Wherever Aidan Proietto went, the cube wasn’t far. Even on a family trip to the beach.
Now the sun was getting lower and his uncle, down from Long Island and amazed by his nephew’s abilities, was itching to stir up some fun.
"I’ll bet you five dollars he can do this thing in under 30 seconds," Uncle Mario told a group of tourists, who hadn’t necessarily invited this exchange, at Caddy’s on the Beach on Treasure Island. He pointed at the mild-mannered teen and planted a cube on their table.
Most would call it a Rubik’s Cube, the brand name for the original twisting cube puzzle with nine colored squares a side. It has confounded millions since first becoming a craze in the 1980s, even coming to symbolize genius in pop culture. Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness convinces a stockbroker to give him a coveted internship because he solves a Rubik’s cube in the length of a taxi ride.
Proietto has done it in 12.6 seconds in competition. His fingers flew until red, yellow, orange, blue, green and white were perfectly aligned.
The people paid up. So did another group. Another group wasn’t convinced, so they scrambled the cube themselves, not realizing it has 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible positions. They could have scrambled for five minutes or five years. Didn’t matter. Proietto solved it again, easily.
Proietto, 15, has solved the cube with his eyes closed for spectators along Beach Drive. He has solved it underwater in his family’s pool in the span of a breath. He has sat at their long black dining room table in St. Petersburg wearing a blindfold and noise canceling earmuffs solving 39 cubes in a row without looking, unlocking their scrambled patterns in his mind.
"It’s just … fun," said Proietto, a freshman at Canterbury School of Florida. He isn’t a big talker until you get him going on cubing and the world rankings. He’s currently No. 180 in blindfolded, multi-cube solving, out of around 8,000. In Florida, he has the record.
He’s part of a growing community of cubers born in the internet age, driving a resurgence in this tactile, plastic puzzle from an era of Pac-Man and Cabbage Patch Kids they don’t remember. Many come to it online, where cubing videos go viral on YouTube and cube memes and tips get passed around on Facebook. Unlike 30 years ago, guides to solving it are only a click away.
It’s a weird synergy over eras. Proietto posts blindfolded solving videos on the internet, dazzling viewers with a fad from the Reagan years, using a memory technique from two millennia ago.
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Solving the cube is simple. At least, it is according to every competitor asked during Florida Feast, a speed cubing competition held the Saturday after Thanksgiving in the cavernous, cement-floored cafeteria at Postcardmania, a direct mail marketing company in Clearwater.
The plastic click-click-clicking from every direction sounded like a scrum of photographers snapping shots on a red carpet as young people twisted cubes and they spilled from backpacks over every surface. There were standard 3x3s, smaller 2x2s, "cubes" shaped like pyramids and cylinders, cubes with 20 tiny squares on each side and "gem cubes" that incorporated hexagons with 14 faces. There were vials of cube oil, special cube covers and puzzling mats connected to timers.
"It’s really easy to solve one," said Tal Egosi, 13, of Lutz, record time: 17 seconds."Yeah, all you have to do is memorize an algorithm," added Sarasota’s Ethan Ooi, 11, record time: 21 seconds.
"No way. I can’t do that thing," said Janlouis Rivera, there from Tampa cheering his son, Robert Rivera, 12, record time: 28 seconds. "He tries to explain it to me. He’s dumbing it down, and it still sounds like another language."
It’s true, figuring it out on your own is impossible for most humans. The cube has 20 moving pieces, and every twist moves eight, right at the edge of what the brain can keep track of. But by following a guide to existing methods, an average person can solve a cube in a few hours to days, and solve it without looking at the instructions in a week.
Going fast is another story.
"It’s like when someone sees someone run really fast. They’re amazed at the speed, but not at the fact that they’re running," said Matthew McMillan, a spokesman for the World Cubing Association, the worldwide sanctioning body for competitive cubing, record time: 9.9 seconds. "With cubes, people think only a genius can solve it. That adds to the amazement, but it’s not really the case."
The world record is 4.59 seconds, set by Korea’s SeungBeom Cho in October. Yi-Fan Wu, of Taiwan, won the speed solving event in Clearwater with an 8.94-second average. That kind of solving involves learning multiple different methods, or algorithms, and applying them as needed, on the fly, plus a crazy amount of finger dexterity.
Journalist Ian Scheffler, record time 15.36 seconds, who wrote the book Cracking the Cube, said he compares the top speed solvers to improvisational jazz players crossed with chess grandmasters, who think a dozen moves ahead.
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Interest in competitive cubing has "rocketed," said James LaChance, record time: 12.15 seconds, who works at Postcardmania and has organized Florida Feast since 2014.
There were 75 competitors from all over Florida. If space wasn’t an issue, there could have been double that, he said.
Thousands have competed in WCA events in recent years, and the number of competitions is growing. There are now about five or more WCA-sanctioned cubing competitions worldwide every weekend, McMillan said, and the recent nationals in Indiana and world championships in Paris drew thousands.
Of all the guys competing at Florida Feast (only two females were registered), two appeared old enough to grow facial hair.
"When I got into it, it was definitely mostly college kids," said LaChance, 31. "Now it’s definitely younger, around middle school age."
Erno Rubik, a Hungarian architecture professor, invented the cube in 1974. It was a smash hit when it arrived in the U.S. in 1980, with an estimated 350 million sold, mostly in the first few years. The cube never faded away completely, but until a few years ago it was mostly a relic of nostalgia.
Now sales are up, but Rubik’s brand cubes are rarely used by today’s speed cubers, who turned to manufacturers quicker to focus on cubes engineered for speed. Some of the fastest have dozens of internal magnets and run $55. In turn, Rubik’s Cube last month filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against The Cubicle, a popular online retailer of such speedy cubes.
Rubik’s brand also recently announced its own speed cube and a licensing deal with Red Bull, which is organizing its own world championships. It will surely bring more attention, though many cubers worry big names are muscling in on the WCA, which spent years building a framework for the sport.
Red Bull said it’s listening to the concerns and wants to "enrich and broaden ... one of the most exhilarating emerging sports." Among the energy drink company’s roster of sponsored events, cubing will live alongside cliff diving, extreme downhill ice skating and low-altitude airplane racing.
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Aidan Proietto took first in blindfolded cubing at Florida Feast. Here’s how he solves multiple cubes from memory when he can’t see them:
First, he studies the cubes with eyes open, assigning letters to various squares, and combining those letters to signify positions he’ll need to remember to apply the many algorithms he has memorized.
He then applies a technique attributed to ancient Greek poet Simonides in the fifth century B.C. called the "memory palace," which involves creatively visualizing what needs remembering inside the rooms of a familiar space.
The first cube is the garage of his family’s home. He needs the letters DQ, so he thinks Dairy Queen, and visualizes a giant milkshake in his mom’s car. FS becomes fist, so he sees a giant fist growing out of the side of the milkshake. HK, someone is hiking up the hood. Pennywise, the clown from It, appears in the passenger seat.
For the next cube, he fills up the living room with weirdness. Next is the kitchen, the bathroom, and so on.
Once the blindfold is on, "I walk through my house in my mind," Proietto said.
Does he have a photographic memory?
"No, not at all," he said. "My memory’s not even that good."
Proponents say the memory palace can be used by anyone to remember anything, from answers on an exam to a grocery list without writing it down.
Aidan used it to study Japanese vocabulary when he started learning five months ago. He can read, write and speak it fairly well, now.
It came in handy on a recent family trip to Japan. They stopped off in Tokyo so he could compete in a cubing tournament.