It’s been a little over 40 years since the Rubik’s Cube was invented. And ever since, people have raced against the clock—and each other—to solve the colorful puzzle.
On a Saturday morning in May 2018, in an unassuming room in a high school in Melbourne, Australia, Feliks Zemdegs, 22 years old, set a new world record. It took him 4.22 seconds. There was cheering, applause and a lot of congratulations from the teenage boys in the room. Zemdegs, looking unruffled and posing for a photo, made a peace sign. “The competition had barely begun,” he says. “It was quite a big surprise for me to get a solve that fast in competition, and with slightly cold hands early in the morning.”
Zemdegs is a speedcuber, or speedsolver, one of a very active and growing international community of enthusiasts who strive for efficient mastery of the quintessential ’80s toy, the Rubik’s cube—that colorful, complex contraption comprising 26 small cubes, rotating on a central axis. With more than 100 world records under his belt—scores more than any other competitor—Zemdegs is something of a legend in the cubing world. Having grabbed his first world records at the age of 14, he currently holds five, including for the fastest one-handed solve (6.88 seconds). For his most recent record for the standard 3x3x3 cube, he knocked more than a third of a second off the previous mark, as recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.
It’s fair to call him the fastest cuber in history—at least for now.
The Rise of Rubik’s ‘Magic Cube’
The Rubik’s cube was invented in the ’70s, by Erno Rubik, a Hungarian professor of design at the Academy of Applied Arts and Design who had studied sculpture and architecture. Rubik—whose own first attempt to solve the cube took a month—realized the object was much more than just a handy tool for teaching algebraic group theory and spatial relations, not to mention a marvel of structural design.
Rubik, whose mother was a poet and whose father was a flight engineer, wasn’t just a math geek. In a 2009 interview, he cited influences including Leonardo da Vinci, Voltaire, Jules Verne and Le Corbusier, among others.
He took his invention, which he originally called “the Magic Cube,” to a small toymaking company in Budapest in 1975, and the first Rubik’s cubes appeared in 1977. By the dawn of the ’80s, it was being puzzled over worldwide, the perfect portable entertainment—easy enough to take a stab at but also confoundingly difficult to crack. It won “toy of the year” prizes throughout Europe and North America, and was entered into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in 1982.
The Race to Solve Rubik’s
It wasn’t long before international cubing competitions began. In the first World Championship of the Cube in Budapest in 1982, an American named Minh Thai took gold by solving in a little more than 22 minutes. Over time, the events expanded beyond the standard 3x3x3 cube as speedcubers began to test themselves with a range of different sizes (2x2x2, 4x4x4, all the way up to 7x7x7). They also started to compete blindfolded; with a single hand; with as few moves as possible; with their feet; even underwater. (Speedcubing while skydiving is also a popular pastime.)
Record holder for the youngest person to solve a Rubik’s Cube? A 3-1/2-year-old Chinese competitor. Standing on a plastic stool to reach the table, the pigtailed Ruxin Liu took 1 minute and 39 seconds back in 2013.
Today, there are around 15 World Cube Association-recognized competitions every weekend around the globe.
“The average speedcuber…is a male teenager” who tends to be interested in mathematics, logic, puzzle solving, says Zemdegs. He himself completed an undergraduate degree in economics in 2016 and is currently studying for a master’s in mechanical engineering. In his spare time, he runs a website, cubeskills.com, offering tips and tutorial videos, and does some personal coaching on speedcubing techniques.
In the video of Zemdegs’ recent world-record effort, in the seconds before the timer starts, he turns the contraption around in his hands, learning its unique placement of colored tiles—one among 43 quintillion possible configurations. When the timer starts, Zemdegs’ hands and the cube itself create an impossible-seeming blur. As he explains, while he is executing moves, he’s looking and thinking several steps ahead. Much of it happens automatically.
“The ideal state of mind when solving cubes or competing at speedcubing competitions is to not be thinking about anything at all,” Zemdegs told me. “You want to be able to do everything subconsciously.”
The Making of a Speedcubing Champion
Zemdegs was only 12 when he stumbled on speedcubing videos on YouTube in 2008. “I’d played with a cube before, but never had been able to solve more than a few pieces of a side.” When he obtained a cube of his own, he was able to solve it in around an hour by following the instructions in a YouTube tutorial. “After that, I was obsessed, and wanted to practice to just get faster and faster.”
At his first competition in 2009, Zemdegs not only won the 3x3x3 event, with an average completion time of 13.74 seconds, but the 2x2x2, 4x4x4, 5x5x5, 3x3x3 blindfolded, and 3x3x3 one-handed events. At his next competition the following year, he broke two world records.
Being the fastest cuber on the planet has its challenges. In 2015 Zemdeg’s mother Rita told National Public Radio that her son is so swarmed with people trying to take selfies, he can barely find time for a bathroom break at competitions. “It’s a crazy feeling as a parent to have him mobbed by so many fans,” she said. “It’s hilarious. He doesn’t get much rest.”
These days, Zemdegs’ training schedule is “nothing crazy”—he practices around an hour a day, “or whenever I feel like it.” But with the U.S. National Championships just a few months away, Zemdegs knows his world records are never truly safe for long from someone with quicker hands. Competitors such as Korea’s SeungBeom Cho, American Max Park and the Netherlands’ Mats Valk are constantly nipping at his heels.
“There’s always people trying to beat them [the records],” he says, “and the margins between first and second rankings for most events are really small these days. I’d like to think that the 4.22 would stand until the end of 2018, but all it takes is just one solve to beat it.”