Mundane Hobbies: The Rubik’s Cube

17 May 2020
Coronavirus, Mundane Hobbies, Rubiks Cube, Speedcubing, Pastimes, Covid-19, Self-care, Self Isolation, Lockdown, Home Quarantine, Puzzle, Mind Games, Games, Gaming
In a world where regular pastimes are out, one GQ Editor has been solving the puzzle

Is it just me or has lockdown really exposed a lack of pastimes that could honestly be counted as hobbies?

I’m not talking about what you actually do when you’re on your own. I’m talking about the things you tell other people you do when you’re writing your CV.

In lieu of “Enjoys falling asleep on the sofa with the laptop on his stomach”, the ‘Other Interests’ section of my resume looks pretty empty now that “standing in a place with a drink” and “staring at my phone in the gym” have both been banned.

Rock climbing, running and kickboxing, all things I’ve done more than several times in my life and are permanent fixtures on my ‘oh I do that list’ are also tough to practice in the house.

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Isolating alone and with a job that involves a lot of writing, I need hobbies which don’t require a laptop. I’ve read all the books in my apartment, built the Lego set I had. I’ve baked banana bread, ruined a batch of scones and finally, when I caught myself dressing up to take the bins out, I decided something needed to be done.

Naturally, I turned to the Rubik’s Cube.

Two years ago, I was given this small, plastic puzzle as a Christmas present. I spent the following Boxing Day sat in front of a YouTube tutorial, learning a failsafe way of solving any cube, no matter how scrambled it was.

And as you might imagine, I immediately became insufferably smug about it. During a particularly shameful period I even carried the cube around with me day to day, just in case I needed to prove that I could solve it.

Since those heady days of my early 30s (yes, I was single) my obsession with the cube waned and I stopped practicing. Eventually, like the lyrics of a song you were convinced you’d know forever, the moves fell out of my head.

Let’s quickly acknowledge that solving a Rubik’s Cube at a party is perhaps the only thing worse than picking up a guitar and saying “anyway, here’s Wonderwall.”

It is simultaneously an agonizingly slow yet lightning fast way of ensuring your social distance is no longer in danger of being compromised.

However, re-learning to solve the cube did prove to be surprisingly rewarding.

The first thing to say is that solving a Rubik’s cube does not have to be a matter of skill or intelligence. It’s simply about learning by rote. If you watch the tutorial I did, you’d be able to do it, too. But, once you learn how the cube works, it becomes infinitely easier to understand and solve.

You learn, for instance, that the middle colour on each of the cube’s six sides dictates what colour that face should be when it’s solved. You learn that you should solve it in layers, rather than face by face.

You learn algorithms — a fancy way of saying you’ve memorised a sequence of moves — which allow you to move the coloured squares around the cube at will.

And you also learn that you are dumb.

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Sure, the method I learned will help you solve a cube. But it’s an extremely inefficient way of doing so, involving hundreds of unnecessary moves and at least 20 minutes of your time.

Google’s computers, meanwhile, have calculated that any Rubik’s Cube, no matter how scrambled, can be solved in 20 moves or less.

We are living in a golden age of Cube solving. It was thought for a long time that no one could solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 20 seconds. Then, like Kipchoge’s sub-two hour marathon for nerds, it was down to sub-10, then sub-9 seconds.

Today, the world record for solving a cube (it’s called Speedcubing, by the way) belongs to a Chinese cuber called Yusheng Du, who managed it in a frankly absurd 3.47 seconds. About the length of time it took you to read this last paragraph.

Participants in the most extreme version of this peak-geek pastime use specially designed cubes that they keep well lubricated, for faster transitions.

All of this is to say that yes, I can solve a Rubik’s cube, but the difference between what I can do with one and what the professionals do, is a lot like the difference between me and Kipchoge over 26.2 miles.

Still, having picked the cube up again I was reminded how soothing it was. The quiet creak of the plastic as you twist its colourful cubes, and the daft satisfaction of completing a line, a row, two rows, five sides, and then the sixth‑ is not to be underestimated.

Play it for long enough and you begin to notice patterns, too. You know when a block is out of place or you’ve taken a wrong move. You can skip steps or fix something if it’s wrong.

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It also teaches you the difference between what seems like progress and actual results.

People worry that they’ll mess up the work that they’ve done to get 3 or 4 of the same colour onto one face. Solving the cube teaches you to not to be afraid to sacrifice superficial success in order to achieve the bigger goal.

And who knows, maybe one day, at a post-coronavirus party, someone will reach for a cube and say “I wish I knew how to solve this”, and that, fellow geeks, will be my moment to step up and achieve the biggest goal of all.