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Record falls as best Rubik's 'cubers' meet in S.F.

Best of best at rearranging famous cube come to compete, but few expect world record made just minutes into event. Photos: 'Cubers' square off

SAN FRANCISCO--Think of the things you could do in 11 seconds. Maybe you could walk to the fridge to get a soda. You could change CDs, or possibly put on a T-shirt. But when you think about it, it's a pretty short period of time.

Don't tell that to Leyan Lo. On Saturday, at the International Rubik's Cube competition held at the Exploratorium here, Lo took just 11.13 seconds to set the world record for solving of one of the iconic red, white, blue, green and yellow cubes.

Photos: Gamers gather

Lo's record came at the very beginning of a long day in which dozens of "cubers" squared off in bids to become the best at one or more of a series of different categories of Rubik's Cube competitions. Among them were the standard 3x3x3, the 3x3x3 blindfolded, the 3x3x3 one-handed and the 4x4x4 (The numbers refer to the number of rows and columns the cube has).

And by day's end, Lo had established himself as perhaps the most accomplished of all the competitors, having finished second in the 3x3x3, first in the 3x3x3 blindfolded and 3x3x3 one-handed, and second in the 4x4x4.

But it was his world record that had everyone on hand buzzing all day, even if Lo himself tried to play it down.

"It was a lucky solve," he said. "It was kind of cool. You get good cases and bad cases all the time."

He explained that the solution he'd chosen--based on algorithms he'd memorized for solving the cube as it was presented to him--ended up not requiring a final step that normally would have added two or three seconds to his time.

But others, even competition veterans, were clearly impressed by what they saw Saturday.

"It's great," said Tyson Mao, a student at Caltech and the organizer of the event. "I mean, it's great that people have opportunities to push the limits of Rubik's Cube solving. The world record has dropped so much recently because people have been putting in so much time."

Renewed popularity
Indeed, for a puzzle that is now 25 years old, it has gone through some serious peaks and valleys. After years in the 1980s as a worldwide phenomenon, Rubik's Cube dropped off the puzzle map in the '90s. But thanks to a growing number of competitions around the world and clubs like the one at Caltech, it is going through a major resurgence.

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Video: A puzzle gone wild
Rubik's Cube competition brings the quickest solvers in the world to San Francisco

Part of the credit, naturally, goes to the Internet, and to its ability to spread the gospel of top-rank cube solving. The mecca for the Rubik's Cube community, said many on hand Saturday, is SpeedCubing.com.

And to see Saturday's competitors, some just little children and others in their thirties and forties, it's easy to see that one reason the cube is back is that it is appealing across all generations.

"It's addictive. I'm very addicted," said 15-year-old Shotaro "Macky" Makisumi, considered by many the best cuber in the world today. "It's something you can improve yourself on. There's a time to show (how you're doing), and it's almost a competition against yourself instead of others. It's a chance to perfect something."

Shotaro certainly did his best Saturday to cement himself in the Rubik's Cube community as the best, or at least one of the best.

He won the standard 3x3x3 solve competition, beating out more than 60 others, by posting an average time of 14.91 seconds. However, that time was below his world record average solving time of 14.59 seconds.

He also came in third in the 3x3x3 one-handed contest, second in the 3x3x3 blindfolded and third in the 4x4x4.

Not just for the boys
And as the sound of the clacking of rapidly spinning Rubik's Cube layers dominated the area of the Exploratorium where the event was being held, it wasn't only males who were amazing the crowd with their prowess.

Casey Pernsteiner, a 14-year-old girl from Gonzales, Texas, was making her second trip in recent months--after visiting Orlando, Fla., in November for the Rubik's Cube world championships--to states far from home to compete with the world's best. And while she didn't win any of the categories she entered, she came in a respectable ninth in the main 3x3x3 competition, posting an average time of 20.77.

By her own reckoning, however, that time places her just a notch below what she called the "elite" group of cubers who, she said, score times in the sub-20 seconds.

Still, she said, she's been "cubing" for only a year, and is already hooked on the pastime for much the same reason as Shotaro.

"It's sort of a competition with yourself to beat your best time," she said. "I like that, and it's a challenge. I like challenges."

Of course, with an average 3x3x3 time nearly six seconds slower than Shotaro, Casey is just as awed by seeing what the best cubers can do as anyone on hand Saturday.

(Lo's world record) "was incredible," she said. "I really didn't expect the record to be set. (The previous record) lasted a year, so I didn't expect the record to be set so soon."

In any case, while much of the focus Saturday was on the blazing times set by Lo, Shotaro and others in the standard 3x3x3, some in the crowd were more interested in watching the contestants solve their cubes in the blindfolded and one-handed categories.

Mao, who participated only in the blindfolded contest, said the trick to solving a Rubik's Cube without being able to see--competitors examine the cube before putting on their blindfolds--is to memorize all the layers and then, once blind, apply algorithms they've learned to finish the puzzle. There is no room for error.

"If you make a mistake, it's over," Mao said. "One mistake and it's all off."