Squaring Off

By David Hayes, The New York Times Magazine, November 16, 2003

Andy Camann, a tall, gangly 14-year-old, wears a serene expression on his face as he stares down at the colorful blur of a Rubik’s Cube spinning in his hands. In public — on the street, at his school — he is usually alone doing this, and the object of puzzled stares. Today, though, he is sitting amid a crowd of like-minded souls, also spinning cubes, in a 500-seat auditorium at the Ontario Science Center in Toronto, the site of the 2003 World Rubik’s Game Championships. It is Day 2 of an event that has attracted nearly a hundred competitors from 20 countries.

Camann, a straight-A student with an interest in math and sciences, is a speed cubist. Using the standard six-sided ”3x3x3” model, his low time is 12 seconds, but it’s an unofficial statistic. The official record for the past two decades, according to Guinness World Records, is 22.95 seconds and was set at the only previous world championships, held in Budapest in 1982. Camann, like everyone else, expects that to be bettered considerably this weekend. There are sideshow attractions — blindfolded cubing, barefoot cubing — but the qualifying round for the prestige event, the 3x3x3 speed-cubing, is drawing to a close, and Camann, who managed times around the 20-second mark, is one of 32 competitors who have qualified for the semifinal, placing ninth.

Two years ago, Camann, who lives with his parents and his older brother, Zac, in Newton, Mass., found an old Rubik’s Cube that belonged to his mother in the basement. After a few failed attempts, he managed to solve it in four and a half minutes. Curious, he discovered hundreds of sites on the Internet, some offering sophisticated algorithms to solve the cube, and gradually his time dropped below 60 seconds. He also discovered a global community of cubists and found out about the puzzle’s origins.

In 1974, a Hungarian designer named Erno Rubik created a multicolored, six-sided cube as a three-dimensional model to demonstrate geometric principles. Despite its complexity — there is one correct alignment and 43 quintillion potential wrong ones — by 1980, Rubik’s Cube had developed a cult following. An estimated quarter of a billion cubes were sold between 1980 and 1985. It spawned key chains, songs, ”Saturday Night Live” skits, an animated TV program and more than a hundred books. But demand exceeded supply, and neither Rubik nor the Hungarian manufacturer had patented the cube in foreign countries. By 1986, with the market flooded with pirated versions that were difficult to turn or quick to break, the toy dropped off the radar.

Even group theory can’t explain how, about half a dozen years ago, a new generation of young people, like Camann, decided that playing with the low-tech plastic cube was cool. But the Internet made it possible for these new fans and cubists rediscovering their passion to connect.

As the semifinal round approaches, Camann walks over to Ron van Bruchem, a 36-year-old I.T. designer in the Netherlands who runs speedcubing.com, the community’s online hub. ”I need to borrow some silicone,” Camann says. Van Bruchem hands him an aerosol can and cautions, ”Don’t change too much.” Competitors are permitted to make certain modifications in their cubes. They may sand down imperfections in the plastic (but not round off edges or otherwise alter the structure) and use a lubricant. Camann kneels in the aisle, removes a couple of individual cubies and sprays the silicone inside. Reassembling his cube, he begins spinning. ”I can feel a difference right now,” he says.

Camann’s father, William, an anesthesiologist, and his mother, Rhonda, who have spent the weekend hovering on the sidelines, say they were a bit worried when their son began cubing two or three hours a day, concerned that his marks might suffer. But they didn’t, and it was apparent that the boy had found a métier. When his parents agreed to take him to the championships, Camann practiced religiously, especially while attending a summer program at Wellesley College. ”Everyone was interested,” he says. ”People I’d never met would say, ‘Are you the Rubik’s Cube guy?”’

Camann’s father says: ”The cube has been good for him socially. It’s really helped him come out of his shell.”

It is nearly midafternoon by the time the semifinals are under way and Camann’s turn comes up. Standing at the podium, his hands shake as the official takes his cube away to be scrambled. Van Bruchem, who is onstage at the same time, tells him to ”slowly breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.” Camann’s first time is under 20 seconds, but his next two times are over. At one point he fumbles the cube, losing precious milliseconds as he realigns it for the last couple of rotations.

While officials tabulate the semifinal results, Camann goes back to his seat, still cubing, and his parents appear beside him. ”That was great,” his mother says. His father asks, ”Were you nervous?” Camann shrugs and says, ”I was just off.”
When the results are announced half an hour later, Camann places a respectable 12th overall, but only the top eight advance to the finals, so Camann is an onlooker as Dan Knights becomes the new world champion with an average time of 20 seconds flat. (Jess Bonde had the fastest single time, 16.53 seconds.)

”I think the pressure has been messing people up,” Camann says later. ”I’m going to focus on breathing to stop myself from shaking, and I may get help to stay calm.”

I mention that half of the final eight are 30 or older and only one is a teenager.
Thinking about this, he says: ”I guess experience counts, so I’m not giving up. I’m still young.”