By day Gavin Nelson appears to be an average high school freshman.
But put a Rubik’s Cube in his hands and Nelson becomes a phenom.
Nelson’s fingers move frenetically as he manipulates the cube. Two red blocks swirl into a glimpse of blue followed by a haze of green, with flashes of orange and white. The clicking sounds of the small squares snapping into place offer an audible sign of a master at work.
Fifteen seconds later, Nelson is done. He sets the cube down, each side restored to its distinctive field of color.
Nelson discovered his passion for “cubing,” a term coined by fans of solving Rubik’s Cube and related puzzles, at age 13 when he first unlocked the secret of the cube that has stumped millions since it was invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and professor Ernö Rubik.
In the past three decades, the Rubik’s Cube has gained the reputation of a toy understood only by mathematical geniuses, beyond the grasp of the layman. For most people, that seems to be the case. They’ve been available in this country since 1980 and many American households have at least one scrambled Rubik’s Cube forgotten in a closet or attic, abandoned after a frustrated and ill fated attempt to solve the puzzle.
Nelson first stumbled upon a Rubik’s Cube in the basement of his family’s home. He immediately went online and discovered a treasure trove of tried and true methods for solving the puzzle. What astonished Nelson in his research was the simplicity of the cube.
Most people, explained Nelson’s twin sister, Kate, who is also adept at the cube and teaches others how to master it, focus on completing one side of color first — but this is often their undoing.
The “cuber,” explained Gavin Nelson, should break the puzzle down into manageable parts, and instead solve layers of color until the puzzle is complete. And although a knack for math is useful in solving the Rubik’s Cube, an ability to recognize sequences of visual patterns is far more helpful.
“There is quite a bit of memorization, but its visual memorization. I try to memorize patterns,” explained Nelson at his Noyac home. After years of scrambling and solving the Rubik’s Cube, Nelson has created a mental filing cabinet of corresponding moves for almost every color combination of pieces he encounters while working the puzzle. This has helped him lower his average solving time through the years. His fingers, too, have learned the drill, working in concert with one another while also seemingly independently — a flick of a pinkie is often all it takes to complete a section while his other hand is already focused on a different part of the cube. Another trick of the trade Nelson has picked up is coating his cubes with a silicone spray, which allows the blocks to turn more easily.
Nelson’s skill at the cube has taken him to competitions throughout the U.S. hosted mainly by the World Cube Association. Nelson particularly excels at three different events: solving the cube blindfolded, completing the puzzle with just one hand, and the megaminx — a type of “super Rubik’s” with 12 faces and 11 pieces per side.
“I went to my first competition in November of 7th grade. I was 13 and one of the youngest people doing it,” remembered Nelson. “There are a few tables up front where you compete. There are timers and the judge calls you up [to the stage]. You bring your cube and they scramble it for you. You have fiften seconds to look at it before they start the time.”
At the 2009 U.S. national championships, Nelson placed fifth in the final round of the megaminx challenge and nabbed 17th place in the first round of the blindfold event. When solving the cube with his eyes covered, contestants are first given the opportunity to study the scrambled cube before the blindfold is administered. When Nelson first competed with the Rubik’s Cube, his time hovered around two minutes — but his average is now in the 15-second range. In competition, Nelson’s best score was clocked at 13 seconds.
During competition, Nelson isn’t going toe to toe with teenaged players — all competitors are placed into the same group regardless of age. Most cubers, explains Nelson, are between 18 to 20-years-old, though the pack is peppered with a few 40 to 50-year-olds, and the players often aren’t the stereotypical math whiz.
Nelson’s mother, Christine, noted that unlike many sports, the intense competitive aspect of the matches rarely spills over into the interpersonal relationships between the players.
“It is 99 percent guys competing and there is huge camaraderie,” remarked Christine. “[In the off hours] they teach each other new moves and tricks. They become ‘cubing’ buddies and Nelson is in constant contact with them.”
She added that two years ago she couldn’t have imagined becoming a “cubing” mother and traveling to at least 10 competitions a year. But her son, noted Christine, has finally found a passion.
“He played soccer. He played the cello. But he became passionate about the ‘cubing.’ It is neat to see something that he was in love with doing,” said Christine. “It opened up a whole new group of long distance friends who are excellent role models for him.”
An unlikely byproduct of Nelson’s new found talent is that he can always be tracked down in his house by following the clicking noises.
“[My husband and] I would joke and say ‘can anyone make a silent Rubik’s Cube?’ There was a constant clicking in the house,” remarked Christine. “To find him you just had to follow the clicks.”