The Rubik’s Cube is a difficult and, for most of us, unsolvable enigma – the kind of puzzle that is easily labeled as impossible. This writer can personally attest to having acquaintances who became so frustrated with this confounding toy as kids that they tore off all the stickers, pasted the same colors back on the correct sides and then considered the thing solved.
The 54 competitors who came to Goodrich Hall this past Saturday for an official World Cube Association Rubik’s Cube Competition at the College were of a different stripe. Registration opened at 8:30 a.m., and events kicked off around 9 a.m., lasting until 5 p.m. Kids from as close as Berkshire County and as far as New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey sat clustered around the round tables in the Goodrich seating area, talking, laughing and practicing on cubes of various sorts, sizes and colors. On stage, tables with timers were set up for the contestants, who took turns trying to solve the cube as fast as possible.
The events offered were many and varied; there were separate contests for the two-by-two cube, the standard three-by-three cube, the four-by-four model and the pyramid. There was also a contest to see which competitor could solve the cube fastest using only one hand. In each round, contestants solved the cube five times, then the fastest and slowest times were dropped and the middle three averaged to become the final score.
The event was organized by Ric Donati, a 14-year-old from Williamstown, with the help of his family and Mihai Stoiciu, professor of mathematics at the College. Donati first encountered a Rubik’s Cube at age 10, when he asked for and received one for Christmas.
“He just really liked it,” his mother, Anne Donati said, adding that her son would spend hours practicing. Eventually, he came across the World Cubing Association online and the Donati family found themselves suddenly immersed in the world of cubing. “It’s a subculture,” she said. “You don’t know that it exists until you stumble across it.” But
everyone at the competitions is always “so nice and helpful;” the mood is “supportive” rather than intense because everyone is racing primarily against themselves and the clock, rather than each other, she said. Ric Donati agreed, saying that his favorite thing about the competitions is the “really friendly atmosphere.”
Stoiciu described the Rubik’s Cube as “very interesting mathematics.” Stoiciu has twice taught a Winter Study course on the complex abstract algebra that underlies solving the cube. The course has been very popular, offering students both the theory and practice of cubing. At the end of the class, they held their own Rubik’s Cube competition in the Mathematics and Statistics Library.
Solving the cube can be fun, but the theory behind it is complex. “It’s a permutations puzzle with abstract educational value,” Stoiciu said. He added that he once met a veteran of the cubing world who, though he had never taken an abstract algebra course, had “insight into high math concepts” simply from working with the Rubik’s puzzle. However, understanding the math at play behind the cube will only get you so far, the professor said. His own average time is around 50 seconds.
The real secret to success is practice, according to Kevin Costello, a 15-year-old from Great Barrington, Mass., and current North American record holder for the four-by-four. He got so fast simply by “practicing a lot and really dedicating a lot of time to it,” Costello said. On a typical weekend he might dedicate “three or four hours a day,” Costello said. Another competitor, Tommy Kirby, 16, agreed, adding that, “You need to personalize algorithms. Find ones that work for you, and then practice them a lot.”
The College had only one representative at the competition, Adam Reich ’14, who first got into cubing when he took Stoiciu’s Winter Study course during his sophomore year. With the weight of the College’s cubing reputation on his shoulders, Reich did not take his task lightly, saying that he had been preparing for the competition for all of “the past three days.” “I took a two-year break to rest my fingers,” Reich said.
Overall, Goodrich seemed to serve as an excellent venue for the competition, although its interior did provoke some confusion in one competitor who looked around and asked several times, quite loudly, “Is this a church?” Goodrich’s confounding architecture notwithstanding, Anne Donati called the event a success.
“All the feedback has been very positive,” she said. “People said it was well-run, it was easy to get here and everyone’s been commenting on the beauty of the College.” But the best summary was perhaps provided by Costello, who, after winning several events and setting a new North American record in the four-by-four, uttered, with a small smile and what seemed like typical modesty, that the day had gone “pretty well.”