Twists and turns

Posted on June 13, 2015


Baradwaj Rangan drops in at the Rubik’s Cube Indian National Championships and discovers a quirky, super-smart subculture.

Naren Ramesh isn’t the kind of person you’d expect to encounter at the Indian Nationals 2015, the competition otherwise known as 2015 Rubik’s Cube Indian National Championships. For one, he’s 10, a small, scrawny kid with a red backpack on which a yellow octopus is beaming. With his grave expression and oval spectacles, Naren is just a lightning scar away from playing Harry Potter in a school play. When I saw him at the Championships, which were held over the last three days of May, in Chennai, he was in a preliminary round, attempting to solve a 3×3 cube – that is, three rows, three columns per face. If you are, like me, a novice to the world of speed-cubing, you may wonder why these specs are necessary. After all, isn’t every Rubik’s Cube a 3×3? No, as it turns out. There’s 2×2 (two rows, two columns), 4×4, 5×5, 6×6, 7×7. There’s something called Pyraminx (a tetrahedron). There’s Skewb (an octahedron). There’s Megaminx (a dodecahedron). Somewhere, Euclid is punching the air.

Naren has been cubing since January. He had been banned from electronics for a month. “Too much YouTube in his spare time,” his father Ramesh, a software engineer from Bangalore, told me. As an alternative, Ramesh tried to get Naren interested in chess, but Naren became fascinated with his father’s cube. “He was able to figure it out,” said Ramesh. Naren downloaded PDF how-to manuals and – small irony alert – watched YouTube tutorials, and he was soon proficient enough to participate in a school competition. Ramesh, then, decided to bring Naren down to the Nationals, where the boy has entered five competitions. “He’s not going to win anything,” Ramesh said. “He’s too young. He’ll probably make it to a couple of rounds and then lose. But a competition like this teaches important lessons. He’ll learn to lose. But he’ll also gain confidence because he got through a couple of rounds. And he’ll learn to deal with other players not as adversaries but as friends.”

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Or as Calvin’s father would say in the comic strip, “It builds character.” Many parents spoke about the positive effects of cubing on their children. I heard of a boy who was weak in maths; after he got into cubing, his scores improved. “There’s logic. There are permutations and combinations. There are algorithms, formulas. All this helped his thinking power.” I heard of a boy who was very reserved. “But he’s opened up a lot with this group, this cubing fraternity.” I even heard of a boy who was going away to college and discovered that the hostel rooms required him “to use a mug.” He told his mother to call a plumber and do something about it. The result? A portable health faucet with a universal adapter that could fit any tap. The ingenuity may have been the plumber’s but the determination to fix this problem – that was the boy’s.

Dipesh Shah, who’d flown in from Mumbai, accompanying his son Rishabh, told me that he was a little concerned that this was not an outdoor sport, a team sport. “We want him to be a team player.” But he conceded that “this definitely develops memory.” Shah owns a company that manufactures safety equipment for confined spaces, like tanks. Rishabh picked up cubing when he was left friendless after they moved to a new house. There was a cube lying around – “a toy,” Shah called it. Rishabh got into it. Along with YouTube, he also learnt from a Facebook group. “This was one of the times social media was rightly used,” Shah said. In four months Rishabh was speed-cubing – as the name suggests, it’s solving a cube as quickly as possible, in a matter of seconds – and Shah began to pick up high-speed cubes on his travels to Singapore, the UK and the US. I asked him if speed-cubing was expensive. “Initially, we bought a lot of cubes,” he said. “There was a lot of wear and tear. Plus, he was collecting different types of cubes – 2×2, 3×3, etc. And as he got better, he wanted higher-speed cubes.” At first, it cost Shah about Rs. 1000 per month. Now, he spends Rs. 3000 annually on replacing worn cubes.

Shah was wondering if he could get his son’s next round advanced, as he had a flight to catch. This is just one of the many things that made this event – this national championship – seem like a bonhomous neighbourhood get-together. The arrangements are casual. At the start, the cube that has been “scrambled” (by following a computer-generated sequence) is covered by a lid – one of these lids was a Wang’s Kitchen takeaway container, the phone number scrawled across with a black marker. The numbers on the contestants’ tables are hand-written. One volunteer wore an “I flunked Anger Management” T-shirt. Another wore one that said “Screw You, this is ME(CH).” The barricade beyond which the contestants sat was a row of moulded-plastic chairs. But parents leaned in and exhorted their children. A Telugu-speaking mother kept shouting to her boy, “Time choodu.” The timer read 31.312 s. An organiser told me that the third number after the decimal is not counted. Phew, I guess.

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Even the name of the event’s title sponsor exuded backslapping charm: CubeLelo. Jainendra Jain, who co-owns the online “cube store” with Nitesh Deshmukh (both are 23), said they started CubeLelo in 2013 “just to get good-quality cubes for ourselves.” Jain and Deshmukh met in 2010, at an IIT-JEE coaching class in Bhilai. At least for Deshmukh, the lessons must have helped, for he soon found himself in IIT-Bombay and part of the Rubik’s Club. He recalled the time in 2012 when more than 1000 cubers gathered on campus to solve  the Cube simultaneously, in less than 30 minutes – 937 managed to solve the cube, which was, for a while, a Guinness Record. Jain was in NIT-Bhopal when Deshmukh visited him and introduced him to speed-cubing. Jain bought his first cube in July 2013, for Rs. 1800. Today, he sells the same kind of cube for Rs. 600. He sources cubes from Singapore, Taiwan, China and the US. When I asked him about the most expensive cube, he said there was a 13×13 priced at Rs. 20, 000. He hasn’t sold any of those yet. “Most people buy a 3×3.” And they opt for brands used by cubers who break records. “No one had heard of Yuxin cubes,” said Jain, “but now I use one because that’s what Collin Burns used.” He’s referring to the American teenager who set a world record this year, solving the 3×3 in an incredible 5.25 s. When this report was carried in the online edition of the Daily Mail, a commentator snarked, “I am sure that it will take him 5 years to remove a woman’s bra, that’s if he ever sees one.”

The perception of cubers as geeks is perhaps inevitable, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. Aashrit Maheish, one of the organisers, told me excitedly on the second day that Shivam Bansal from Agra had created a national record that morning, solving 17 out of 18 cubes, blindfolded. Blindfolded. There’s also a category for solving with one hand. And solving with feet. The day may not be far when someone holds the downward dog position and speed-solves a cube while balancing it on his nose. Hari Anirudh, another organiser, told me how one solves the cube blindfolded. The scrambled cube is shown to the contestant before he is blindfolded – with the kind of eye mask given out on airlines – and he “memorises” the configuration by assigning a letter to each sticker (each position, really) on the face of the cube and making up stories. Hari Anirudh made up one such story for me. Pointing to the cube in his hand, he said: This is A and this is G, so ‘aging’… I and S, so ‘Israeli’… D and R, so ‘deer’… O and B, so ‘obese’… J and D, so ‘jade…’  In his mind, this particular configuration meant this story: An aging Israeli bloke has a deer that’s obese and made of jade. I asked him if it was okay if I wrote this down. He said there was no problem. He’s even made YouTube tutorials explaining his tricks. “It’s a good thing there’s no money involved,” he said. “So there are no patented moves or trade secrets.”

Aashrit, Hari Anirudh and the third organiser Kesava Kirupa met at a competition organised by the Chennai Cubers Club (C³). They became friends and discussed bringing a big cubing event to Chennai. Nothing’s bigger than the Nationals. The first Indian Nationals were held last year in Mumbai, hosted by DJ Sanghvi College of Engineering. For the second edition, applications were invited by the WCA (World Cube Association), the body that governs competitions for all puzzles labelled as Rubik puzzles. (The current board comprises members from the USA, Brazil, the Netherlands, Peru, and, perhaps inevitably, Hungary, the home of cube inventor Ernő Rubik.) Aashrit, Hari Anirudh and Kesava Kirupa were chosen in January, which gave them four months to organise this event, which had nearly 200 participants. “Ninety-eight per cent of them are from India,” Aashrit told me. There are some from the US, one from Dubai…”  I met a 12-year-old from Seoul. Min Suk Kin had been cubing for five months, and his father, he said, “works for the company that makes Samsung.”

Deepshika Narasimhan, an 18-year-old from Chennai, was the only girl I saw with a cube. She told me that her personal best is 19s (on the 3×3). (Wikipedia says she is the  fastest female speed-cuber in India.) Her older brother Bhargav is her inspiration. This March, he became a Guinness Record-holder when he solved five cubes one-handed in 1:23:934 minutes, breaking a 2010 record by Yumu Tabuchi of Japan. Deepshika called out to him, and when he appeared, I asked him why there weren’t more female cubers. He said, “This needs a lot of concentration and practice. You can’t multi-task and be a cuber. Girls can’t focus on one thing at a time.” But maybe there is something like too much practice. Kesava Kirupa wants to be a computer engineer, so he is giving up “active cubing” for a while. “At this level, it’s hard to cope with school and cubing.” In preparation for this event, he was cubing  for over three hours a day. “It becomes an addiction.”

Two boys walked past with boxes. They began to set up a stall at a corner, selling cubes – which looked, at first, a redundant enterprise, as everyone here had cubes. But sometimes a cube gets stuck. A corner might pop away. A sticker may come unglued. And sometimes, you just can’t have enough cubes. Bhargav said he has a ‘main cube’ and a ‘spare cube’. He competes with the main cube, and when it’s taken away for scrambling, he practices with the spare cube – “to warm up” he said. He meant it literally, for the hand can lose flexibility in air-conditioned environments, though that’s not the case here, at the PSBB Millennium School at Gerugambakkam, which is a suburb of Chennai but, for official purposes, in the district of Kanchipuram. Almonard fans swivel on pedestals and do what they can. At 11am, it’s 36 degrees.

But you cannot get an air-conditioned hall when your budget for a three-day event is Rs. 75,000. A lot of this money went towards the timers on each contestant’s table. The display unit costs Rs. 7000, the timer itself Rs. 2500, and the palm-sensor mat – it’s ‘start’ when the contestant take his hand off the mat and begins the solve; when he finishes and slaps the mat, it’s ‘stop’ – comes in at Rs. 500. These units are American, so they need adapters. But people pitched in. The school offered a discounted rate for the use of its multi-purpose hall. An event like this needs WCA-approved delegates to manage the flow of events, perform crisis management, and report results to the WCA. India, at present, has six delegates, of whom five were present – it was the Nationals, after all. These delegates paid for their travel. “If you have any money left over, then we’ll take it” was the mantra. And the contestants did double duty as volunteers, noting down the times and so forth. “If we sit around, we get bored. This is fun.”

The parents were multitaskers too. They whipped out smartphones and took pictures and videos of their children. They managed the food counters below – an assembly of kid-approved items like pizza and ice cream. They were invisible cheerleaders. This was the first competition outside Delhi for 16-year old Saransh Tandon, so he was accompanied by his grandfather, Dr. BK Tandon, a physician and cardiologist who had taken time off from his nursing home. Dr. Tandon was loitering about at the opposite end of the hall from where the contestants were. He told me that Saransh gets nervous if he watches, so he just says “best of luck” and comes back here. Some parents, like Manju Boopathiraj, were teachers – they learnt the formulas and algorithms and taught their children. Her son Adharsh, at five years and ten months, was the youngest kid around. He had to sit on several stacked-up chairs in order to reach the mat. He usually does the 4×4 in six minutes, Manju told me, but today, he exceeded the time limit. He got a DNF (Did Not Finish).

Then, during the prize-giving on the last day, parents turned announcers, photographers, and distributors of certificates and cube-shaped gold/silver/bronze medals. “Shivam Bansal has to leave,” said Santhi Swaminathan into her mike. She teaches Computer Science at this school and is Hari Anirudh’s mother. “So please come up and collect all your prizes.” Woo-hoos erupted from the audience. There was more energy during the prize distribution than during the finals, probably because cubing isn’t exactly a spectator sport. It lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from golf – results are counted in tenths and hundredths of seconds. Before you know what’s happening, it’s over. It’s of interest mainly to the participants, who have their eyes on besting records, and if not that, then improving their time. Hence the hoots and whistles for the announcement: “We have a sub-10 average today. Vijay Kishore.” His average (across five solves) was 9.89 s, with a best time of 8.21 s. That’s about as much time you’d take to locate Vijay Kishore.

Sukesh Subaharan, a 15-year-old from Bangalore, set a 5×5 record in the prelims, but came third in the finals. I asked him how long these records stand. “Maybe two or three months,” he said. “People are getting faster all the time.” At 26, Shubhayan Kabir was one of the oldest contestants. He is pursuing a PhD in Mathematical Education at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai. He is also a delegate, and he reeled off facts and figures. In the last four years, India has had the second-largest growing population of speed cubers. (Mexico’s is first.) India has the third-biggest population of speed cubers in the world, after the US and China. India has seen a 729% increase in participation in speed-cubing events – the figure is the second best in world. It all sounds terribly impressive until you realise how closed-off the world of cubing is, how no one outside ever hears of these achievements. One reason is perhaps our inability to define it. I asked Shubhayan if cubing was a game or a sport. “Good question,” he said. “We treat it like a hobby. I would like to say it’s more of a cult phenomenon.” Then what use are these figures, these records, these medals? He thought for a hundredth of a second and laughed. “Bragging rights.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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