Speed Cubers

How Caltech geeks are bringing back Rubik's cube.

May 1, 2006

It’s a packed weekend night at Hollywood’s Cabana Club. The crowd is filled with Asians in collared shirts and too much hair product. A DJ spins over at the tropical-themed patio and all eyes are on the bikini fashion show, where half a dozen models are strutting their stuff on the catwalk. Then the stage really gets exciting—without the help of Jell-O, mud or baby oil. From a background of imported palm trees and waterfalls, 21-year-old Tyson Mao comes out from the jungle and to the roar of the crowd. People are cheering, perhaps in jest, unsure of what to expect from this boy. It’s obvious he feels out of place as he pushes up the glasses that take up half his face and fusses with his bad haircut. Tyson puts his hand into his pocket and pulls out a Rubik’s Cube.

The bikini’d beauties are standing so close, but Tyson’s focus is unbreakable. His fingers fly at the rate of 15 twists in two seconds, rotating the cube around as fast as you or I could randomly scramble one. He moves through each layer, each side magically filling up with the correct colors. In a minute, he’s solved it and steals the show away from the talented ass-shakers. The crowd is ecstatic, but Tyson admits, “It was one of the slowest solves I’ve ever done. Not that a non-cuber could tell the difference.”

Tyson was a non-cuber himself until three years ago when his little brother came home from summer camp with a solved Rubik’s Cube. A few Internet searches revealed that the brothers lived across town from Shotaro “Macky” Makisumi, an eighth-grade cubing prodigy who could solve the cube in under 20 seconds. Tyson sent him an email and soon afterwards met him in person for one of Macky’s math club meetings. “I drove over to the school and met him. I was blown away.” Soon after, he solved his first. And in January 2004, Tyson founded the Caltech Rubik’s Cube Club. They held a local competition, one of the first speed cubing competitions in more than 20 years.

The sport all began with the world championships in 1982, where Lars Petrus, one of the godfathers of speed cubing, made his mark. His method—align the corners of each cube first—is still practiced widely. The event was held in Budapest, Hungary, a country that used to regard cubing geeks as one of their chief exports.

Across the world and nearly a quarter of a century later, a 45-year-old Petrus is at the San Francisco Exploratorium museum. He’s there for Caltech’s second annual International Rubik’s Cube Competition. “The sport died in ’82 and in the last three to five years has come back through the Internet. It’s hip now.” He stands among hundreds of spectators and fiddles with his old friend to warm up. In a duffel bag by his feet is his performance-enhancing drug of choice: Red Bull. Despite the energy drink, Petrus’ older hands have trouble competing with the younger generation. Averaging at a sluggish 20 seconds, he puts up his arms in frustration, “Today’s not a good day. I have a lot of excuses. These kids, they don’t have a job. Or friends.” Meanwhile, Tyson’s Caltech buddy, Leyan Lo, clocks in at 11 seconds for the 3x3 speed solve. It’s a new world record.

The second age of speed cubing is only budding, so records are broken weekly—and there are a lot of bizarre contests. Leyan holds the record for the blindfolded solve (where the puzzle is first memorized before the blindfold is worn) with 1:46 and an impressive one-handed solve at 28 seconds. “One of my friends tried to solve it without any limbs. He moved one with his nose and kind of stopped,” adds Tyson, “I have a pair of handcuffs that I use for cubing … and only cubing.” Recently, Caltech sponsored a cube marathon where Brent Morgan from Arizona broke the 24-hour record by solving 3,141, which they found a knee-slapping riff on pi. There’s the Underwater Speed Cubing record, which is held by Dan Harris from England. Tyson remarks, “Chris Hardwick does it drunk. If he was solving a cube in a min. 6, he was really wasted.”

Back at the Exploratorium, a local news crew interviews Leyan and he speaks uncomfortably into the mic. “For the last step, it was the best configuration you can have,” he explains, making reference to his record breaking performance. He backs away from the camera, only to be approached by an 8-year-old girl seeking an autograph. Leyan takes the pen and paper. He rubs the back of his neck, “I don’t even know what to write.” She offers some guidance, “Put your time down next to your name.”

The dynamic duo has no choice but to warm up to the spotlight, as Macky is occupied with college entrance. Leyan is the spokesperson for DataDelta, a data analysis company. Tyson had a cameo in a Melanie Griffith sitcom, Twins, airing on the WB network. The pair also stars in a documentary called Cube Freak, by director Erica Speed, touring the film festivals this fall. Tyson was also hired to coach Will Smith on his cubing skills for his new movie, The Pursuit of Happyness. They were both on Leno, where Jay made Leyan test the sport’s real world usefulness by unhooking the bras off eight models as fast he could. “It took him about six seconds to unhook each one,” Tyson says with a smile. “He did very well. I don’t know how he learned how to do that.”

Usually, they don’t fare as well with the opposite sex. Tyson was the second one eliminated on WB’s reality show Beauty and the Geek. “I try to avoid showing off. I don’t use a Rubik’s Cube to pick up girls.”

His dance card might not be filling up, but the cubing scene continues to grow with his help. There are tournaments coming up in France, Korea and in London, the World Championships. Tyson graduates this year and is ready to hand over the Caltech club to Leyan, but nobody believes Tyson’s going to let go of his cube obsession. His roommate bet him that he couldn’t go a week without touching a Rubik’s Cube. “I almost lost.”

And Tyson isn’t afraid to admit his losses. On Valentine’s Day, his track coach had a unique twist on their 400-meter dash. “The girls had a 15-second head start, and the idea was that we were supposed to try to catch them. I was disappointed because I didn’t.” He’s slow and still single, but he’s still got his Rubik’s Cube. And—at least in the world of cubing—people are going to have a tough time keeping up. missing image file

James Lee is a freelance writer for men’s magazines, Wired, and a bunch of dorky video game ones.

The new kids on the block... that like to play with blocks: Mark Polinksovsky, Leyan Lo, Tyson Mao, Shelley Chang, Daniel Lo, Michael Inadomi, Michael White (left to right).

“I have a pair of handcuffs

that I use for cubing...

and only cubing.”

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