, I found myself fantasizing about what might happen if I won it. I could quit my day job and turn pro, competing in exotic locales. I might become the Sidney Crosby of competitive speedcubing, playing only a handful of tournaments, enjoying a life of luxury and amassing a fortune in commercial endorsements while making frequent appearances on the cover of Obscure Sports Quarterly.
That’s not to say life as a pro cubist would be easy. Like other top professional athletes, my life would revolve around a rigorous training regimen. Each day would begin at 5 a.m., when I would roll out of bed and do 100 finger pushups. Breakfast would be a bowl of dry cereal eaten with chopsticks (alternating hands for each mouthful). Then, after eight to 10 hours of intensive speedcubing, I would play the piano for several hours to further foster dexterity.
But first there was the small matter of winning the tournament.
As I entered the auditorium I heard a peculiar sound, as if 100 people were whispering simultaneously, but so quickly as to be incomprehensible. I soon realized this was the sound of dozens of cubes being solved simultaneously at incredible rates of speed.
For the first time, it occurred to me that I may have seriously underestimated my opponents. I also noticed that most competitors were teenagers, or even younger. The confidence I had possessed moments earlier was replaced by a growing fear that I was about to suffer humiliation at the hands of a bunch of prodigious precubescents.
The rules were simple. In the first round, competitors had to solve the cube five times, with the average time determining one’s rank and the top 25 moving on to the quarterfinal.
I managed to break the elusive one-minute barrier three times, averaging 59.32 seconds over all. A respectable result, I thought, and a good start to the day.
However, it turned out that the world of competitive speedcubing had advanced far beyond what I imagined. This generation of cubists had a much larger repertoire of moves, and lightning-fast reflexes, no doubt cultivated through countless hours playing video games. This lethal combination of superior technique and coordination enabled many of my competitors to solve the cube two or three times faster than me.
The top four in the tournament all solved the cube in under 15 seconds, and in the time it took me, they could have done it using only one hand or wearing a blindfold.
I did not advance to the next round. In fact, I finished 41st out of 57 competitors, effectively ending my dream of joining the pro cubing circuit.
At least until next year.
Jay Brecher lives in Toronto.