Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Rubik's "speed cubers" earning celebrity status

There's an old game in town that is creating a new class of celebrities: "speed cubers" who can solve the Rubik's Cube puzzle blindfolded, one-handed or even with their feet.

Tyson Mao, perhaps the biggest name in speed cubing, taught actor Will Smith how to solve the brightly colored cube for the film "The Pursuit of Happyness." Shotaro Makisumi is a math prodigy so dexterous he can juggle seven balls at once. And Leyan Lo, a senior at California Institute of Technology, was featured on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

"Those three guys are among the biggest names in the business," said Chris Hardwick, 23, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He holds the record for speed solving the Rubik's Revenge Cube and the Professor's Cube, two advanced models, while blindfolded.

The original Rubik's Cube -- which won "toy of the year" in Britain in 1980 -- is plastic, with nine colored squares on each face. The object is to move the pieces around until each side of the cube is a solid color.

Mao, Makisumi and Lo insist speed cubing is not as hard as it looks. In fact, they say they are surprised people admire them so much for something they say simply takes a lot of practice.

Since Rubik's Cube's comeback in the late 1990s, people have competed in the United States, Europe and Asia to break records -- or at least beat the 20-second benchmark.

Some cubers lubricate their cubes with silicone spray. Others loosen the screws to make them faster.

The first Rubik's world championship was held in 1982 in Budapest, Hungary, where the winner solved the cube in 22.95 seconds. The current record is 10.36 seconds, and the record for solving the puzzle using only the feet is 51.13 seconds.


Pat Riso, a spokeswoman for Hasbro Inc , which distributes the toys, attributes the increased interest to the Internet. "There are so many tutorials online," Riso said. "It opens up the door for more cubers to find out how to solve it and have fun with it."

It also opens the door to bigger sales. Nearly 300 million cubes have been sold since they were introduced in 1980.

Mao solves the cube blindfolded by memorizing the locations of certain squares and assigning numbers to them. Then, the San Francisco resident says, he follows the numbers in sequence in his head. Blindfolded, his record is 1 minute 42 seconds.

In 2004, Mao, 22, co-founded the World Cube Association which organizes competitions. Last year, there were 33 competitions on three continents.

Mao says his talent has earned him a fan club.

"I get calls from girls telling me they love me," he said. "But they're all about the Rubik's Cube guy. I don't think they're interested in me. I'm just a curiosity for them."

If dexterity is what makes a cuber a star, Makisumi can credit his lightning-quick hands.

Only 17 years old, he is an accomplished cuber and juggler who also enjoys math competitions and playing piano. He once held seven cubing records, including fastest one-handed solving.

Makisumi, of Arcadia, California, says he wants to finish high school and go to a good college, and he says he has turned down invitations to appear on television, including one from Oprah Winfrey.

Not all cubers are camera shy. Lo, 21, not only appeared on U.S. late-night television, but performed a speed solve on a special features documentary on "The Pursuit of Happyness"DVD.

At one time he held records for speed cubing and blindfold speed cubing. He plans to pursue a doctorate in physics at Stanford University in the fall.

Such fame has had its perks for Lo as well.

In his 2006 appearance on "The Tonight Show," after Lo was asked to speed solve a cube, host Jay Leno gave him another challenge -- unhooking the bras on five women.

The purpose was "to apply dexterity to real world situations," Lo said. "I got them all."

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