Christian Cutter’s freshman year at Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, Washington, wasn’t exactly what he had imagined it would be. With pandemic protocols in place for the 2020 school year, many students weren’t on campus. Those who were could barely leave their dorms.
So in the summer before his sophomore year, Christian turned to an old friend to help build a campus community: the Rubik’s Cube.
“My cousin taught me how to solve it when I was in second grade when he came over for a week from the East Coast,” Christian says. “I mainly picked it up because I wanted to impress all my friends, but eventually I learned how to do it in about three minutes.”
Christian started a cubing club in high school, competing in World Cubing Association events and whittling his solve time for the traditional 3×3 cube down to 12 seconds.
He took a break from competition his senior year and when he left for college. But last year, cubing seemed like the perfect way to build the campus social circle he was missing.
“I’ve gotten to let out my inner extrovert and reach out to all my classmates,” Christian says. “For some of them, I was the first person they’d really talked to in college, which blew my mind. But I found some really close friends that way. We use the Rubik’s Cube as an excuse to be close to each other.”
Piece by Piece
Christian and his friends aren’t alone in their passion for the Rubik’s Cube. The puzzle has seen a resurgence in recent years, going back to 2003 when CubingUSA was established.
The nonprofit supports speedcubing in the United States, hosting more than 15,000 cubers in more than 700 competitions.
While events can be intimidating, for Christian they are about sharing an excitement for speedcubing with others and setting personal goals.
“There are people of all different ages and ability levels,” he says. “Some are there for fun, but you also get to see the super talented, and they’ll talk to you.
“Participation is the reward. Very few people go to place, and I rarely even look at what place I get.”
As in any competition, everyone has their own approach to solving the cube. Each solve starts with an inspection, where competitors have a chance to examine the scrambled cube and decide which solution will require the fewest moves.
They often solve the first four pieces on one side with a sequence of moves known as an algorithm. Some cubers memorize hundreds of algorithms they can apply to different patterns to solve the cube in as few moves as possible.
Once the first group of pieces is in place, cubers execute additional algorithms to solve more groups of pieces until the entire puzzle is complete.
“If you think of it as different pieces, there are only 20 that you need to solve,” Christian says. “When you first see a scrambled cube, an experienced cuber will decide which pieces they want to do first. They’ll typically do their first four pieces, then chunks of two and solve the last eight pieces all at once.”
As competitions from organizations such as CubingUSA and the World Cubing Association have gained popularity, so have cubing clubs in schools.
Ryan Jew, a 2018 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, was a member of Cal Cube Club and taught a student-led course on cubing.
Today, he takes his passion for the puzzle to middle and high schools.
For Ryan, learning cubing algorithms was a jumping-off point to understanding the reasoning behind them. That makes the cube a great tool for learning how important it is to internalize concepts as opposed to rote memorization.
“I think that really helped me, particularly with my science and math classes,” Ryan says. “I think in the long term, it can also teach discipline. The cool thing about cubing is you can get pretty fast pretty quickly. I think people realize that if they put in a little time, they get really good results.”
Ryan credits the recent spike in cube popularity to YouTube, where interested cubers can see people solve the puzzle in just a few seconds or easily learn how to solve it themselves.
Christian also cites accessibility.
“There’s no biological advantage other than having moving fingers,” he says. “Your gender, ethnicity and age don’t matter. Almost every group can participate with a low price of entry.”
Ultimately, Christian hopes clubs like his own and Cal Cube Club can demystify the Rubik’s Cube and make competitive events less intimidating for newcomers.
Once people experience it for themselves, he suspects many will be just as hooked as he is.
“It was my competitive nature that kept me in it, but also the community,” Christian says. “The cube has a lot of charisma to it that people fall in love with. Going to these events where everyone has that same obsession was just addicting. It felt like finding my people.”
How a Cuber Solves the Puzzle
While each speedcuber has their own tactics and algorithms to complete each step of a solve as quickly as possible, the general strategy is often the same.
Step 1. Inspect the puzzle to decide which side can be solved first with the fewest moves.
Step 2. Solve “the cross,” or the four edge pieces for one side.
Step 3. Solve the four corner pieces for that side.
Step 4. When the corners for the first layer are done, solve the edge pieces along the middle layer.
Step 5. With two layers complete and positioned on the bottom, it’s time to solve the cross on the final layer.
Step 6. Once the cross is complete, get the corner pieces in place.
Step 7. Complete the puzzle by moving the edge pieces for the final layer into place.
Get in the Game
Last year, the World Cubing Association hosted hundreds of cubing competitions across the globe, including dozens in the United States.
These events are a great option for anyone looking to take their cubing skills beyond basic tutorials and friendly competition with friends.
Christian Cutter encourages anyone interested in cubing to give competitions a shot. They can help participants set personal goals and serve as an opportunity to learn from skilled speedcubers.
“My experience with those competitions was I’d always set a goal to get certain times,” Christian says. “I’d practice for it, I’d go to the event, participate in my competition and then I’d get to spectate the other people.”
Competitions go beyond the traditional 3×3 cube, with events for cubes up to 7×7, pyramid-shaped puzzles, solving cubes one-handed or blindfolded, and more.
To find a competition near you, visit worldcubeassociation.org and click on Competitions.
To see a video of Christian Cutter solving a Rubik’s Cube in competition, visit https://tinyurl.com/PurCube.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of this magazine, is taking readers on a yearlong journey, The Learning Curve, highlighting success stories in rural education in challenging times. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.