Cube champ headed to national meet in Las Vegas

CHAMPAIGN — First and foremost, be patient.

"Most people, they get frustrated when things don't go their way. It's a trial-and-error process," said Ilkyoo Choi, who, as a high school senior in Seoul, South Korea, practiced solving the Rubik's Cube five hours a day for 10 days before he nailed it.

When learning to solve the cube, you have to keep at it, said Choi, a University of Illinois graduate student headed to the Rubik's Cube World Championship in Las Vegas this week.

Choi, who solved a cube while zip-lining in Culca Canyon in Peru last year, achieved a personal record of 14.65 seconds for his 3x3x3 speed solve average and has a best single solve of 12.40 seconds.

The current world record for speed solving the Rubik's Cube is 5.55 seconds.

"These young kids are so fast," said the 25-year-old Choi.

Born in South Korea, he moved to the U.S. as a toddler and then returned to Seoul when he was 10 years old. At home, there always was a Rubik's Cube around, Choi said, but it wasn't until he was a high school senior (and he was procrastinating studying for exams) that he first picked up the cube and practiced solving it.

That was in the early days of videos being shared online; now there are hundreds of thousands of how-to videos on solving or reconstructing solves of the cube. Choi's first solve was on Jan. 2, 2005.

"Us cubers know if you invest your time, this complicated object becomes a step-by-step process, he said, about the process of memorizing different algorithms in order to solve the cube.

Back when he first started, he said, he would take apart the cube and sand it down so its parts would turn faster or he'd lubricate with oil. Now there are special speed cubes being manufactured.

Invented by Hungarian professor Erno Rubik in the 1970s, the Rubik's Cube, a product of Hasbro, grew in popularity in the 1980s.

Since its early days, styles of solving the cube have changed — and continue to change, Choi said. For example, instead of pushing rows, people "flick" them, he said, and new algorithms are always being developed.

As a child, Choi always liked solving puzzles and mysteries and had a passion for mathematics. After graduating high school he returned to the U.S. to study math and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Now he is at the UI, having just completed his third year toward a Ph.D. in mathematics. His main interests are in graph theory and combinatorics, which he described as a relatively new field about counting.

While it's not uncommon for mathematicians and computer scientists to attend cubing competitions, he said, many cubers also include teen musicians and magicians who are fast with their hands. Competitors are often in their teens, he said, because they have more time to practice.

Held every two years, the Rubik's Cube World Championship is expected to attract about 570 competitors from 39 different countries, according to organizers. There's the traditional 3x3 speed cubing event, but also events in which contestants will solve cubes while blindfolded or with their feet.

"It's a huge festival. They call it a competition, but it's also about everyone coming together. We all have the chance to meet friends and mingle with other players," he said.

Choi is a World Cubing Association delegate of Korea and the event this week in Las Vegas will be his 29th competition. As a delegate he's organized over 15 competitions in Korea and the U.S.

Since arriving at the UI, he co-founded the campus' Rubik's Cube Club last fall and organize competitions in town. They'll be setting up a booth on Quad Day in August to drum up interest in cubing.

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