Story Time with Uncle Tyson

Cube stories from around the world

My Golden Time with Rubik’s Cube

with 5 comments

Author: Dan Knights
Originally written in July, 2010.

On The Cube.
Despite dramatic changes in the cubing community between 1977 and 2010, the relationship between cuber and cube has never changed. Every cuber has a “golden time” with the cube. Erno Rubik himself expressed this sentiment about his own life. This golden time begins when the cuber first begins to solve the cube, and continues for weeks, months, or years as the secrets of the cube unfold. My golden time with the cube began when I first purchased my own cube. I had already developed a Java applet to display and solve a 3D virtual cube, and I had used the book, “Conquer That Cube” by Czes Kosniowsky to program the solution into the applet, but I had never solved a cube myself. While we were coding the applet, my friend Matt Wilder and I came across Jessica Fridrich’s web page describing her method, and I was dumbfounded that she could average 17 seconds. It blew my mind. I couldn’t imagine being able to turn the cube that fast without pausing. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I decided to learn the solution for myself. Matt was solving the cube in about a minute, and I was determined to get faster than him. One day I purchased a cube from the local toy store, took “Conquer That Cube” out from the library again, and started timing myself that very night.

On Friends.
In the spring of 1999, it seemed I was nearly alone in the world as a new speedcuber. The prominent speedcubers online at the time were Jessica Fridrich and Lars Petrus. Fortunately I had some local competition: Matt Wilder and I pushed each other down into the 30-second range using standard layer-by-layer approaches (mine was cross, first-layer corners, middle-layer edges, orient top edges, position top edges, position top corners, orient top corners). Then we decided to learn Fridrich’s F2L from her website. This got us down to mid-20’s. In the summer of 1999, about 3 months into my speedcubing career, I emailed Jessica to thank her for her inspiration and for sharing her algorithms. After a few emails exchanged we determined that on my weekend rock-climbing trips to the Shawangunks I was only a few hours’ drive from her home town, Binghamton, NY, and to my surprise she invited me to visit her and Mirek Goljan. I was so star-struck at the time that I printed and saved all of our email correspondences. In preparation for the visit, I finished learning the 21 last-layer permutations. When I got to her house, she had been out of cubing for so long that at first she couldn’t find a speed-cube. Eventually she tracked one down, and the three of us began racing. Within minutes she was averaging 17 seconds, and Mirek was close behind her. They said they were impressed with my reported 26-second averages, although under pressure I was hardly able to clear 30 seconds during our visit. This visit was pivotal for my progress as a speedcuber because I saw, in person, what became known as “finger-tricks” or “triggers”: Jessica and Mirek were able to flick the layers of the cube with amazing speed and precision. They performed three or four turns in a single fluid movement. They also strongly encouraged me to learn the 57 last-layer orientations. Following their advice, and mimicking their finger-tricks, within another two months my average was down to 18 seconds.

I also learned from Mirek and Jessica the standard protocol for taking home averages: record 12 times, drop the highest and lowest, and average the middle 10. Back then we were timing ourselves using the seconds display of a digital clock. Matt Wilder and I decided that rather than having to guess after each solve whether to round up or round down to the nearest second, we would always round down, and then add 0.5 seconds to the final average.

As impressed as I was by Jessica’s speedcubing prowess, I was equally taken aback by Mirek Goljan’s ability to intuit lengthy and specialized cube algorithms, many of which can be seen on Jessica Fridrich’s web page. For example, Mirek attempted to find, by hand, all algorithms of length 13 and 15 for transposition of two edges and two corners. I am afraid that this merciless sport of “mental cube wrestling” is all but dead in the age of personal computers. Not surprisingly, Mirek was exceptionally skilled at “fewest-moves” solving. He won the 2003 world championship for fewest moves with 29 turns. He remains in the top 15 now, in 2010.

On Blindfold Solving.
In the summer of 1999, before my meeting with Jessica Fridrich and Mirek Goljan, I read on Georges Helm’s web site that John Conway (the mathematician), used to solve the cube behind his back with four or five looks. Somehow I got it into my head that I could solve the cube in one look. In other words, blindfolded. I was naïve, and my first attempt was a brutal standard ad-hoc solve. This meant that I solved the entire cube using my normal solution method, and tracked every last piece through all of the 75 or so turns. It took hours of study and preparation. I had the cube on my desk at my summer job, and I was able to study it without making any noise (and thus without exposing my delinquency), because I didn’t have to turn it. When I was finally ready for the solve, I sat in my car during lunch and closed my eyes. With my heart pounding and racing, I carefully executed the precise and lengthy set of turns that I had determined would solve the cube. When I opened my eyes, I was alone in my car with a perfectly solved cube! This was one of the highest moments in my life. I felt dizzy from the mental exertion and the heat of the car in the summer, exhausted from the tension, and elated by my success. I had successfully climbed a high and technical mountain, and to my knowledge at the time it was the first ascent. I haven’t heard evidence to the contrary, although I find it likely that, given the immense popularity of the cube in the 1980’s, it must have been done before by someone. Soon after my first attempt I realized the benefit of solving the cube using only “minimally destructive” algorithms, and was able to solve blindfolded in 10-20 minutes. I would never have believed that 10 years later people would be averaging under a minute.

On Stiff Cubes.
In 1999 the only cubes for sale in the USA were made by OddzOn, and they were terrible for speedcubing: stiff, rough turning, paper stickers with plastic film that came off within days. As a consequence, I had to use relatively forceful movements to turn the cube. My handling of the cube required lots of turning “with the wrist”. Turning with the wrist means letting go of the cube before and after each turn to reposition the hand. This is considerably slower than the “proper” technique of flicking the sides of the cube with the fingers. Years later, when I went to the 2005 world championship, I was impressed by how smooth and loose the new speedcubes were. I immediately purchased some, and over the next year I painstakingly re-trained myself to use more finger-tricks and fewer wrist-turns. The new techniques paid off, and I was able to get my home average down from 16 seconds to sub-14 seconds. But despite my best efforts, one can still see in my cube handling the remnants of my early training with stiff cubes. In a minor way, I was doubly cursed by these OddzOn cubes: for some strange reason, they used the Japanese color scheme (green opposite yellow), and I’ve been stuck using it ever since. This means that I’m always the odd man out at cube parties, and I’m hindered when solving a stranger’s cube in public.

On Perpetuity.
Over the years, Rubik’s cube has spawned thousands of variations of “twisty” puzzles, but none rivals the original. The cube is the perfect puzzle: it’s hard enough that no one can solve it using only intuition; it’s easy enough that anyone can solve it with enough study or instruction; it fits perfectly in the hand, and its physical manipulation is natural and obvious; it requires no setting up, no cleaning up, and no batteries; it’s small and portable; it’s durable; it’s colorful and attractive; and every time you solve it the solution is unique. For 30 years, the cube has held its ground against electronic gadgets, life-like video games, and 24-hour entertainment. Rubik’s cube is an anchor for the largely unmoored entertainment industry. People loved it in the 1980’s. People love it now. People will love it in 100 years. Erno Rubik’s name will likely live as long as lives humanity.

– Dan Knights

Written by macky

December 7, 2010 at 2:52 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Great story, Dan…

    Michiel van der Blonk

    December 7, 2010 at 4:02 pm

  2. I like it, especially sumarize.


    November 8, 2012 at 1:30 pm

  3. Wow, I had no idea you had tried a blind solve back in 1999! I learned blind in 2005, and I still have never attempted a blind solve using a speedsolving method.

    Didn’t know you used the Japanese color scheme either!

    Really fantastic story — thanks a lot for sharing, Dan!

    Anthony Hsu

    November 18, 2012 at 5:20 pm

  4. Thanks Dan..your story will inspire many.

    Shubham Pawar

    March 15, 2015 at 1:51 am

  5. My daughters have just discovered the Rubik’s Cube. I’m very proud to say I ‘know’ you. You’ve blown their minds with the online speed solving movs, add to that that you are a scientist and climb hard too, your’e a real inspiration for them. I bet your a great inspiring Dad too. Best wishes…Max – frm Font back in 2001.

    max bretherton

    January 11, 2016 at 11:33 am

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