Rubiks Renaissance: Why the cube is making a comeback

In school gyms, church halls and conference centres all over the country, quiet, unassuming communities assemble.

Crowds of them, armed with timers, come together to compete. Governed by strict rules, they are smart, focused and quick as lightning.

Known as speedcubers, they are living out a postmodern Rubik’s renaissance.

Membership of the World Cubing Association (WCA) has shot through the roof in recent years; it has seen a 500% increase in the last decade.

Last year, more than 26,000 signed up to the WCA, compared with 4,300 in 2012, and the body has seen more than 100,000 race each other in competitions all over the globe.

So how did the humble toy, which was born in the 70s, see such a recent surge in popularity?

Lockdown was a catalyst, says cubing champion George Scholey, who can solve a Rubik’s in an incredible 5.72 seconds.

The 21-year-old from London spent two years as the UK’s fastest cuber – before his cubing crown was snatched by a 12-year-old in 2021.

‘People have been speed solving for years, but recently popularity has really grown. I think a lot of that is due to lockdown when people were at home with little to do and genuinely just getting bored with their phones,’ he explains. ‘Pretty much everyone has a Rubik’s Cube lying around in their house. Plus – everything is out there online on how to solve it. It’s super accessible.’

George first learnt how to solve a cube from YouTube in 2015. Since then he is the world record holder for the most cubes solved on a skateboard (500) and the most cubes solved in 24 hours (6,931).

He started off practicing for six hours a day, but getting a degree put a stop to that, and now graduated, he is a Rubik’s ambassador.

‘Cubing has grown exponentially in popularity and there are now competitions every week,’ he says. ‘There are so many organisers, delegates and enough competitors to justify that. It’s exploding, which is amazing for me to see. But it’s intimidating. People are getting a lot faster.’

In fact, the fastest known cuber is currently American Max Park, 21, who solved the 3x3x3 puzzle in an astonishing 3.13 seconds in June.

Max was one of the stars of the Netflix film ‘The Speed Cubers’, a moving documentary that showed how the autistic youngster couldn’t use his hands due to poor motor skills as a small child.

Max discovered cubing, aced it, now wins competitions around the world and has become part of a loving and accepting community.

George adds: ‘I cannot emphasise enough how welcoming the cubing community is. Truly there’s nothing like it. You get quite a lot of neuro-atypical kids there and that’s great.

‘You have a lot of unconventional personalities and no-one bats an eyelid. You’re free to express yourself however you like. It’s really accepting. But also, we’re not competing against each other. We’re competing against ourselves. And that’s the mentality.’

While Rubik’s are the best known of the cubes, there are a number of other makes, including Gan, Nexcube and MoYu, among others.

And while we all recognise the 3x3x3 cube, competitors also race to solve the 2×2, the Square-1, the Megaminx, Pyraminx and Skewb as well as other so-called ‘twisty puzzles’. 

American YouTuber Shawn Boucké tells that he has seen a surge in popularity over the past five years.

The musician and teacher from Michigan set up a YouTube channel and website to help other cubers after he fell in love with cubing nine years ago.

‘The 40th anniversary in 2020 brought it back into people’s consciousness,’ he explains ‘In 2015, Rubik’s updated their cube, which made it more enjoyable to turn and more durable. And prominent YouTubers like myself brought the community into a more accessible venue.’

At one point 30-year-old Shawn owned over 800 cubes, but gave many away in a charity drive.

‘Cubing is a great way to develop spatial reasoning, logical thinking, and problem-solving skills,’ he adds. ‘It can improve cognitive abilities such as visual perception, spatial awareness, and critical thinking. It also helps develop patience, perseverance, and the ability to break down complex problems into smaller, manageable steps.

‘Socially it is an activity that people come together often and has a built community of all ages. I enjoy it. It’s meditative, and also has brought many of my closest friends into my life.’

The history of the Cube

Hungarian educator Ernő Rubik holds up his invention, the Rubik’s cube, in 1981 (Picture: by Archive Photos/Getty)

The world’s most famous cube puzzle was made by Hungarian Ernő Rubik, now 79, from wood with painted coloured squares.

He created an interlocking set of blocks which he scrambled over and over again, until he realised he couldn’t put it back into place.

It took Ernő around a month before the colours aligned again. Not surprising, given that the cube has 43 quintillion possible configurations.

In fact, when Ernő invented the cube in 1974, he wasn’t sure it could ever be solved. It was released to the market in 1980 and since then, it has become a global phenomenon, with more than 350 million cubes sold.

Ernő can now solve the cube in around a minute. He says: ‘If you find something difficult and find a solution, it is much more enjoyable than finding something trivial. Millions of people are sharing this feeling and that’s a good thing.’

Once you’ve learnt how to solve it, the cube certainly has a therapeutic effect. Champion cuber Juliette Sébastien solves and resolves her cube while she speaks over the phone to, her sentences punctuated by a rhythmic click-clack.

The 22-year-old foreign languages student discovered cubing when she was 12, and her fastest official solve is an outstanding 4.44 seconds.

While she is currently busy at university, she can spend up to seven hours a day cubing.

‘The social aspect is extremely beneficial for me,’ she says. ‘Because competitions are generally a very friendly environment and people go to share similar interests. That helped me because I have always struggled to socialise and make friends. A few years into my cubing career I was diagnosed with autism, so that all made sense.

‘If you have autism, it feels like you’re constantly walking on eggshells and that everyone is playing a game that you don’t have the rules to. It is unpredictable and there is a lot to misunderstand. I just feel a lot more at ease with cubers. You have a set conversation topic, and you never run out of things to say.

‘Thanks to cubing, I’ve made a lot of very deep friendships that I would never have had to access otherwise. It’s a pretty niche hobby, and usually where you will find a lot of nerds. A lot of these people really get into the intellectual side of cubing. The community is more friendly than other competitive environments I’ve been in. Before cubing, I tried chess and I wasn’t motivated to continue because I found that the atmosphere wasn’t the nicest. It wasn’t a place I felt good in. Cubing is completely different.’

Juliette met her boyfriend (Quentin – fastest solve 5.05 seconds) at the European championships last year, and she finds the presence of the cube in her life soothing thanks to its ‘stimming’ effect.

Stimming, which varies from person to person, describes repetitive and self-stimulating behaviour for either enjoyment, to gain sensory input or to reduce it, or to deal with stress and uncertainty.

‘Cubing can alleviate tension or anxiety,’ explains Juliet, who was born in France but lives in London. ‘If I’ve had a hard day, solving the cube will calm me down. I find it much easier to talk to someone if I am playing around with my cube.’ 

Meanwhile, George adds: ‘I talk about solving cubes, but cubing has also solved my life. It’s amazing what it’s done for me. I’ve gone from being a timid 13-year-old to being fairly confident now, to competing round the country and appearing on TV. Even just going to competitions has had a huge impact. The big thing for me is that it taught me how to get up again. From a young age I’ve had to learn resilience.

‘Doing badly in competitions, being nervous, meant I had the choice to give up or give it one more push. I decided to really push; that really taught me that you have to just keep pursuing something.

‘Ambition and determination is so important in life to get you where you want to be. Cubing has brought me so much more than just solving; I’m making a career out of it. And that’s really exciting.’

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