Cracking The Cube with Toby Mao, Rubik’s Cube Champion and Scribd Engineer

In 1974, a Hungarian professor built a puzzle out of wooden blocks, rubber bands, and paper clips. He didn’t know how long it would take to solve the puzzle, or if the puzzle could be solved at all, and he certainly didn’t know that the puzzle would eventually become one of the most popular in the world. His name was Ernő Rubik, and he called his puzzle the Rubik’s Cube. 

Over the decades, the Cube has become a ubiquitous image in popular culture, even to the point of taking on a competitive nature. The Cube has 43.2 quintillion possible variations (fun fact: a quintillion is a 1 with 30 zeros behind it!), which means, for most of us, solving the Rubik’s Cube is a lengthy — if not impossible — endeavor. 

But then there are people like Toby Mao, Scribd software engineer and one of the world’s most competitive Rubik’s Cube enthusiasts. In 2006, Toby set a world record in “speedcubing” by solving the Cube in 10.48 seconds. If you’ve ever tried to solve a Rubik’s Cube, then you know, that’s crazy fast. 

“I learned how to solve Rubik’s Cube at a summer camp called CTY in 2003,” Mao says. “My RA knew how to do it, so I asked him to teach me, and I got hooked.” 

Mao would go on to solve Rubik’s Cubes competitively for several years. Like any good enthusiast, he even taught a few people how to solve it, including a writer named Ian Scheffler. 

“I met Ian at that same summer camp in 2005,” Mao says. “I taught him how to do the Rubik’s Cube. He became a writer and thought it would be interesting to write a piece on the Cube. He decided to contact me and I told him that he should compete at a competition I was helping organize. I was his introduction into to the world of speedcubing.” 

After meeting Mao, Scheffler was so immersed in the world of speedcubing that he didn’t just write a piece on it, he wrote a whole book. In Cracking the Cube, Scheffler explores the history of the Cube, the skills needed to speedcube, and even journeys to Budapest in search of the infamously reclusive Professor Rubik.

Cracking The Cube

Getting sucked into the competitive circuit himself, Scheffler becomes engrossed in solving Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds, the quasi-mystical barrier known as “sub-20,” which is to cubing what 4 minutes is to the mile: the difference between the best and everyone else. For Scheffler, the road to sub-20 is not just about memorizing algorithms or even solving the Rubik’s Cube directly. 

“It takes practice,” Mao says. “You need to learn a good method, usually Fridrich, and do many solves. People these days can do it in under a year. Assuming they knew how to do the Rubik’s Cube, they should learn how to do Fridrich. There are many guides online.” Fridrich is a popular, and more advanced, technique for solving the Cube.  

In Cracking The Cube, Scheffler puts into practice many of the tips and tricks that he learned from Mao. “[You have to] understand that it’s not about solving one side,” Mao says. “You’re putting the pieces in the right place. For example, if you have one side entirely white, if the pieces are in the wrong place, it doesn’t help.” 

It’s easy to be intimidated by the thought of learning to speedcube. But the great thing about Cracking The Cube is that it puts the entire learning process into laymen’s terms, and it proves that you don’t have to be a genius to become competitive. 

“I think there are many intelligent people who are attracted to Rubik’s Cube,” Mao says. “But you don’t have to be intelligent to solve one. A lot of it is muscle memory and practice.” 

Not a Scribd member?

FeaturedDavid Pemberton