October 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Feliks Zemdegs, Rubik’s champion

By Darryn King
Illustration
Meet the world’s fastest cuber

On a recent Sunday at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, there was a lot of rigorous twisting and twiddling of clickety-clacking multicoloured cubes.

The finalists of the main event at the 14th US National Speedcubing Championship were mostly university-aged dudes. One wore industrial-grade earmuffs during solves, another earplugs, another an In-N-Out Burger paper hat.

Feliks Zemdegs, a pale 22-year-old from Melbourne, took to the stage in shorts. Suddenly he was unscrambling the cube, wrenching his head back as if to give the mad flurry of his fingers more room. In roughly the time it will take you to read this sentence, there was a solved cube on the mat in front of him.

In the very specific sense of perfectly aligning the 54 coloured tiles of a Rubik’s cube, Zemdegs is the fastest man in the world. He has been called the Usain Bolt of the puzzle, though the combination of iron discipline and dazzling mental and physical agility might instead make one think of a concert pianist or virtuoso violinist. According to Zemdegs, the subconscious “flow” state is similar, too. “You don’t really think,” he tells me. “You just do it.”

For the best part of a decade, Zemdegs has been smashing world records, primarily his own. In May, in Melbourne, he set a new world record for the speediest solve ever, at 4.22 seconds. (It was early in the day; his hands weren’t even warmed up yet.) At home, he has clocked himself at around 3.5 seconds. He also holds the world record for solving the puzzle using one hand: 6.88 seconds.

In the international speedcubing community (again, mostly young, mostly guys), Zemdegs is a rock star, regularly accosted to pose for selfies with fans and sign their cubes.

“Feliks is astounding,” comedian Lawrence Leung, another passionate cuber from Melbourne, told me. “You can see from competition videos that he is a cool cucumber, a ninja. In most elite sports, many train for decades to finally achieve greatness in their field. However, in the arena of speedcubing a teenager like Feliks can become the world champion. What does that feel like – to be so young, knowing you are the best in the planet at something? It boggles my mind.” (Leung, for his part, has jumped out of an aeroplane and solved a cube during freefall. “Feliks is so fast, he would have solved the cube before they opened the aeroplane door.”)

In April 2008, when he was 12, Zemdegs came across a YouTube video called “How To Solve a Rubik’s Cube”. (It had been created by a Nebraskan teenager in his bedroom.) A quiet, mathematically minded kid, Zemdegs was intrigued to learn that there was a method and logic to tackling the interlocking cubelets and their 43 quintillion possible configurations. (Well, 43,252,003,274,489,856,000.)

That afternoon, he strolled the 10 minutes to the local Mind Games store, picked up a Rubik’s cube for around $15, and returned home to follow along with the tutorial.

In about an hour’s time, he was done. He scrambled the thing and started again.

Zemdegs insists that, with patience, anyone can conquer the cube. Edward Snowden, NFL quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and Justin Bieber might attest to that. (Daily Mail headline, July: “Justin Bieber plays with Rubik’s Cube as Hailey Baldwin flaunts taut torso”.)

But few are struck, as Zemdegs was, with the determination to get faster and faster. His initial practice sessions – before school, during class, while watching TV, at the dinner table – typically involved around 100 solves in a row. He memorised dozens of algorithms, mastered the least finger-friendly manoeuvres, got really good at pattern recognition. The family’s pet budgerigar began making the cube’s chk-chk-chk sounds.

“I probably spent about three hours a day practising, whenever I had free time,” he says. “It got pretty distracting.”

In a week, he got down to about two minutes; in a month, one minute. By June 2008, he was posting his own videos on YouTube, showing off an average speed of 22.64 seconds.

He attended his first competition the following year, clocking an average of 13.74 seconds in the final round. The year after that, he set his first world record, with an average of 9.21 seconds – the first person to break the 10-second barrier. The year after that: 7.91 seconds. And so on, and so on.

He is no slouch in other polyhedral puzzle events: blindfolded solving, blindfolded solving of multiple cubes, cubes of varying dimensions (2 x 2 x 2 right up to 7 x 7 x 7), the Pyraminx (picture a pyramid-shaped Rubik’s puzzle), the Megaminx (dodecahedron-shaped), the Skewb (don’t ask). “They’re just natural extensions of normal solving,” he says. He draws the line at the official, World Cube Association–recognised event of feet-­solving. “I have no interest in that.”

For the regular 3 x 3 x 3 cubing events, Zemdegs’ hardware of choice is a GAN356 Air SM, a 76-gram optimised cube with a magnetic positioning system, superior handfeel, honeycomb contact surface for better lubrication, and “triple anti-corner-twist with circular-square design”.

It’s how you use it, of course. As another elite speedcuber explained to me, what’s most impressive about Zemdegs is the efficiency of his solutions (he set his world record with 38 moves at nine moves per second), the smoothness of his turns (an inadequately aligned cube will result in a two-second penalty), and how “deep” into a solve he sees (this is known as “lookahead”).

In other areas of life, Zemdegs is not all that fussed about lookahead. He’s partway through a master’s in mechanical engineering and not sure what the future holds. (In 2009 he told the Herald Sun, for the first article about his prestidigital prowess, that the novelty would likely “wear off in a while”.) “I don’t have any other major hobbies besides speedcubing,” he says. “My practice and other commitments take up a fair bit of time.”

Ernő Rubik, the Hungarian professor of architecture who invented the cube, has sometimes waxed lyrical on the “power” of the object, as if it contains the secrets of the universe: order and chaos, simplicity and complexity, pleasure and frustration. “We turn the cube,” he said, “and it twists us.”

“Yeah, it is a little bit pretentious,” Zemdegs says with a laugh. “I’m not sure it’s something I ever really think about.”

The final round of the US Nationals was, in fact, over in seconds. Zemdegs came in first, with an average solve time of 6.28 seconds. No world record this time.

“Decent” was Zemdegs’ assessment of his performance afterwards. “But nothing amazing.”

He pocketed one cube and flung another into the cheering crowd. Then he left the stage to join his friends and fellow cubers, clicking perfectly and contentedly right back in place.

Darryn King

Darryn King is a freelance journalist based in New York.

@DarrynKing

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