My dad bought me my first Rubik’s Cube for my 9th birthday, in 1980. I tried to solve it most days for months with nothing like success. I never gave up, but I probably would have eventually, as the method I had come up with, solving one side and then trying to solve adjacent sides, would never work. I had not grasped the logic of the puzzle, that the center pieces never unscramble, so that there is a preordained, final resting place for every piece of the cube, and that you have to solve the pieces, not just the stickers. Without those insights, Rubik’s Cubes are maddening. You solve one sticker and mess up another.

One morning I woke up to see my solved cube sitting on top of a copy of James Nourse’ The Simple Solution to the Rubik’s Cube. That solved cube is still such a vivid memory for me–magic! It turned out that my dad had bought the book for me and then stayed up all night, deciphering its codes and solving the cube. That gave him his fill of cubing–I never saw him touch it again–but I went through the book over and over, learning the method, eventually memorizing enough of it to reliably solve the cube. By mid-1982 I could solve it in just over 3 minutes.

It turns out that while I was doing my 3-minute solves, there were already national speed-cubing competitions. The world record solve at that time was 22.95 seconds, held by a 16-year-old kid in Los Angeles. I did not meet anyone else who could solve one until I met Greg Alkire in 1985. He had actually come up with his own method–a feat of reasoning that is to this day far beyond me. My genius, if you can call it that, is more in the realm of persistence than reasoning.

I bought a new cube in 2007 with no premeditation, and without having played with one for at least 20 years. I saw a display in a department store and thought it would be fun. I started watching people do these super fast solves on YouTube, and soon realized that Nourse’ “simple method” was actually very complicated, that lubricating my cube made everything easier, and that it was much faster (and cooler looking) to use my fingers instead of my wrists to make the moves.

I have been in grad school, so no time for real practice, plus my 39-year-old knuckles start to hurt a bit if I work too long, but I am down to averaging just over a minute in my solves, using Badmephisto‘s beginner method. I am also using F2L, which is (slightly) short for “first two layers,” meaning you solve two layers of the cube at the same time. Here is my most recent average of ten solves on cubetimer.com:

It has been slow progress, but very entertaining and challenging. As Badmephisto says, solving the cube is easy, but solving it quickly is very difficult. It’s this intense mixture of pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, spatial reasoning, and memory. In his great little book, Mastery, Leonard says you have to “love the plateau.” With cubing, I do. I go slowly. I practice looking and thinking ahead. I practice keeping track of where the important pieces are when they are out of sight.

I was slightly tempted to put up a video of myself doing one of these solves, but became too embarrassed. I can love my plateau, but I don’t yet love you seeing my plateau. Speedcubing is like dancing, that way. If you can’t do it, you think anyone who can is amazing. If you can and you watch an intermediate-level dancer or cuber, all you see are the problems. All I see when I watch myself dance is the awkwardness and the neck-jut. When I watch myself cube all I see is how long it takes me to find pieces that I am looking for. And I’m a solid intermediate Lindy Hopper, but still a beginning cuber. I think you have to be doing 40-second-average solves to qualify as intermediate.

Here’s the current world record solve of 6.24 seconds:

Here’s the current world record for a blindfolded solve, at 30.90 seconds:

If you are interested in learning to solve a Rubik’s Cube, I recommend buying a good cube here right off the bat (they  don’t cost much more than a crappy one from a department store), and learning Badmephisto’s beginning method (here for excellent video tutorials), which is both easier and will cause fewer problems than the method that comes in a new cube package when you eventually ramp up to more sophisticated methods.

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