Competitive energy is palpable at this year’s CubingUSA Nationals in Salt Lake City, but it’s also clear how many Rubik’s fans are drawn as much to the cubing community itself as to the chance of winning a title or prize.
“Everybody is friendly and accepting,” said Elijah Brown, a 16-year-old cuber from Los Angeles. “A lot of us aren’t accepted in other places — but here, we are.”
With dozens of brightly colored Rubik’s Cubes and pyramids of all shapes and sizes in their pockets, backpacks and, sometimes, in large, hard-shelled cases, more than 700 people from across the country have converged at the Salt Palace Convention Center. Competitors range in age, but most are teenagers. Many were accompanied by their parents, who sat on the sidelines of the basement convention room wearing “Cubing Dad” and “Cubing Mom” T-shirts and watching as their children’s hands scramble over neon squares.
Many competitors find solace among friends at these gatherings, while learning patience and perseverance.
“Some people use it as a coping mechanism,” said Ryan McCrary, a sophomore at Brigham Young University from California, who has been cubing since he was 12. “People that fidget a lot or are maybe autistic, it’s literally a part of their lives.”
On Saturday, the second day of nationals, cubers sat together at tables in the center of the room, warming up their hands before competition and playing with unusually shaped puzzles. Backstage, “scramblers” got the cubes ready for the competitors, who sit onstage next to a timer that clocks their fastest solves.
This year’s contest drew the highest attendance in the event’s 14-year history, said Shelley Chang, a member of the board of directors for Cubing USA. The first nationals in 2004, as she recalled, amounted to about 30 enthusiasts from around the world, with a core group of college students who’d staged the event in their math lecture hall.
“It was a very small gathering,” Chang said Saturday. "And I’ve basically watched it grow since then to a 700-person competition.”
‘You can be anybody'
Isaac Myers, an 18-year-old from West Valley City, said he started cubing for a “bad reason” — jealousy.
“In like eighth grade, my friend brought back a cube from winter break and he’s like, ‘I can solve it,’” Myers said. “And I was like, ‘You’re going to teach me.’”
After that, Myers started practicing an “almost unhealthy amount,” working each day to quickly finish his homework and house chores before getting his hands on a cube.
“When you first start out solving a cube, it’s like magic that you can solve it,” he said. “I remember getting my first six-second solve and being dumbfounded, like, ‘How did that happen? What did I do right in that?’”
The event in Salt Lake City, which Myers helped run as a volunteer, was his first national competition. But the recent high school graduate already holds several statewide records in Utah and knows hundreds of algorithms, often complex sequences of moves that help cubers solve parts of the puzzle.
“I love everything about [cubing] except for the exponential decay of how fast you can get in a short amount of time,” he said. “Because like you’re a beginner and doing five solves increases your time by just a huge margin. But then getting up to my level where it’s just like, I need to learn hundreds and hundreds of algs and practice these things to shave off seconds is so hard but it kind of is worth it.”
Many cubers learn how to solve puzzles by watching videos on YouTube. And since it’s easy to find a cube for less than $20, there’s a relatively low economic barrier to entry in the community — and cubing is a skill Myers said anyone can learn.
“You don’t need to be good at math,” he said. “You don’t need to be old. You don’t need to be young. You can be anything. You can be anybody and just solve a Rubik’s Cube really fast if you just put in effort.”
‘A male-dominated sport’
At the same time, competition-level cubing continues to be heavily male-dominated — around 90 percent, Chang estimated. Equity has improved slightly, and conversations about how to improve gender diversity continue, she said.
“In the early days, I was commonly the only woman at a competition,” she said. “Now there are more, and some of them are really fast.”
In 2005, Chang said she became the first woman to solve a 3-by-3 cube blindfolded and held that title for about 10 years in part because, she said, “there were so few women.”
Channae Anderson, a 28-year-old nursing student at Texas Woman’s University, has been cubing for eight years, and the competition in Salt Lake City was her third nationals. Though she said “it’s a male-dominated sport for sure,” she also said she hasn’t felt that make a difference.
“Sometimes I forget, you know, that I’m a woman,” she said. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘Wow, I’m the only one around. Wow.’ But they treat me the same as everybody else. It’s good.”
Some male participants said they had noticed they’re usually in the majority, but they’re not sure why. Whatever the answer, many said they’d like to see more diversity.
“I don’t think there’s anyone more disappointed than me that there aren’t more girls at these competitions,” joked McCrary, the BYU sophomore.
Myers encouraged anyone who’s interested in cubing to have patience, keep practicing and “never think you’re too slow.”
“Some of my friends hate going to competitions because it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m too slow.’ But it’s like, ‘No, you’re not too slow,’” he said. “You go to a competition and now forever on the internet people have the availability to see that you can solve a Rubik’s Cube. And that is awesome. Solving Rubik’s Cubes is awesome and if you can do it, go to a competition. If you can’t do it, then learn. Then go to a competition.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly pluralized the name of cuber Channae Anderson’s school. She attends Texas Woman’s University.